There are key dates in mid-20th century history that, for me, stop all ephemeral thought. September 1st, 1939 was the day the Nazis crossed the border from Silesia and invaded Poland, the beginning of the end of the lives of 90 per cent of its Jewish population, including members of my own family. November 9th and 10th, 1938 is the date of Kristallnacht, the state-sponsored pogrom that terrorised the Jews of Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland; a precursor of what was to come. January 27th, 1945 saw the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz, the symbol of the Holocaust where one in six of all Jewish victims of the Nazis were murdered.
At this time of year, I naturally find myself reflecting on an indigestible family legacy while, simultaneously, weighing the atmosphere in Ireland, my home since 1986. European Jews from my background are especially wary of subtle changes in sentiment, all too conscious that where there is extreme social inequality, unemployment and austerity, eventually it will be the Jews who are blamed. It’s easier to scapegoat a familiar enemy than to look in the mirror.
Demonisation starts with language that was previously unacceptable creeping into the mainstream, and it ends . . . we know that ending very well. It’s a simple credo, perhaps, but I take care of my wellbeing by trying to live where the Gestapo do not.
The reality is that every time a high-profile individual embraces the cultural boycott of Israel, incidents of anti-Semitism increase in every form, everywhere
My life in Ireland, living openly as a secular Jew, has not been difficult. anti-Semitism exists in every country, even those such as Japan which have almost no Jews. But by most measures, the Jews in Ireland are largely unmolested. They are integrated, assimilated and are Irish, twin identities that chime as easily with Catholics, Protestants or Muslims who also seem at ease with this duality. A recent report on anti-Semitism in Ireland by David Collier, however, makes for depressing reading. Among too many Irish politicians there is a profound ignorance of anti-Semitism and how their own words, wittingly or otherwise, do the work of dedicated Jew-haters.
The actions of the state of Israel, indeed its very existence, regretfully contribute to a rise in anti-Semitism. Among a cross-section of Irish society, there remains fervent support for the Palestinian cause, a cause supported by large swaths of Israeli society and one I, too, have vocally endorsed. Unfortunately, the support for the cultural boycott of Israel, especially among some writers, musicians and artists, has grave and unintended consequences that I suspect are little understood by those whose intentions may be well-meaning.
The reality is that every time a high-profile individual embraces the cultural boycott of Israel, incidents of anti-Semitism increase in every form, everywhere. This nuance may be lost on many, but not on those of us on the receiving end of the abuse. For the obsessive focus on Israel and loaded terms such as “apartheid state” and “Jewish supremacy” signal that Jews everywhere are responsible for Israel and whatever actions are taken in its name; that Jews are guilty of sin (in the broad Biblical sense) and so deserve their fate; that Jews are rich enough and strong enough to take care of themselves anyway. In the words of David Baddiel’s excellent recent book on contemporary anti-Semitism: Jews don’t count.
What could be more fitting for two Jews, both connected to the Holocaust, having made Ireland their home, than to publicly address an audience in the National Gallery?
It is bewildering to witness the haranguing by some Irish politicians of successive Israeli ambassadors while these same representatives refuse to condemn some of the world’s worst offenders of human rights with anything like the same vigour. Some are even embraced. The absence of any expression of genuine empathy for the suffering of Israelis or Jews is telling; these same public figures never attend events that memorialise the Holocaust. Is it the case that Jewish suffering is an inconvenience, one that does not align easily with their anti-Israel narrative? For example, what do they say about the violent language hurled at Jews in North London calling for the murder and rape of Jewish women during the last upsurge in violence in Israel?
On the evening of November 9th, to remember Kristallnacht, I am privileged to be sharing a platform at the National Gallery with Slovakian-born Tomi Reichental, the extraordinarily eloquent survivor of Belsen concentration camp who experienced, among other unspeakable privations, the loss of five years of elementary education as a result of the cultural boycott imposed on the Jews by the Slovak government. Seventy-thousand Slovakian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Slovakia was the only country that actually paid Hitler to deport its Jewish citizens.
What could be more fitting for two Jews, both connected to the Holocaust, having made Ireland their home, than to publicly address an audience in the National Gallery? A perfect symmetry of political and cultural acceptance by a nation which did almost nothing to rescue Jews desperate to escape Nazi persecution; and within living memory. While there is constant work to be done in Ireland to combat anti-Semitism, both Tomi and I agree that Ireland has been a good country for us to live in. And that is a cause for cautious optimism.