Wednesday 13 December 2017

Spectre of Nazi death camps casts a long shadow

Holocaust experts warn of anti-Jewish sentiment being aggravated by Israeli government policy, says Hilary A White

THE image has never left me. A man called Terry Samuels, hunched and bearded and in the winter of his life, shuddering with tears during a Holocaust commemoration service in Terenure Synagogue.

I was 14, and a section in my school history book was now a tactile, breathing entity in front of me. Mr Samuels, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, has since passed away, and while the notion of such a place was impossible to comprehend then, it would be wrong to say it is fully understood now.

This is not uncommon. The Holocaust remains, and shall forever be, the great conundrum of mankind, a blip in our history on this earth when genocide became an industry, bystanders became accessories and the 'virtuous' kept silent.

Despite the ubiquity of these atrocities in public consciousness, anti-semitism and Holocaust denial have not only pervaded, but are now very real contaminants propagated by resentment of Israeli government policies and the age of the self-editing blogosphere, and a recent two-day conference in Trinity College organised by Holocaust Education Trust Ireland (HETI) brought together 15 of the world's leading academics and authors on the subject.

The conference 'Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial: New Perspectives' aimed to get minds moving through reasoned discourse.

Oliver Donohoe of HETI explained that Ireland's isolation during World War Two resulted in apathy, indifference and ignorance. "We were late starting with Holocaust education in Ireland but I think we've made terrific progress," he said.

"One of the outcomes of this event will be a substantial academic publication of all the contributions here at the conference."

Dr Christian Wiese of the University of Frankfurt took the podium to point out that antisemitism is nothing new, and was present in Europe as far back as the 11th Century. Jews had always been, he explained, symbols of social crisis and labelled "Christ-killers" or "children of the devil" by Christian elements.

This antisemitism continued through to traditionalist Catholicism. Mark Weitzman of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in New York located the strongly antisemitic voice of the Society of Saint Pius X, tracing this group's roots back to Fr Denis Fahey, an Irish theologian who believed Judaism posed a threat to traditional belief and who is still a heavy influence for today's far-right Catholics.

Since the Holocaust, the Middle East has acted as a cauldron of antisemitic/anti-Zionist feeling borne out by the behaviour of the state of Israel, not to mention its strong ties to the US. This is where modern-day antisemitism became not only very complex, but also more difficult to root out, said Prof Robert Wistrich, author of more than 25 books on antisemitism. He talked about Holocaust inversion, whereby Israel was given the Nazi tag and its policies described in terms such as "racial purity" and "lebensraum".

Anti-Jewish sentiment was also appearing in less likely settings these days, as several speakers demonstrated. In Britain, Professor Tony Kushner looked at incidents of racial violence, the desecration of a Jewish cemetery and media depictions of MP Michael Howard's Jewishness.

Meanwhile, Dr Juliane Wetzel, of the Centre for Research on Antisemitism in Berlin, identified the internet as a hotbed of Holocaust denial and trivialisation.

Ruairi Quinn is chairperson of HETI, and was present for the whole conference. "Racial hatred and intolerance of minorities is a recurring theme in civilisation," he said, "and it becomes even more strident when you have an economic downturn and when people see the 'other' either doing better or getting more. A downturn in Europe -- even a downturn in this country -- will in fact create a climate possibly more receptive to antagonism towards minorities and foreigners. That was the lesson of the Weimar Republic."

The exhibition 'Architecture of Murder: The Auschwitz-Birkenau Blueprints' is at the Irish Architectural Archive, 45 Merrion Square, Dublin.

Sunday Independent

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