By Joe Finn, MHSA President & Executive Director
Twelve years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Israel as a part of the Boston-Haifa Connection sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. I met with municipal workers dealing with an emerging homeless street population on the streets of Haifa and visited the housing programs they had set up in response. The problem looked like our own here in Massachusetts.
The trip had time for touring Israel, and while I was touched to visit many sites associated with my own Christian religious tradition, as nice as that was, it was not that which left me with the most moving and lasting impression. What I remember most was my visit to The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem. My tour of the exhibits there left me overwhelmed. There I had to confront the darkest aspects of our humanity. What could drive an entire culture toward the rationalized implementation of irrational death? What led to a political structure that allowed the state to declare life not worthy of life and view an entire people and religious group as such? That ordinary people could become instruments of a technology of death totally dedicated to the eradication of all Jewish people and others determined to be undesirable is a historic fact that needs to be remembered.
These participants were not monsters (or at least our popular notion of monsters); these were “normal” human beings. These were men and women who would write loving letters home to their families before going out to separate hundreds of people a day to send to the gas chambers to die. They were motivated by hatred posing as duty, committed to a state that had led them to believe it was their patriotic destiny to solve the “Jewish Problem” through mass execution of men, women and children who were deemed not worthy of life because they were Jews. No greater monster there is than the monster who cannot recognize the evil they are participating in.
After finishing this tour 12 years ago, I was hit with the anxiety that all of it could happen again. The last survivor of this horror has yet to die, and yet we are perilously close to already forgetting how such evil can happen. The world has already again witnessed “ethnic cleansing” and genocidal instances since the Holocaust. But I was not thinking so much about Europe or the rest of the world as much as I was thinking it could easily happen in my own country, in the United States of America. Since that time 12 years ago, this fear has only increased.
Antisemitism is on the rise again in America. Most disturbing, this is not the country club antisemitism, or the whispered comments that are so much of our culture, bad enough as that is and perhaps underpinning far darker intentions, but rather a militant and active antisemitism that resurrects the most virulent form of hatred, scapegoating and violence. It is the antisemitism that deals in classic conspiracy tropes that suggests worldwide cabals or control of financial markets or conspiracies of the press and other medias. It is the antisemitism reflected in bomb threats, acts of violence at synagogues, initiatives like “The Mapping Project”, and swastikas painted in public spaces. Most frightening is the emergence of organized efforts that lead to incidents and rallies such as those on the campus of the University of Virginia in August 2017 – and then the participants were later characterized as “very fine people” by a president of the United States.
How long is it before such beliefs are normalized and license is given to more systematized violence? Antisemitic hate crimes are on the rise. More frightening is the growing number of political officials who refuse to speak out for fear of alienating their political base. While no one should ever conflate rational critique of the policies of the state of Israel with antisemitism, neither should those critiques be used as a false pretense for giving voice to the irrational and traditional antisemitic tropes and false conspiracy theories formed in the hatred of the past and continuing to emerge today.
I feel we must remember. I feel I must speak out. All who are of good conscience must speak out. We cannot allow this history to repeat itself.