In Holocaust Remembrance Day address, UN chief calls for curbs on online hate speech

Antonio Guterres compares today’s rhetoric to 1930s Germany, decries rising antisemitism, as world body caps series of events marking the Nazi genocide

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Israel's UN envoy Gilad Erdan, left, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, center, and Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan, right, view a Holocaust installation at the UN Headquarters in New York, January 26, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Israel's UN envoy Gilad Erdan, left, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, center, and Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan, right, view a Holocaust installation at the UN Headquarters in New York, January 26, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

UNITED NATIONS — UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres decried rising antisemitism and issued an “urgent” call to combat online hate speech in an address to the General Assembly marking Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday.

He likened today’s climate to the rhetoric in 1930s Germany that led to the Holocaust, saying the rise of the Nazis was made possible by “the indifference, if not connivance, of so many millions.”

“We now know the terrifying depths of the abyss into which Germany would plunge, but the alarm bells were already ringing in 1933. Too few bothered to listen, and fewer still spoke out. Today, we can hear echoes of those same siren songs to hate,” Guterres said at the annual memorial ceremony.

“The painful truth is antisemitism is everywhere. In fact, it is increasing in intensity,” he said, citing assaults on Jews in New York, bullying of children in Australia, antisemitic signs in Los Angeles and swastikas on the Berlin Holocaust memorial. “Survey after survey arrives at the same conclusion: antisemitism is at record highs. And what is true for antisemitism is true for other forms of hate. Racism. Anti-Muslim bigotry. Xenophobia. Homophobia. Misogyny. Neo-Nazi, white supremacist movements are becoming more dangerous by the day.”

He said discontent fueled by the economic downturn, populist politicians, conspiracy theories, hate speech, white supremacists and neo-Nazi ideologies were some of the factors driving hatred.

Guterres was especially critical of rhetoric on the internet and the entities responsible.

“The threat is global, and it is growing. And a leading accelerant of this growth is the online world. Today, I am issuing an urgent appeal to everyone with influence across the information ecosystem – regulators, policymakers, technology companies, the media, civil society and governments. Stop the hate. Set up guardrails and enforce them,” he said.

“Many parts of the internet are becoming toxic waste dumps for hate and vicious lies. They are profit-driven catalysts for moving extremism from the margins to the mainstream. By using algorithms that amplify hate to keep users glued to their screens, social media platforms are complicit, and so are the advertisers subsidizing this business model,” Guterres said.

“At its essence, Holocaust remembrance is a call to be on constant alert. Never to be silent in the face of hate, never tolerant of intolerance, never indifferent to the suffering of others,” he said to an audience that included survivors.

The speech came after several events marking Holocaust Remembrance Day at the UN.

The Book of Names at UN Headquarters in New York, January 24, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

On Wednesday, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and museum, Yad Vashem, unveiled an installation at the entrance to UN Headquarters in New York. The “Book of Names,” a 26-foot (8-meter) long display contains the names of all 4.8 million Holocaust victims who have been identified, and blank pages symbolizing the other 1.2 million murdered Jews who have not yet been named.

Guterres toured the display on Thursday alongside Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, and Yad Vashem Chairman Dani Dayan.

“The United Nations was formed out of the ashes of the Holocaust and World War II, so we stand strong with continuing to tell the story,” UN official Robert Skinner said of the display. “We just want to make sure that we’re reminding the world of the horrors of the Holocaust and continuing to combat antisemitism and all forms of hate in today’s world and going forward.”

“When I saw the book I was overwhelmed because the book reports that they lived and they breathed and they dreamed and they were murdered,” said Bronia Brandman, an Auschwitz survivor from Poland who located her family’s names in the pages. “The book documents that they lived, that they were real human beings.”

Holocaust survivor Bronia Brandman at UN Headquarters in New York, January 24, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Guterres, Erdan and Dayan also spoke at a memorial event at the UN on Thursday after visiting the Book of Names. The two Israeli officials both recounted their family members killed by the Nazis.

Dayan spoke of two names in the book, his great uncles, saying the Nazis and their collaborators “driven by maniacal hatred of Jews, and anything they perceived as Jewish,” sought to exterminate every Jew everywhere and erase their names, identities and culture.

“We cannot revive even one of the millions that they murdered,” he said. “But we can — and do — restore the names and the stories of the victims.”

“History never repeats itself exactly, but phenomena of extreme antisemitism and other forms of racial hatred, aggressive violence, corrupt dictatorships are recurring,” Dayan said.

“The UN, an institution that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, bears an integral, central responsibility to actively combat these phenomena of antisemitism and Holocaust denial,” Erdan said. “It is the responsibility of each and every one of us to call out this hate.”

Erdan spoke out against antisemitism and Holocaust denial at an event after the ceremony, calling social media “a cesspool of lies and hate,” and demanding action to combat Jew hatred.

“Hateful actions always begin with hateful words,” he said. “Platitudes are not enough. I demand action, the Jewish people demand action, we must not allow evil to prevail.”

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, at a Yad Vashem exhibition at the UN Headquarters in New York, January 26, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Erdan also linked antisemitism to Israeli counter-terror operations, including one that killed nine Palestinians earlier in the day in Jenin.

“There are those working to erase the memories and lessons that must be learned from our horrific atrocity. They question the right of the Jewish people and the Jewish state to protect ourselves,” he said. “Just today we witnessed another example, one of thousands, of Israel defending itself against terrorists in Jenin preparing to carry out an attack against innocent Jews.”

“I expect the international community to stand behind the Jewish people in defending ourselves in the Jewish state, as this is one of the fundamental lessons from the Holocaust, the tragedy of the Jewish people. This is the embodiment of ‘never again,’” he said.

The UN and Guterres have regularly spoken out against antisemitism, but have also come under fire for the prejudice at the world body in the past year after two investigators into Israel made antisemitic statements. Both remain in their positions and have not faced repercussions from the UN.

US Congress members on Monday called for the removal of one of the investigators, Francesca Albanese, for past comments espousing antisemitic tropes about Jewish power and greed and for harsh, one-sided criticism of Israel. Guterres’s office has said Albanese is an independent expert appointed by the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva and outside of his sphere.

Critics have also said the UN’s lopsided focus on Israel at the General Assembly in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva is evidence of antisemitism. The General Assembly condemned Israel more than all other countries combined last year.

In addition to the speeches and display at UN headquarters in New York, commemorative events took place Friday at the UN Human Rights Council, including memorial ceremonies and talks by survivors.

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