The inevitable politicization of International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Since 2005, the UN has commemorated the genocide of European Jewry every year on January 27. This weekend’s observance is galvanizing activists from South Carolina to Vienna

Reporter at The Times of Israel

People watch ceremonies marking the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial in Warsaw, Poland, Friday, January 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)
People watch ceremonies marking the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial in Warsaw, Poland, Friday, January 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

When President Donald Trump left Jews out of his remarks for International Holocaust Remembrance Day last year, he inadvertently gave the relatively new commemoration an unprecedented amount of publicity. Ahead of this Saturday’s observance, the annual tribute is already drawing headlines, from an Israel-related show-down in South Carolina’s legislature to Jewish leaders preparing to boycott Austria’s official observance in parliament.

The day of Holocaust memory was proposed at the United Nations by Israel in 2005. In addition to encouraging education about the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust, the authors of Resolution 60/7 sought to push back against denial of the genocide. January 27 was chosen because on that date in 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, where one million Jews from all over Europe were murdered during World War II.

With last year’s tribute notable for what was not said, activists around the world are drawing battle-lines in anticipation of this Saturday’s observance. In a climate of far-right political parties gaining sway across Europe, leaders of Austria’s tiny Jewish community said they will not attend the parliament’s Shoah observance because legislators of the Freedom Party are set to participate. Founded by a former Nazi SS officer in 1956, the party is opposed to anti-Nazi legislation and has sparked protests among Austrians alarmed by its nationalist agenda.

Demonstrators hold posters ‘Nazis get off’ during a demonstration against the Austrian Freedom Party FPOe in Vienna, Austria, Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

“If there will be ministers there from the Freedom Party, and I’m sure there will be, I will not be able to shake their hands, so the Jewish community will not attend,” said Oskar Deutsch, president of Vienna’s Jewish community, in an interview last week.

Austria has punished very few Nazi perpetrators compared to Germany and other countries, and there is not a strong culture of “memory work” with regards to the past, as in Germany. The Freedom Party has been in power before, and the Jewish community has officially maintained a no-contact policy with it for 17 years.

Across the pond in South Carolina, Saturday’s commemoration has been declared the deadline to pass a bill that would codify a universal definition of anti-Semitism among state institutions. For several weeks, Governor Henry McMaster has been calling on the senate to pass the codification measure before January 27. The bill would make South Carolina the first state to define anti-Semitism as per the US State Department’s guidelines, which include Holocaust denial and the rejection of Israel’s right to exist among forms of anti-Semitic expression.

The New England Holocaust Memorial on May 1, 2016 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

“Governor McMaster has rightly asked the state senate to pass the bill before Holocaust Memorial Day in honor of over six million souls who were murdered because of their Jewish ethnicity and faith,” said State Representative Alan Clemmons, who drafted the bill out of concern for a resurgence of anti-Semitism on college campuses. “Never again means passing the bill now,” said the Republican legislator.

Under former Governor Nikki Haley, South Carolina became the first state to cease awarding business contracts to companies that boycott Israel. Since then, similar “anti-BDS” measures were adopted by 23 other states. Boycott activists have called the pending anti-Semitism measure a ban on free speech, including because it equates calls for Israel’s destruction with anti-Semitism.

‘A shared responsibility’

Since the first commemoration in 2005, the United Nations has given each International Holocaust Remembrance Day an educational theme. Past frameworks include the plight of children in the Shoah, the persecution of Roma and Sinti victims, and the Nazi regime’s efforts to murder individuals with physical or mental disabilities.

This year, the theme of “shared responsibility” for remembering the genocide was chosen to frame activities, including a focus on gathering accounts from “the last survivors.” Last Thursday at UN headquarters in New York, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov opened an exhibition on the genocide as it unfolded in Soviet territories, including what has been called “the Holocaust by bullets.”

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres (C) and Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon (R) visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum on August 28, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

In Israel, the Holocaust is officially commemorated on an entirely different day, Yom HaShoah, an observance timed to the Hebrew calendar day marking the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in the spring of 1943. That annual day of mourning first took place in 1951, and was tied to the new state’s desire to project the kind of strength exhibited by Jewish resistance in Warsaw and other ghettos.

However, following the lead of the United Kingdom in 2001, many countries selected January 27 as their official day of Holocaust remembrance.

Next month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will unveil a memorial at the foreign ministry in honor of 36 “righteous diplomats” who helped rescue Jews during the war. With many of these rescuers’ accounts unknown for decades, the edifice’s placement outside the ministry in Jerusalem is meant to remind diplomats that “regulations do not supply all moral answers to moral dilemmas,” as said by project organizer Ran Yaakoby.

Outside the Jewish state, other commemorations are set to honor individuals who helped save Jews. In Winnipeg, Canada, the framework of “Italy during the fascist era” is being used for this year’s observance. The role of the Catholic Church during the genocide will be examined, as will less controversial topics including the literature of Primo Levi and a film about star-crossed lovers. In Boston, diplomats from Italy, France, Portugal, and Poland will discuss Holocaust-era rescue efforts in their countries, including the lessons for current humanitarian struggles.

The memorial wall at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, carrying the names of the 36 diplomats who rescued Jews during the Holocaust (courtesy)

In a relatively new trend, B’nai B’rith International has been highlighting Jews who acted as rescuers for other Jews during the Shoah. A discussion about this usually ignored sub-set of rescuers will be held at the United Nations on January 31. Since 2011, B’nai B’rith’s has awarded citations to more than 170 Jewish rescuers who took action from the Netherlands to Lithuania.

On social media, the largest Shoah memory campaign is #WeRemember, initiated by World Jewish Congress last year. Thousands of people around the world are being photographed holding #WeRemember signs, from university students to Europe’s top football clubs. Organizers hope to reach 500 million people through “the world’s largest Holocaust remembrance event.” Similar to last year, all #WeRemember photos will be live-projected on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau later this week.

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