Taking A Stand
Since the War between Hamas and Israel erupted in early July, 2014, anti-Semitism has flared up in many European countries: Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, and England. At pro- Palestinian rallies in Berlin, Paris and London over the summer, protestors chanted, “Death to the Jews” and “Gas the Jews”. Israel was their enemy, but the slogans were aimed at all Jews. In France with 500,000 Jewish citizens, eight synagogues were attacked in July; the one in Sarcelles, a suburb of Paris was fire-bombed by a mob of 400 chanting, “Death to Jews!”
On Sunday, September 14, 2014, The Central Council of Jews in Germany organized a rally against anti-Semitism at Berlin’s historic Brandenburg Gate. Five thousand Germans, many wrapped in Israeli flags, came from all over the country to hear Chancellor Angela Merkel , President Joachim Gauck and leaders of both of Germany’s main Christian churches pledge to fight a resurgence of anti-Semitism that was a terrible part of their Nazi past . Chancellor Merkel told the crowd, “That far more than 100,000 Jews are now living in Germany is something of a miracle. It’s a gift and it fills me with a deepest gratitude. That people in Germany are threatened and abused because of their Jewish appearance or their support for Israel is an outrageous scandal that we won’t accept. It’s our national and civic duty to fight anti-Semitism.”
Angela Merkel spoke with the power and weight of Germany’s long history when she declared, “Jewish life is part of our identity and culture. Let us be unequivocally clear: Whoever discriminates and ostracizes has me, all of us, and the majority of the people in Germany against them.” Merkel took a stand against those Germans who were rekindling the hatred of Jews that had led to the Nazi extermination of six million Jewish men, women and children during the Holocaust.
Her clarion call brought to my mind the ringing words of Deborah E. Lipstadt, Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, when she took a stand against the writings of David Irving, a British Holocaust denier. Lipstadt had described Irving in one of her books as “a Holocaust denier” , and he then sued her and her publisher, Penguin Books, in the British courts for libel. Lipstadt invested five years of her life in the complex legal struggle, saying, “I could not run from evil.” Her determined and hard fought battle resulted in total victory on April 11, 2000. The charges of libel brought against her by Irving were completely thrown out by the British high court . The court not only rejected his entire argument, but also went on to call him a “racist” and “an anti-Semite.” Irving’s reputation as a historian lay in shreds.
The story was front page news in papers around the world. I felt a great surge of joy at the time when I read the details of the court decision. Lipstadt did share that her first reaction to Holocaust deniers had been incredulity and laughter at such a ridiculous assertion. Then she found the deadliness of their purpose and its effects demanded that she take a stand against them. Which she did with enormous resolve and brilliance in a five year struggle. To deny the Holocaust is a crime in Germany and certain other countries. It is not a crime in the United States where one sees Holocaust deniers listed as speakers on well known college campuses. Lipstadt has refused to debate the subject in these arenas or on news or talk shows. She firmly believes that “appearing with a denier gives the notion that there are two sides to this issue.”
The Lipstadt victory and her powerful words, “I could not run from evil” stirred memories of other times and other acts of taking a stand. Acts of courage and words of truth to power. In Amsterdam, in a quiet small park, there stands a colossal statue of a Dutch dock worker. His legs are planted astride and his great muscular arms are bent upwards as he clenches his fists in strength and defiance. The statue was erected after World War II by the small community of Jews who survived. They remembered the valiant dock workers who called a strike when the Nazis decreed that all Jews were to be rounded up and handed over. They stood in a phalanx across a nearby bridge to block the German advance. And the German tanks ran right over them. Their refusal to comply with the Nazi order is not forgotten. It is etched forever in the Dockworker, in his stance and in his face. They did not run from evil.
And I remember Pastor Martin Niemoller, a German Protestant minister, whose words are as true today as they were when he spoke them during the Nazi era. “First, they came for the Jews and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics and I did not speak up because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for the Communists and the trade unionists and I was not a member. So I did not speak up. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up.” Niemoller became a vociferous resistor of the Nazi regime and was imprisoned and sent to Dachau. He learned in the harshest possible way of the danger of remaining silent when evil was all around him.
When I was teaching at Atlantic Community College, Pastor Neimoller’s statement hung on my office door. Often, students asked me to tell them more about him and the times he lived in. In the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s, I would use his statement to heighten their awareness of the times they were living in. The Civil Rights Movement. The Women’s Movement. The War in Viet Nam. I would ask them, “How do you feel about prejudice and discrimination?” “Does it affect you?” “Are you involved in doing something about the issues you care about?” “Are you waiting until they “come for you” to make your voices heard?”
The words of Edmund Burke, the 18th century British statesman, limn the difference between those who speak out and those who do not. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Chancellor Merkel’s challenge to the German people, and Deborah Lipstadt’s victory over Holocaust denial serve as high points in the ongoing struggle against the evil of lies and distortions of history.