Today we commemorate the Holocaust
Today is Yom HaShoah, when most Jews around the world commemorate the Holocaust. During the Second World War, Nazi Germany attempted to eliminate the Jews of Europe, resulting in the killing of 6 million Jews and millions of other men, women, and children solely because of who they were.
One cannot understand the concerns and priorities of Jews around the world today without understanding the cataclysmic impact of the Holocaust, then and now.
That horrible chapter was not only the most painful tragedy in the history of the Jews; it also offers lasting lessons for all nations and faiths today.
Understanding the Holocaust — the first time in which the industrial capabilities of the modern state were so systematically deployed in an effort to exterminate another people — can be illuminated through three central questions.
First, how do we know what happened? After all, many people simply do not know much about the Holocaust, or incorrectly believe that it was a myth or greatly exaggerated.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum describes the Holocaust as “the best documented case of genocide” in human history, with the death toll recorded through a broad array of sources including demographic census records and community registers, archives captured from Nazi forces or their allies, and detailed post-war investigations.
We also know with certainty that the Nazis and their collaborators murdered millions of other marginalized and disfavored groups throughout Europe, including the Roma, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled, and gay people.
Some of these groups, such as Soviet troops captured as prisoners of war, were subjected to such severe maltreatment that they often died. And although the Jews were German leader Adolf Hitler’s primary target for extermination, other groups — such as the Roma — were specifically selected for annihilation too.
Scholars and civil society groups are also increasingly emphasizing that the Holocaust had simultaneous reverberations beyond the European continent.
For example, German, Italian, or French Vichy occupiers in the Arab Maghreb stripped many Jews of their citizenship, livelihoods, and even their freedom. Thousands suffered brutal conditions in forced labor camps, and hundreds were deported to concentration camps in Europe, such as Bergen-Belsen.
Second, how could such mass atrocities have occurred?
The answer, in my view, is hatred itself. Inspired by Hitler’s racial supremacist ideology, articulated in his chilling manifesto, Mein Kampf, the Nazis targeted Jews and other groups on the basis of such hateful myths.
These prejudicial negative stereotypes and slanders inundated young and old Germans alike, who were taught to believe that other peoples were not equally human, deserved the blame for all of society’s ills, and should even be wiped out.
I work for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a global anti-hate organization founded more than a century ago with roots in the Jewish American community. We believe that all acts of genocide have their roots in such hate. Biased attitudes and remarks can lead to acts of bias such as bullying and degrading slurs. These can lead to systematic acts of discrimination, followed by bias-motivated violence, and only then does a campaign of genocide potentially take place.
We can identify this escalatory pattern caused by hatred in so many other cases of genocide as well. Just ask the Armenians and Assyrians. Or the Bosnians and Croatians. Or the Rohingya, the Uighurs, or the Yazidis. And sadly, this is by no means an exhaustive list; I could go on.
In each of these cases, groups of people were dehumanized and scapegoated based on hateful distortions and misinformation. The specific conspiracy theories may have varied from case to case, but the degradation and harm that resulted were a constant across all of these contexts.
Which brings me to my third question: How can we prevent such atrocities in the future? Paraphrased another way, how can we ensure that the slogan “never again” is more than just mere words, and that one day in the future all humankind can avoid such terrible hardships?
In this regard, I draw inspiration from Verse 49:13 of the Holy Qur’an, which proclaims that all of humanity was created into various nations and tribes so that we may know one another. By reaching out to one another in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, I believe we can combat intolerance — learning more about the other, building empathy, and dispelling hateful myths.
In addition to helping prevent future genocides, my hope is that this can also support the trust needed to build true peace. Most notably, that should include a two-state solution in the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative that achieves the rights of the Palestinian people for a state of their own — alongside Israel, where so many Holocaust survivors and their descendants found refuge.
This marks the first article in a new column focused on fighting all forms of hate, including anti-Semitism. Together, we will explore the relevance for all societies of combating hatred and unpack the historical roots of some hateful myths and negative stereotypes that have persisted until the present day.
• David Andrew Weinberg is the Washington Director for International Affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, a global anti-hate organization with roots in the Jewish American community. He previously served as a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and as a Professional Staff Member on Mideast issues at the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.