The outbreak of World War II in 1939, beginning with the German invasion of Poland, materialized the cravings of Hitler’s war-thirsty regime. However, the Third Reich’s escalating discriminatory policies targeting Jews led up to that moment in history.
Why is this precursor so vital for us to recognize today? It is critical that we look back and read the signs from the history of the Nazi era—the assimilation, liberalism and boycotts—because they are strikingly similar to what we see today. The resemblance should sound an alarm for Jews around the world, and especially in America. A new Holocaust may be on the horizon unless we can transform the splintered Jewish community into one indivisible force.
Then and Now
Earlier this year, I visited Berlin and Nuremberg. From the moment I landed, I noticed that both cities are still soaked with radicalization and the German people are gradually getting ready for the next blow. In the past, the storm might have taken years to gather, but now, God forbid, a sharp transition in the attitude toward Jews could occur within a few months.
The signs are not obvious on the surface, so it is difficult to point them out directly. But they are felt through the local TV shows, conversations with city dwellers and impressions of my longtime students in Germany.
A recent example of this trend is the election of a neo-Nazi, Stefan Jagsch, as mayor of a town in the German state of Hesse. Mainstream parties, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and her coalition partner the Social Democratic Party (SPD), voted for him. These are telling signs.
Leading historians warn about the realistic possibility of another Holocaust if the current divisive geopolitical climate, polarization and escalating anti-Semitism persist.
Film director Steven Spielberg, who established the USC Shoah Foundation to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, expressed deep concern that genocide is as possible today as during the Nazi era. “When collective hate organizes and gets industrialized, then genocide follows,” Spielberg commented in a recent media interview. “We have to take it more seriously today than I think we have had to take it in a generation,” he added.
Looking back at history, just a few days after Hitler rose to power in early 1933, a country-wide boycott of Jewish businesses was ordered. It was followed by legalized edicts to confiscate Jewish property and possessions. Although decades have passed since then, the word “boycott” still reverberates to this day in the anti-Jewish lexicon. What has changed between the times of Nazi Germany and today is the existence of a Jewish state. How does this change the game?
Israel’s Enemies From Within and From Without
The State of Israel was originally considered as an insurance policy for Jews, but nowadays, its very existence has been commandeered by our enemies to garner popularity and legitimacy for anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism. Interestingly, in the futile attempts by Jews to blend into the general population and be “like everyone else,” some extreme leftist Jewish organizations—J Street and IfNotNow to name a couple—and Israeli activists and intellectuals have rejected their own roots, and play a leading role in global hatred campaigns such as the BDS movement to delegitimize, demonize and isolate Israel.
Jews should take note that the efforts of German Jews to distance themselves from traditional Judaism in the past, and assimilate into German society, failed to guarantee their escape from the gas chambers of the Third Reich. Such efforts will not save Jews from today’s hatred either. Current anti-Semitism makes it clear that the menace can affect any Jew, anywhere, since the threats come at us from all sides and in every shape and form: from radical Islam, through the far-right and far-left, to mainstream politics, economic forces and the world of arts and academia.
A vivid example of this threat is the recent assault on an Israeli film festival in Berlin by BDS activists who violently disrupted the event, causing injuries to attendees, according to German police.
If we consider for a moment only economic boycotts, the BDS movement’s wide-ranging influence signals the danger that lies ahead. Zooming in, we would reveal that the boycotts are working effectively, not only on the macro level of countries and multinational companies, but also at micro levels. Nineteen percent of Americans think that small shops have the right to refuse service to Jews if doing business with them goes against the religious beliefs of shop owners, according to a recent survey published by the Public Religion Research Institute.
On a wider scale, Europe’s largest bank, HSBC, divested from the Israeli defense company Elbit Systems, and the German sports company Adidas ended its 10-year sponsorship of the Israel Football Association (IFA). The BDS movement takes credit for both actions. Current IFA sponsor Puma is now the new target in the BDS movement’s #BoycottPuma campaign, which accuses Puma of being “complicit in Israel’s violations of international law and human rights abuses, due to the membership of teams from illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.”
