Eric Douglas Published

Holocaust Remembrance Day Sparks Conversation On Antisemitism

A single strand or barbed wire between trains.
The Holocaust remembrance of Yom HaShoah brings up antisemitism today.
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It’s Holocaust Remembrance Day by the Jewish calendar, in recognition of the 80th anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. The remembrance is called Yom HaShoah and marks the murder of six million Jews during the war. 

News Director Eric Douglas spoke with Laura Milstein, the regional development director for the American Jewish Committee, from her home in Greenbrier County, to better understand the day and the rise of antisemitism today. 

This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.

Douglas: I don’t know that a whole lot of people outside the Jewish community understand the effect that the Holocaust had and still lingers today. 

Milstein: It just brings up exactly the heinousness of this and the horror of it. It is very important for us to remember, especially as Holocaust survivors, even the American liberators age and pass on. We are called to bear witness and make sure that we’re not complacent to the suffering of others and that this never happens again. 

The Holocaust was the persecution and systematic murder of the Jews of Europe during Hitler’s rise to power, which, by the way, was a democratic process. One third of the European Jewry, six million people, as you said, died as well as millions and millions of others were persecuted and murdered. Even today, the Jewish population in the world has not caught up to where it was before World War II. 

Douglas: Interesting, just in sheer numbers?  

Milstein: In sheer numbers, this was the most documented and planned genocide of the 20th century. So it’s really vital for us to remember not just as Jews, but all Americans and really as human beings. That’s frankly why Holocaust education is so important, because it’ll disrupt the trivialization and the denial of this tragedy, and we hope contribute to a greater understanding of the Jewish people. 

You know what drives Jewish people today? If you look around at American Jews, and you ask any one of them, “Did you have relatives who died in the Holocaust?” It’s very rare for someone to say no. This is mostly the Jews of Europe, but even North Africa, there’s Sephardic Jews who were affected by this. People don’t realize that there were 40,000 camps, there were 23 major ones, but there were 40,000 of them around occupied Europe, and there were camps in North Africa. 

Douglas: Do we know how many Holocaust survivors are left? 

Milstein: I don’t know that off the top of my head, I know that those statistics exist. And from my own personal experience, I have leaders who work with the American Jewish Committee, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, and they are, of course, now passing. These are people in their 90s. As that generation passes, they were the people who went through it, and certainly, were the witnesses themselves. But then we also have a lot of documentation and there are recordings of the survivors. General [Dwight] Eisenhower, at the time when Americans liberated camps, specifically documented what was going on, because he knew that future generations may not be as keyed into this and aware.

Douglas: I remember hearing that Eisenhower actually ordered his troops to go inside of the camps. He wanted them to see personally what had happened. He ordered his troops to go inside and witness it for themselves. Why are people denying that it happened? Where does that come from?

Milstein: Antisemitism, simply said, is a hatred of Jews. And its manifestations are from conspiracy theories that date back hundreds and maybe even thousands of years, that have caused death and destruction to Jews and Jewish communities around the world. So why are there people who deny the Holocaust? Well, you could ask that question about many different terrible things that people make up things about. Why do conspiracy theories live is a good question. And I would just assert this is another ridiculous, horrible, long standing conspiracy theory. 

Fortunately, at AJC, we have developed some educational tools. One of them is called Translate Hate. You can find it on our website, and it identifies many of the old stereotypes and memes that have existed over time and some that have been created even during the pandemic. It’s always being updated so you can look at it, you can learn about the origins of it, what it means, why it’s pernicious and horrible, and what the impact is, and also what you could do about it. 

We have a survey called the State of Antisemitism in America. We do this every year since 2019, a year after the horrific Tree of Life tragedy. And we wanted to really find out what the state of antisemitism was.

Douglas: Why do you think antisemitism is on the rise in the last few years?

Milstein: It’s interesting, because if we were having this conversation, I don’t know, 10 years ago, even seven years ago, we would have been speaking about the rise or re-rise of antisemitism in Europe. And I remember we had a lot of conversations with our Paris office about what their experience is, going to synagogue and walking into synagogue and feeling threatened. And here we are in the United States, this many years later, and it’s almost like a reverse because now we are going to our European offices, and the ministers who have been appointed to fight antisemitism in all its forms in Europe and saying, “What are the lessons you’ve learned?”

And I would just assert, again, going back to conspiracy theories, that maybe it’s because social media can be both something for good as well as bad, that now these stereotypes are living on social media and conspiracy theory is taking off in many forms. 

Douglas: I was reading through the The Five Key Takeaways from your website. There was some great information there. 

Milstein: I would say, if people are interested, we look to partners, to people who aren’t Jewish, “civil society,” if you will, to learn. You want to be able to recognize antisemitism, we want to be able to respond to it, and to prevent it. And we have a call to action also on our website that looks at different sectors of our society, from social media, to traditional media, to state and local government, and specific ideas to help to move forward partnership and understanding rather than antisemitism. 

Douglas: Most of us have never experienced that kind of existential threat, knowing that there’s somebody in the room who doesn’t like me, just being a target, without even knowing why.

Milstein: You can look at FBI hate crime statistics. The largest percent of religious hate crimes are actually committed against Jews — 51.4 percent. And in our state of antisemitism report, 41 percent of American Jews actually feel less secure than only a year ago, when it was about 31 percent. And four in 10 Jews have actually changed their behavior in some way, maybe avoiding an event or avoiding going to a synagogue or hiding their Jewish star or not wearing a yarmulke, out of concern for safety.

Most of all, perhaps, not posting content online that would reveal their views on Jewish issues. And I would say that for young people, that’s even higher. It’s like 85 percent of young people between 18 and 29 [years old] have actually witnessed or seen antisemitic conversations online.

Douglas: One of the numbers you just quoted struck me when I was reading through that, 10 percent increase in Jews who feel threatened or uncomfortable from 31 percent to 41 percent. Just in the last year.

Milstein: It needs to be said that it was around the time that all of this Hollywood whatnot was going on. I know when the survey took place, it was October of 2022. And very, very much could have had something to do with it. Although I would assert that generally, I think it’s true that Jews do feel less secure. You could also like, look at it from the other side, which is that, you know, 59 percent feel like it’s okay. 

I think it’s important, that a lot of non-Jews don’t realize, as a Jewish person in a major city, if I were to go to a synagogue, there’s more security going to that synagogue than if I were going to the airport. When I go to my synagogue in Washington, D.C., not in Beckley, there’s a guard in the parking lot. There’s a security officer at the door. And then there’s a guard checking my purse as I walk through the metal detector. I don’t think that a lot of non-Jews understand the choices and the experience lived by Jews in America now.

Douglas: You made a comparison to Europe seven years ago. It sounds like from what you said that it’s better in Europe. What did they do differently than what we’re doing?

Milstein: I’m not sure that it’s decreased. But I would assert that they have a lot of government systems in place that didn’t exist before. And these ministers have really learned the challenges and lessons. Truth be told, I don’t know that antisemitism will ever go away. It will probably always be part of the Jewish experience, unfortunately. Frankly, it’s not just a Jewish problem, it’s a societal problem. In our survey, 91 percent of U.S. adults thought that, too.

Douglas: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you wanted to add?

Milstein: Just that I’m new to West Virginia, and we are just starting to meet different civil society leaders and state local officials, and we really do offer these trainings to learn more as a way of preventing and really just being educated about antisemitism, and its insidiousness and how to respond and prevent it. We really invite partnership in any way.