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We must learn from the mistakes of our past to protect our futures

21 May 2019

Last term, Graciela, FY, Croatia / Mexico, delivered her persuasive speech on the importance of learning from the terrible lessons of the past in order to ensure a future of tolerance and respect. Graciela was moved to write her speech by feelings of distress and horror at the recent spate of anti-Semitic hate-crimes and attacks taking place in cities around the world; today, on the inaugural UN International Day of Living Together in Peace, we felt there was no better opportunity to publish Graciela’s powerful call for a world of peace, unity and mutual respect…

 

I would like you all to close your eyes.

I want you to imagine yourselves in this situation. For nearly three years, you have been imprisoned in a concentration camp. You have starved and suffered every single day. When the camp is finally liberated and you are free, you make the long journey home. For three years, you have been kept going by the hope of being reunited with your family and living in peace, of being happy and being surrounded by love instead of trapped by hate. Home is all you want after everything you’ve gone through – after the atrocious things that they did to you and the horrendous ways they made you feel.

At last, you arrive in your hometown. But instead of the sights you remember, you see everything turned into ash and no sign of a single living soul. You find your way to the street you lived on. Your home is shattered into pieces. That former happiness? those memories? that light? — all gone. Now you are on your own: you may have been on your own for three years now but you had faith; you had hope; you had something to hold on to; you had something to live for; you had a family to take care of and to return to – but this time you have nowhere to go: everything and everyone has been taken by those men who tortured you. They took it all away from you: your health, your family, your life...It is all gone.

You may open your eyes now.

A few weeks ago, there was a shooting in Pittsburgh’s Synagogue. Eleven worshipers were slaughtered. To me, it was just so unbelievable that we were only a few days away from the Remembrance Day of The Holocaust, when we honor and remember the innocent people that were victims of the merciless Nazi regime that encouraged and supported the idea of anti-Semitism; six million Jews were slaughtered in this dark time.

The literal meaning of ‘anti-Semitism’ is “the strong dislike or cruel and unfair treatment of Jewish people as a religious, ethnic, or racial group”. The main purpose of Holocaust Remembrance Day is to recognize and reflect on one of the greatest mistakes of humanity, in order to never repeat it again; to remind us that we are all equal no matter what we look like or believe in; and, that in the end, we are all human.

But what’s the point in commemorating the end of this horrific period of time, a time that brought unprecedented suffering because of its atrocious ideology, when it’s actually not over yet?

Jews are still suffering because of the terrible prejudice given to them.

They are still being discriminated against because of their personal beliefs.

A man shouted ‘Heil Hitler, Heil Trump” at the ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ show in Baltimore. A swastika was painted on the synagogue of Dublin last week. ‘Yid’, an offensive word to describe Jews, was painted on the office door of a Jewish professor at Columbia University. A British Army soldier recruited colleagues for a neo-Nazi terrorist group. Two Jewish men were attacked within two days in New York. Eleven Jews were murdered and forty-six injured in the atrocious Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

We need to stop anti-Semitism. And now. Because if not now, then when? We can’t let atrocities like these keep happening.

You may be thinking: I’m not Jewish, so how does anti-Semitism affect me? Or perhaps, I’m not Jewish, so this doesn’t matter to me. Or even, I’m just one person in a million, how could I make a difference? Some people even argue that their hate towards Jewish people is based in scientific reasons. However, this is absolutely not true. It is proven that we are all biologically the same, in a way; that we are all equals.

There is a poem by Martin Niemöller that reveals the harsh truth about the possible consequences of our selfishness as individuals - about not speaking out against the suffering and injustices faced by others:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Niemöller’s poem powerfully exposes the long-reaching impact of this type of selfishness and cowardice.

Fortunately many people are taking action against anti-Semitism, and actually doing something to fight it. So why should we all join together, regardless of race or religion, to fight this prejudice?

First of all, anti-Semitism does not only promote hate towards the Jews; it creates chaos and violence all around the world. If any of us could happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, we would immediately be affected by an event of violence toward Jewish people, even if we are not part of the Jewish community.

And think about it: even if we are not directly affected by this hatred, innocent people are being discriminated and slaughtered for absurd reasons that only promote hate and violence. Do we really want this anywhere in our world?

Secondly, to improve the world for the better, instead of sitting around doing nothing, it is our responsibility to take action and make a change for our futures, and for our kids’ futures; let’s create a better world for them, a world where they can feel free to express themselves, where there is peace and happiness. Let’s do humanity a favor.

