November 1, 2010

Remarks at International Conference on "The Legacy of World War II and the Holocaust"(delivered Dec. 16, 2009)

When I first visited East Berlin in 1971, as a small child, it never occurred to me that I would live to see the Wall collapse and with it the Soviet Union. Even more remote was the concept that I might return here three decades later to participate in an international conference where 55 governments joined in a declaration to combat anti-Semitism, or that yesterday I would participate in a wreath-laying by Jewish leaders at the monument to Soviet liberators of World War II. And here, I stand before you, those same community leaders, including many of the survivors, liberators and heroes. Thank you for this honor.

History is surprising, and yet not so strange as it might seem. Jews were instrumental in winning the World War, and also in defeating the excesses of Soviet tyranny decades later. Jews are leading the way for a religious, cultural and social renaissance in Russia and other successor states, indeed, across Europe and in the United States and Israel.

Last week marked international Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that was reacting to the horrors of World War II and that was informed by a significant Jewish presence. The conference on combating anti-Semitism, convened in Berlin in 2004 by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – the Helsinki process – was made possible by a democracy and cooperation organization that was first energized in the 1970s and 1980s by the Soviet Jewry movement.

I want to address several misconceptions about the Holocaust, both within our own people and among the world at large.

The memory and lessons of the Holocaust have become integral to modern Germany. Recognizing the uniquely Jewish essence of this crime and tragedy is the indispensable prerequisite to applying its lessons on a universal basis – to promoting human rights, minority rights, freedom of expression, civic education, justice, and prevention of genocide. Erasing the details of the Holocaust is the surest way to enable current and future perpetrators of crimes against all peoples, including Jewish victims.

Just in the past few days, we have already seen inconceivable anti-Semitic outrages in Hungary, in Austria, in Moldova. Inconceivable for a “ new Europe”. And yet, these events cannot compare to the unspeakable horrors and unimaginable sacrifice experienced by so many who are in this room today and so many who are not.

Jews were the victims and the liberators. We are the targets and we are the antidotes. We shaped the present-day mechanisms for human rights and religious freedom, and it is our job to reshape them to benefit ourselves and others.

We must not allow the world to forget the Holocaust. A few years ago, just as the President of Iran was preparing to launch an international conference devoted to denying the Holocaust, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning Holocaust denial. The annual and ongoing Holocaust education and commemoration activities by the UN reach millions of people around the world, and now there is a separate mandate to commemorate victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade – a historic step that would not have been possible without the Holocaust agenda leading the way. We are first among victims, but our fight for justice opens the door to others, and we have much to teach them along the way.

Although more remains to be done, no nation has done as much as Germany to atone for its collective sins, and German schoolchildren know a great deal of the Holocaust. What they do not know at all is who Jews are and what they do, except that they were victims who were killed by Germans and collaborators. We have to educate them – and we have to educate our own children – about what Jews did and what Jews do – and why we do it – not just as victims, but as a moral, thinking, feeling people.

And who better than those of you in this room, who are already engaged on all these fronts simultaneously – Holocaust memory and justice, raising the profile of Jewish heroism in and out of uniform, building democratic societies, fostering solid Jewish identity and pride for generations to come.

The American Council for World Jewry is engaged in a targeted effort to apply these lessons, using valuable political access in many world capitals and cooperating with partner organizations and communities, to promote Jewish survival and Jewish interests internationally. We focus on diplomatic outreach, and we seek new partnerships alongside those we already have in the West, in Asia, in the former Soviet Union. I say partnerships because that is what we want: working together to advance each other’s interests and the interests of others.

We do this at the United Nations, with world leaders, and with the human race. The Jewish people has an extremely valuable line of products to share with humanity. We need to define it for ourselves, protect it, and promote it. This is our mission as Jews, and you have the most to teach us. Thank you for leading the way, and you should know there are American Jews who recognize what you have accomplished, what you are doing today, and what you are building for the future.

Thank you. Spoceba, tovarichi.

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