Similarly, after mounting external pressure, the Israeli companies Soda Stream and Ahava relocated their factories from the West Bank to undisputed areas in Israel. Just recently, a Canadian court decision ruled that Israeli wines from the West Bank cannot be labeled as products of Israel.
Europe buys 20% of fruits and vegetables exported from the Jordan Valley. After the decision made by the European Union to label settlement goods (for easy boycotting), Israeli producers have been forced to look for alternative markets. Ireland passed similar punitive bans. The UK National Union of Journalists has also called for boycotting Israeli products.
We cannot be naïve and think these are campaigns only against Israeli settlements: It is a war on the very legitimacy of the Jewish state, which is constantly singled out by international organizations and accused of the worst possible atrocities.
Why Should an Israeli Boycott Concern All Jews?
Israel is an intrinsic part of the collective Jewish identity and is perceived that way by the nations of the world. So when judgment is passed and punishment is imposed on Israel, it falls on the entire Jewish collective and not on only an individual part.
“Anyone who defames people because of their Jewish identity […] questions the right of the Jewish and democratic state of Israel to exist or Israel’s right to defend itself,” reads a motion recently adopted in Germany that defines BDS as anti-Semitic, comparing its method with the Nazi slogan “Don’t buy from Jews” as “reminiscent of the most horrific phase in German history.”
During a Third Reich boycott campaign, Nazi trucks in the streets with signs and slogans proclaimed, “Defend yourself and don’t buy from Jews!” Windows of Jewish shops were broken, stores were looted and Jewish business owners were physically attacked.
The Nazis’ official explanation for the boycotts was that they were implemented as a counter-reaction to the demands of Jewish organizations in the U.S. and Britain to boycott German-made products due to the Nazis coming to power (which was true). That measure legitimized anti-Jewish activity and gave it official support, which had not existed until then. Anti-Semitic ideology began penetrating into German consciousness.
All dispersions cast on the Jews by the Nazis are echoed today by BDS supporters against Israel and Jews. The Nazis claimed that Jews were the root of all evil, brought World War I to Europe, destroyed the German economy and undermined the country. Similarly, BDS proponents claim that Israel is waging war, exploiting innocent Palestinians, extorting the world and committing genocide.
But besides the economic impact, the most resounding success of BDS activity has been recorded in the academic world in Western countries. Senior researchers refuse to maintain links with universities in Israel or with Israeli researchers, while student associations pressure for the marginalization of Israel. The New York University Department of Social and Cultural Analysis voted to boycott the university’s Tel Aviv campus, and the American Association of University Professors issued a statement supporting the decision.
The boycott movement covers virtually all campuses of U.S. academic institutions, including the campuses of elite universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Yale, just to name a few. It also reaches inside student dormitories, creating a hostile and violent atmosphere for Jewish students who publicly support Israel.
In comparison, in April 1933, the Nazis enacted “The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service.” Its purpose was to keep Jews away from all key state positions and Jews were prohibited from teaching and studying at the universities. That same year, the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda was founded, headed by Josef Goebbels. Hitler wanted to base the German educational system on the “purity of the aryan race,” and non-aryan teachers and lecturers, most notably Jews, were fired.
That same ministry defined and outlined Nazi culture. The state determined which works of art, music, books, films, newspapers and plays would be accessible. Works by Jews and the “enemies of the race” were boycotted. The entire population was indoctrinated to harbor a hostile attitude toward Jews from a very early age. In school books, the Jew was depicted as the worst kind of villain. In the press, radio and speeches, misdeeds of individual Jews became generalized and portrayed as Jewish crimes for which all Jewry was responsible.
German Jews were expelled from cultural life, educational institutions and scientific faculties. Thousands were left with no means of subsistence.
Compare that to the cultural world of the 21st century where the BDS movement has been successful in convincing international artists not to perform in Israel. One of its most vociferous leaders is former Pink Floyd band member Roger Waters, who works tirelessly on this aim. The movement has also pursued banning the performances of emblematic Israeli groups such as Batsheva Dance Company in U.S. and European venues.