Just imagine your children in a situation such as Richard Jeffery’s, a Jewish man who, when recalling his time in the fifth grade, stated that anti-Semitism had always been a part of his life. He said, “when John W— having asked me the previous day which religion I was, came up to me in the playground while we were choosing sides for dodgeball and said, ‘My father told me I’m not allowed to play with Jews.’ I can’t recall whether or not I was permitted to be part of the game that day...” How would you feel if it was your child being discriminated against because of their beliefs?

An incident like this might seem small and insignificant, but discriminatory events like this are the symptoms of a disease that can spread with terrifying speed. The Holocaust didn’t begin overnight. But, as anti-Semitism infected thousands and thousands of people, the Nazis were given the power to implement anti-Jewish laws, force Jewish men, women and children from their homes, and, ultimately, to kill millions and millions of innocent Jews.

As you can see, these events have the same meaning; the same kind of people; and, finally, the same mistake that is happening over and over again: intolerance, prejudice and discrimination.

The impact of this intolerance and hatred gets bigger and bigger each time. I wonder, if we continue letting anti-Semitism spread like this... how far we will go? Will it end in more memorials of endless names?

You might be wondering: how can we stop this?

The first steps to stopping anti-Semitism are to inform yourself, share your knowledge and, if you witness any form of discrimination, to speak up. According to the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, 35% of the population have never heard of the Holocaust or anti-Semitism. How can we expect someone to take action in this problem, if they don’t even know it exists? It may sound simple, but once everybody knows and understands this issue, they will be able to take action, and with more people making small changes, the bigger the movement will be and the bigger the difference it will make.

Some say eradicating anti-Semitism can be approached in three different ways, all depending on the manner of the events that have happened the most in the region.

The first is not to reason it away but instead to confront it with moderate force and the necessary deterrence in a way of ‘responding to extremism without being extreme’. This solution applies in regions where the Jew population is minor; for example Israel: according to David Brooks, a political and cultural commentator writing for The New York Times, Israel is acting very wisely by “using the enemy’s rabidity to justify cruelty, even in cases where restraint would be wiser.” That is to say, we cannot meet cruelty and violence with cruelty and violence - we should not fight fire with fire. As Martin Luther King, another advocate for peace and equality stated: “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for revenge by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Brooks states that one of the main reasons for this frightening rise in anti-Semitism is economic poverty. In Europe, for example, there is a link between high unemployment and anti-Semitism – people angry at their own financial struggles blaming it on the local Jewish population. This type of scapegoating is exactly what happened in 1920s Germany and led to the Nazi party rising to power, as Hitler blamed Germany’s economic problems on the Jews; and is exactly what is happening right now with Donald Trump’s unjust attacks on immigrants entering the United States or even living in the United States already. We need to stop history repeating itself. The best solution to this is for governments to show solidarity with the Jewish population and help them increase security at their homes and streets; to support them against discriminative actions; and for citizens like us to confront anti-Semitism in non-violent ways by ‘exposing’ – speaking out against – the horrible ideals that they have and the terrible damage these inflict on our communities.

Finally, we ourselves can promote solutions and make our voices be heard by our governments and the authorities in general so they will be motivated to make an even bigger change, such as the government establishing new laws against anti-Semitism and discrimination in general, and this time properly; or reinforce security in religious institutions. We need to increase the numbers of people and groups that are fighting anti-Semitism and promote and sponsor educational campaigns. Each of us can be part of positive change.

Let’s make that change before it’s too late.

The survivors at Holocaust Centers tell the school kids who visit, "Hatred is a cancer, and it kills. It will kill the one who harbors it, too. Don't ever hate. We all bleed the same color if we're cut. We are all people. When you see someone being bullied, stand up and DO something: whether you get help or say something yourself – but don't just stand idly by. This is how tragedies happen."

Imagine two possible worlds.

In the first world nobody is brave enough to speak up for themselves or courageous enough to speak for somebody else. In this world, wars happen all the time and hatred is not just normal, but everywhere. In this world, you can never take for granted that someone you love is safe.

In the second world, all racial and religious prejudice is gone. Intolerance is non-existent. We all see and treat each other as equals. In this world, we all support and take care of each other: differences enrich us as people and are valued. We all have a place to call home, and we know that all our loved ones are happy and safe. Peace prospers.

I know which world I would rather live in. Do you?