In his piece “Maybe No ‘Different Germany’ Exists,” Prof. Daniel Blatman sharply attacks the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance for being a tool of the Israeli government in general, and specifically for establishing a definition of anti-Semitism that ostensibly serves the political interests of the Israeli government. (That definition, incidentally, is a pretty exact repetition of a similar definition accepted in the past by organs of the European Union.)
Blatman describes the IHRA as “unnecessary” and “destructive,” as if we were talking about a superpower with aircraft carriers and not a voluntary organization, comprising 33 member governments (not 27, as he wrote), that serves as a political umbrella for the educational, memorial and research efforts regarding the Holocaust being made by some 250 educators, academics and directors of memorial sites, most of whom are volunteers.
The IHRA makes decisions by consensus, and every member state has veto rights, including Germany, Hungary and nationalist Poland, which is an enthusiastic supporter of approaches amounting to distortions of the history of the Holocaust.
The Israeli government is one of 33 members, and to say that it controls IHRA is another anti-Semitic canard.
Full disclosure: Not only was I a central figure in setting up the IHRA (as Blatman notes) and the writer of its founding document (the “Stockholm Declaration” of 2000), but I continue to serve as the group’s active honorary chairman, and am a senior partner in its decision making. I do not represent Israel, or even Yad Vashem. IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism, from 2016, was accepted by all the member states, including Poland.
In the examples appended to the definition, which were also accepted unanimously, it says specifically that, “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” One of the examples of something that does constitute anti-Semitism is an anti-Israel approach when Israel is perceived as a Jewish entity and is attacked as such.
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The document was written by two experts on the subject, one Jewish and the other non-Jewish, with the help of others. IHRA isn’t a Jewish organization. Other than the Israeli representatives, there is currently only one other government representative who is Jewish. Except for the one Israeli who chaired the organization when it was Israel’s turn to do so, the group has never had a Jewish chairman.
The idea that IHRA is an aggressive Jewish organization that dictates the policy of the German Bundestag, as Blatman’s article implies, is a clear and extreme anti-Semitic canard. Can a Holocaust researcher with much to his credit, like the author of the article in question, support blatant anti-Semitism? Apparently, yes.
Is the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement anti-Semitic, as the Bundestag has determined? Anyone who supports only those clauses in the movement’s platform that call for the end of the Israeli occupation of the territories or true equality for Israel’s Arab-Palestinian minority is certainly not an anti-Semite; otherwise a significant minority of Israeli Jews would be anti-Semitic.
The (much-vilified) Zionism expresses the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, and the fathers of Zionism envisioned full equality for the minorities living in a future Jewish political entity; many Israeli Jews vigorously demand this equality for minorities and the end of the discrimination against them. There is no anti-Semitism in this.
But the meaning of the clause in the BDS platform that calls for the Palestinian “right of return,” which if realized would put an end to the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, is very clear. Such an objective can be achieved only by war, since the vast majority of Israeli Jews – and not just them – will fight for their homes, and only their annihilation will accomplish a “right of return.” Supporting the right of return clause is therefore a clear case of anti-Semitism; moreover, it is anti-Semitism that could lead to the genocide of Jews.
IHRA had nothing to do with the Bundestag’s decision to define the BDS movement as anti-Semitic; it couldn’t have, because IHRA’s charter requires the agreement of all the member governments for any kind of political action, which in this case would be practically impossible. I don’t know exactly who initiated the German decision, though it is reasonable to assume that the Israeli government played a role, in the background.
But the party representatives in the Bundestag are not puppets, and whoever says that Germany’s small Jewish minority, in cooperation with Jerusalem, cooked up this porridge is reviving the anti-Semitic ideology that claims an international Jewish conspiracy that subjugates the nations of the world, in this case Germany.
Before the Bundestag’s decision, the German public didn’t seem particularly interested in BDS, which has by all accounts been an overall failure. There are some pop stars and academics who have avoided ties with Israel, the movement has some supporters in a number of universities in English-speaking countries and Frau Mueller in Hanover might refrain from buying Israeli avocados when she shops. Big deal. Investment in Israel is flourishing and its economic ties with the entire world are strong.
After the decision, however, Germans began asking: What exactly is BDS? The Bundestag decision proved to be an impressive and unexpected success for the movement in Germany. There couldn’t be a better advertisement for it, and the Israeli government, if it indeed was a partner to the decision, managed – once again – to shoot itself in the foot.
En route, it also succeeded in neutering the Jewish Museum in Berlin, through the forced resignation of its director, one of the great Jewish studies researchers, a non-Jew who loves Jews, because he believed in conducting a public dialogue with promoters of BDS.
IHRA indeed copes with the distortion of Holocaust memory and anti-Semitism, in Poland, for example. Blatman, in his essay, is critical of extreme nationalism in Hungary and Israel, but not in Poland – after all, he has been named the chief historian of a new museum being supported by the nationalist Polish regime, apparently intended to serve as its Jewish-Israeli fig leaf.
It is certainly true that he will not encounter any censorship, since his approach is similar if not identical to the Polish government’s approach.
IHRA, Blatman writes, hasn’t succeeded much in its missions of education, memory and Holocaust research. One can argue with this.
IHRA has made a serious contribution to opening archives in Europe, including, for example, the archives in Bad Arolsen, Germany, of the displaced persons camps and concentration camps in Germany; it has focused, inter alia, on working to preserve the memory of the genocide of the Roma; it has developed guidelines for teaching the Holocaust in high schools and has held and continues to hold workshops on various aspects of the Holocaust; it supports research work on the Shoah suggested to it by educational organizations and memorial sites; it has held and continues to hold academic conferences; it has contributed to the preservation of memorial sites and the uncovering of sites where Jews were killed; it arranges cooperative projects with international agencies that battle genocide and more.
It’s not enough, to be sure, and Blatman could presumably do a lot better. Let him try.
I never imagined that an anti-Semitic attack and venomous criticism of a positive project that promotes Holocaust remembrance would emerge from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus, and from the person who fills the same position – head of the Institute for Contemporary Jewry – that I held there for decades. But one learns, even at my advanced age.
Yehuda Bauer is a professor emeritus at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University