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76 Years On: What Have We Learned from Auschwitz?

by Seth Jacobson

I must have been five or six when I first saw the number tattooed on my aunt’s arm: blocky, crooked ink that stood out starkly on her papery skin. Naturally, I asked what it was, and she froze. Maybe she was seized by memories, maybe she was searching for words, maybe she was mourning the fact that I had to learn about this at all. That was my name, she told me.


My Aunt was five years old when she was sent to Auschwitz, along with her mother and sister. She was seven when she left.


My mother said I was pretty, the prettiest of her daughters. She made sure I had the best clothes, even there. She knew it could save me, and it did.


Seventy-six years ago today, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. The day became known as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. We built multilateral institutions like the UN in the spirit of accountability and common values. We pledged that the U.S. would stand committed to human rights and human dignity. We said never again.


Instead, here we are: again.


Anti-Semitism has always been part of the social fabric here in the United States, but not since the twentieth century has it been so overt and accepted. Look at the “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie from the attack on the capital that’s already spawned copycat merch online. Look at the newly-elected Congresswoman quoting Hitler the day before the D.C. assault. Look at the Texas Republican Party abandoning any pretense of subtlety and adopting the slogan We Are the Storm.


Critics who lament “political correctness” might say that words are just words, or that offensive language is an unavoidable byproduct of free speech. But rhetoric has consequences: the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, the stabbing at a Hanukkah celebration in 2019, the cyberattack against students at a Jewish high school in 2020. Last year marked an all-time high in anti-Semitic hate crimes since tracking began back in 1979. What’s more, these hate crimes aren’t just growing more frequent, they’re growing more violent, with a 56% jump in assaults from 2018 to 2019 alone.


The rise of white nationalism over the past for years has been equal parts predictable and baffling. Predictable, because the Trump administration pandered to even the most extreme right-wing groups and stoked division across the country. Baffling, because conservatives on the whole tend to claim strong support for Israel, and Trump himself cultivated a strong bilateral relationship. The cognitive dissonance doesn’t end there: during the Georgia runoff, Warnock was accused of anti-Semitism for his past criticism of Israel while Ossof was photoshopped to have a longer nose in Republican attack ads.


To understand the current situation in America, you have to understand that anti-Semitism is a unique form of prejudice, linked to but ultimately different from racism. Racism labels people as subhuman, anti-Semitism labels people as inhuman. In other words, racists consider non-white groups to be beneath them, while anti-Semites consider Jewish people to have undue power over them—just how often have you heard throwaway comments about Jews controlling the media/the economy/the election? This fictitious power dynamic is precisely what makes anti-Semitism so pervasive: people like to feel like they’re the underdog, even when they’re literally part of the privileged class of the most powerful country on earth.


Last week set a tone for a new political era of recovery and progress, but that depends on the American public staying engaged.

It’s an incredibly bitter thing to live through the very circumstances your parents thought they would be able to protect you from. It’s terrifying to think that your children might see it become even worse. My aunt and other survivors warned us for years that there is no single event that announces the arrival of fascism. The conditions bloom gradually: polarization, echo chambers, conspiracy theories, economic turmoil, a thousand small erosions in civil liberties, a thousand cracks in democratic institutions. Countering anti-Semitism must be the same way: there is no single law or person that will magically end prejudice, but rather the daily work of communities who consistently strive for a better future.


During the Trump administration, the roles of White House Jewish Liaison and Special Envoy to the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism went unfilled, indicating exactly how much the ruling party cared about combating anti-Semitism. President Biden is expected to bring both positions back, and that could go a long way toward repairing our social fabric. There’s also hope to be found in the return of internationalist policies—while Trump’s nationalist “America First” encouraged an exclusionist definition of what it means to be American, the new administration has stressed unity and inclusivity from day one.


They say that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. The U.S. has the dubious honor of knowing history and still repeating it. Last week set a tone for a new political era of recovery and progress, but that depends on the American public staying engaged. Peace and equality aren’t found at the ballot box, they are choices we must commit to every day.

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