Anti-Semitic governments, past, present and future

On a warm spring evening 60 years ago this week, a number of Jewish teenagers were physically assaulted by anti-Semitic thugs on a public playground in New York City. The response of a leading official of the New York City Board of Education? That Jewish parents should keep their children indoors after 8 o’clock.

The American Jewish Congress denounced Assistant Superintendent Frank Whalen’s suggestion as “the shame of New York.” After noting the unlikelihood of any parent being able “to put a girl of high school age to bed at 8 o’clock or even keep her behind closed doors” at that early hour, the AJCongress blasted the notion “that safety from physical assault for Jews lies in hiding behind closed doors.” It accused Whalen of proposing “that the Jews establish a kind of ‘time ghetto’ for their children,” creating, in effect, “an hour of the day when the ban against hoodlum attacks on Jewish children is lifted …”

Leaders, whether municipal, regional or national, help set the tone for what is morally or socially acceptable among the general public. A New York City official telling Jews to stay indoors in 1944 and a French official telling Jews to refrain from wearing yarmulkes in 2004 are making the same mistake and sending the same dangerous message, by shifting responsibility for the violence from the attackers to their victims.

That’s why it was important that Secretary of State Colin Powell took part in the recent Berlin conference on anti-Semitism and spoke out strongly. After some hesitation about participating, Powell recognized that in order to send a strong message to the international community, a senior U.S. government official had to take the lead. Moreover, in his remarks in Berlin, he went beyond general condemnations of anti-Semitism and went so far as to declare that comparing Israel to the Nazis crosses the line between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and crude anti-Semitism.

In a recent speech in suburban Washington, another member of the U.S. delegation to Berlin, White House official Tevi Troy, linked the strong U.S. stance in Berlin to America’s awareness of “what the United States did — and, especially, what it did not do, during the Holocaust,” recalling how the State Department actually obstructed efforts to rescue Jews from the Holocaust.

Because anti-Semitism today is reaching epidemic proportions in Europe and the Middle East, it is more important than ever to understand how the United States and its allies failed to respond to anti-Semitism in the 1930s and 1940s. Public awareness of America’s near-silence during the Holocaust can help strengthen the resolve of public officials to speak out today. Powell’s statement at the Berlin conference is a perfect example of what the State Department could and should have done 70 years ago.

And yet, at the same time that the strong stand by the secretary of state in Berlin helps set the standard for a public response, consider the near-silence of the State Department regarding Arab government-sponsored anti-Semitism in itsrecently released annual report on human rights around the world.

Regarding Egypt, the report states that “anti-Semitism is found in both the pro-government and opposition press.” There is no acknowledgment that government-controlled newspapers are overflowing with anti-Semitism. An anti-Jewish series that was broadcast on a private Egyptian television station is mentioned; the anti-Semitic programs on the government-controlled television station are not.

It gets worse. The report’s section on Saudi Arabia notes that “there was substantial societal prejudice based on ethnic or national origin.” No hint that part of the reason for anti-Jewish prejudice in Saudi society is the constant torrent of anti-Semitism in the Saudi government-controlled media and schools. Similarly, regarding the Palestinian Authority, the State Department report states only that during the past year, the Palestinian Authority regime “prohibited calls for violence, displays of arms and racist slogans, although this rarely was enforced.” No mention of the proliferation of “racist slogans” — that is, anti-Semitism — in the Palestinian Authority’s media, schoolbooks and elsewhere.

The State Department report did mention one step taken by an Arab regime against an anti-Semitic institution. Under international pressure, the government of the United Arab Emirates announced the shutdown of the Zayed Centre for Coordination and Follow-up, which, the report noted, distributed “books with an anti-Jewish theme,” “allowed some anti-Semitic language on its Web site,” and “hosted some speakers who promoted anti-Semitic views.”

Incredibly, however, instead of praising the UAE for closing the center, the State Department report cited the action as an example of the UAE restricting freedom of speech. To the extent that the State Department’s human rights reports color relations with the cited countries, the UAE could theoretically find itself penalized by the United States for having shut down a center that promoted hatred of Jews.

If our government has truly learned the lessons of America’s woefully inadequate response to the Holocaust, the position articulated by the United States in Berlin must move beyond a single, though important, statement to a consistent policy. That would send the international community an unambiguous message about America’s commitment to combat government-sponsored anti-Semitism wherever it is found.

Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on issues related to America’s response to the Holocaust at Benyamin Korn, associate director of the Wyman Institute, is the former executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.