The Irish Times, January 27, 2024
As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I cannot claim the world suddenly looks upside down: it often appears that way for families like mine. But this year feels like an inflection point.
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, the day we remember the point in history when large swathes of continental Europe decided to murder its Jewish citizenry, including most of my family.
Ordinarily, on this day – January 27th, the anniversary of the date that Auschwitz was liberated in 1945 – I might consider with solemnity the slight figure of Tomi Reichental, the Dublin based Belsen survivor, now 88, who begins his address at the national commemoration: “I’m not here because of who I am. I am here because of what I am. I am a Jew”.
The cadence of his Slovakian accent adds to the unadorned truth of his words. In that moment, Tomi is 9 years old. He still cannot really believe what happened to him and his family.
Or I might quote John Ruskin, the 19th century British philosopher and artist: “There is only one power, the power to save a man; there is only one honour, the honour to help a man.”
But this year feels different.
As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I cannot claim that the world suddenly looks upside down: it often appears that way, for families like mine; we are born with a set of fairground glasses. However, the intensity of anti-Semitic sentiment, now expressed openly in the mainstream and directly to my face, is unprecedented in my lifetime.
In Krakow this week, an hour from Auschwitz, 25 countries gathered at the European Jewish Association Leaders Forum to Fight anti-Semitism and Racism (ELCA), newly constituted to address the “astronomical” rise in anti-Semitism. Representing Ireland, Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl claimed Ireland’s small community of about 2,100 individuals has experienced “very little” anti-Semitism, and is “much beloved” by the Irish people.
He blamed the increasing hostility felt by Jews in Ireland on “not just the extreme right but the left also”, as well as the “reaction across Ireland to a massive influx of immigrants into our country”. Attributing the rise in anti-Semitism to the reaction of some of the public to the arrival of immigrants to Ireland strikes me as wrong.
The anti-Semitism I face, both blatant and casual, is not new and is almost exclusively Irish.
Ó Fearghaíl said, “I must say quite clearly, the Government, the parliament, and the entire political body is committed to ensuring the safety of the Jewish community in Ireland and will continue to protect and nurture them.” These words need to be reiterated by the Taoiseach in the Dáil. This Holocaust Memorial Day feels like an inflection point.
The actions of Israel, indeed its very existence, affect the lives of all Jews, even those who are most vociferous in their condemnation of Israel.
Since October 7th, I have been forced to explain the injustice of this correlation and the inherent bias against Jews that has led to a recent 1,500 per cent rise in anti-Semitic attacks in Europe and the United States. To be clear: these are attacks against Jews, not Israelis.
I am not an Israeli; I am a London-born Jew of Polish refugees of the Holocaust. I have spoken up for the Palestinians, for the urgent need for a peace process and a two-state solution, and for the victims of the Hamas attacks. I have condemned the excessive actions of the Israeli government, while defending its right to protect its citizens. I have called for an immediate ceasefire and a hostage/prisoner exchange and appealed to elected officials to lower the rhetorical temperature so that Irish Jews and Muslims feel less vulnerable.
My inherited memory and legacy have forged an identity that compels me to combat anti-Semitism, a disease that infects society and is an existential threat to Jews. Brexit, Trump and a clutch of populist governments in Europe saw a sharp spike in anti-Semitism. So did Covid, which conspiracy theorists blamed on Jews.
What is often overlooked is that Israeli society is diverse, with competing Haredi, Misrachi, Ashkenazi, secular ultranationalist Russian, far-right settler and liberal Jewish demographics, and more than 20 per cent who comprise Arab Israelis, Druze, Christians and others. Perceptions of the Holocaust differ among Jewish Israelis, more than half of whom are descendants of Jews of Middle Eastern origin, with no familial link to the fate of their European co-religionists. Their trauma is defined by expulsion from their homes in neighbouring Arab countries in 1948, an event matched in scale by the expulsion of Palestinians the same year, during the War of Independence. My aunt (by marriage) is an Iraqi Jew. Her family came to Israel because they were hanging Jews in the square of her hometown.
I have read numerous commentaries comparing the treatment of Gazans by the IDF to the treatment of Jews by the Nazis, a deliberately provocative statement which attempts to cleave Jews from their propriety of the Holocaust, blame them for their fate and exonerate the perpetrators of their crimes.
In a 1985 interview with the great Israeli writer and peace activist Amos Oz and an 18-year-old Jonathan Freedland, Oz states that there are “degrees of evil” and anyone making comparisons between Israel’s actions and the Holocaust is a “servant of evil”. Oz’s accusation may sound hyperbolic but I have always been suspicious of the motives of anyone making such comparisons. In the history of modern conflict why invoke the single worst moment of Jewish persecution? There are six million reasons why the Holocaust is different, before even starting to understand its history and the mechanisms that permitted it.
To see Israel charged with the crime of genocide by South Africa at the ICJ is profoundly shocking, given the origins of the term. And also because no similar charge is levelled at Hamas, whose 1988 Charter calls for the obliteration of Israel. Almost impossible to prove, genocide is an acutely divisive concept which ratchets up racial tension rather than promoting justice on an individual basis.
All warfare that sweeps up civilians is likely to involve war crimes and crimes against humanity. As we speak, Hamas is still holding 130 Israeli hostages and firing rockets at Israel, as are Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad and the Houthis, because they want to destroy the state of Israel and kill Jews with genocidal intent.
A traumatised Israeli society, torn asunder by the Hamas attacks, especially the brutal rape and sexual mutilation of its women, has been polarised by the deep cynicism of Netanyahu, kept in power by hardline Settlers, bursting with revenge. Yet, even now, the safest place in the Middle East for Arabs of all genders to be individuals is within the borders of Israel – an inconvenient dissonance for European supporters of Hamas.
Two days before the start of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, on 7th December, I took out a small, battered gold Star of David which I had not worn since I was ten.
In living memory in Europe, wearing this symbol meant a death sentence. Having my little star inside my shirt now, somewhat battered but still here, represents an important act of defiance.
Oliver Sears is founder of Holocaust Awareness Ireland.