Our Common Destiny
Although many Jews in the Diaspora denounce the State of Israel in the name of its official policies, the various boycott movements make no such distinctions. For them, a Jew is a Jew. A good Jew is a dead Jew, as frequently appears in anti-Semitic propaganda at Western universities where those groups operate, and a good Israel is the one that is wiped off the map and erased from reality, as our enemies openly wish.
Getting involved in the political arena does not guarantee any special protection either. The salient presence of Jews among the two leading U.S. parties may be counter-productive at times of trouble. Jews were always the scapegoats and nothing can guarantee that this will not be the case in the future by any of the political forces.
To understand the hatred against Jews, we need to look at the origin and purpose of the Jewish nation. Our patriarch Abraham, as narrated in the Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah), saw his countryfolk in ancient Babylon arguing and quarreling, so he tried to bring them closer together to make peace, and anyone who resonated with that message of unity above all differences was welcome to join him.
Abraham’s efforts toward unity and brotherly love are also described by Maimonides, the great 12th-century scholar, as the foundation of the Jewish people: “And since [people in the places where he wandered] gathered around him and asked him about his words, he taught everyone…until he brought them back to the path of truth. Finally, thousands and tens of thousands assembled around him, and they are the people of ‘the house of Abraham.’” The people of Israel was declared a nation only after they pledged to be “as one man with one heart,” at the foot of Mount Sinai, as Rashi writes in his “Commentary on Exodus” 19:2. When we received the Torah, the light, we were also commanded to be “a light unto the nations,” to spread our unique method of connection to enlighten the rest of the world and serve as an example that shows the positive effects of unity.
This unique example of how our nation was forged after it transcended different backgrounds and beliefs to become one people is what makes us unique and special. But being special does not mean looking down at others from above; it means to serve others. Delivering that example of unity under the premise “love your neighbor as yourself” is what the nations of the world demand from us. They instinctively feel Jews hold the keys for peace and prosperity in the world, and their complaint for not sharing it is manifested as anti-Semitism.
Infamous American anti-Semite Henry Ford manifested in his composition “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem” what seems to be a paradox about his perception of Jews and their role: “The whole prophetic purpose, with reference to [the people of] Israel, seems to have been the moral enlightenment of the world through its agency.”
Similarly, a senior member of the Russian Parliament, before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Vasily Shulgin, a self-proclaimed anti-Semite, wrote in his book, “What We Don’t Like About Them…,” the demand for Jews to lead humanity:
“Let them … rise to the height to which they apparently climbed [in antiquity] … and immediately, all nations will rush to their feet. They will rush not by virtue of compulsion … but by free will, joyful in spirit, grateful and loving, including the Russians! We ourselves will request, ‘Give us Jewish rule, wise, benevolent, leading us to the Good.’ And every day we will offer the prayers for them, for the Jews: ‘Bless our guides and our teachers, who lead us to the recognition of Your goodness.’”
Clearly, in order to implement this leadership role, we Jews first need to unite above our differences. Even the tiniest desire to do that, within the sphere of the collective, will draw a positive force that will permeate the world, and hatred against us will vanish.
In the words of the book Sefat Emet (True Language):
“The children of Israel became guarantors to correct the entire world … everything depends on the children of Israel. To the extent that they correct themselves [and become united], all creations follow them. As the students follow the teacher, the whole of creation follows the children of Israel.”
In a nutshell, the increasing pressure against Jews and the State of Israel is a calling for us to come together and ask essential questions: Who are we? Why is the world obsessed with hating us? Where are we headed?
As Kabbalist Yehuda Ashlag wrote during WWII in his 1940 paper “The Nation“:
“It is also clear that the enormous effort that the rugged road ahead requires of us mandates unity that is as solid and as hard as steel from all parts of the nation, without exception. If we do not come out with united ranks toward the mighty forces that are standing on our way to harm us, we will find that our hope is doomed in advance.”
From that common ground and goal, Jews must embark on a shared path. Instead of being hunted by the tragedies of the past resembled in today’s reality, we are required to take all those signals as an impetus to take our people’s vision and fate in our own hands, becoming one unified and thriving nation for this, and for future generations.
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