Interview: Ronald S Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress
Ronald S Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, is visiting Bulgaria for the commemorations in 2018 of the 75th anniversary of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews and the deportations to their deaths of the Jews from the “new lands” under Bulgarian administration in northern Greece and Yugoslavia. While in Sofia, he answered questions from The Sofia Globe.
What, for you, are the lasting lessons of the events in Bulgaria of 1943, not only the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews, but also the deportations from the “new lands” to Treblinka?
The story of the rescue of Bulgarian Jews is unique in Nazi-occupied Europe. Sometimes, when speaking about the rescue and the deportation, I hear people say “…yes, but ‘they’ deported the Jews from Greece and Yugoslavia to Treblinka”. We must remain clear that ‘they’ are not one and the same. We need to distinguish between the two different groups of people: the ordinary Bulgarians and members of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church who did something very unique and positive and saved 48 000 of their Jewish neighbours during the war on one side, and on the other side the representatives of Bulgarian authorities who did what all Nazi allies did during the Second World War – deported the Jews, in this case from Greece and Yugoslavia, to the German Nazi death camps. We must never allow the cowardly acts of the Bulgarian Nazi collaborators to stain the courageous acts of the Bulgarian people during these dark times. These are two groups of people and the facts that they were both Bulgarians should not confuse the issue.
The lesson that should be learned from this is that every human being has the option to do the right thing. Every person has the option to reject doing what he or she sees as wrong or immoral. It is not always easy, and sometimes it is a matter of risking our own lives. But in the end, history will be the judge of our deeds. This is why today we honour those Bulgarians who did the right thing.
Just last month, the World Jewish Congress actively sought to stop the annual Lukov march honouring Bulgaria’s notorious Nazi collaborator, by engaging in dialogue with the Bulgarian government and getting nearly 180 000 people around the world to sign our petition calling for an administrative ban on the demonstration. While we did not succeed in halting the march, we did see an unprecedented declared opposition from the Bulgarian government, which is an incredibly powerful start. It is our firm belief that March 10 is a day worthy of celebration, in honour of the ordinary Bulgarians who stepped in to save their neighbours, and not the assassination of a Nazi collaborator whose followers sent more than 11 000 Jews to their deaths.
What more can and should be done to make the world aware of the events in Bulgaria of 1943?
The World Jewish Congress is striving to make sure that the unique events in Bulgaria of 1943 reach as many people as possible. The key here is education, not just about the Bulgarian story, but about everything that happened during the Holocaust. It is imperative for us to remember these details, as fewer survivors are among us to bear witness. Remembering the horrors of the Holocaust, but also of the courage shown by ordinary people who saved countless lives, must never be forgotten. We should never stop telling this story. Every year in March we must remember and remind the world of the bravery of Bulgarian people in the darkest hours of European history. The Jewish people will never forget this. Bulgarians can count on that.
What is your assessment of the current state of campaigning in Bulgaria against anti-Semitism and intolerance?
First of all, it is important to say that anti-Semitism is not a widespread phenomenon in Bulgaria and has not been overall thanks to the intervention of the government in curbing this hatred before it can proliferate into society. There are other countries in Eastern Europe that have a much bigger problem. The Bulgarian leadership, especially in recent years, has taken this issue seriously and I can confidently say that they are leading by example.
Bulgaria adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, despite not being a member of the IHRA, and it recently appointed a National Coordinator for Fighting anti-Semitism, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Georg Georgiev. Nobody pressed Bulgaria to do either of these things.
Yes, every year we witness neo-Nazis descending on Sofia for the Lukov March, an anti-Semitic display glorifying the worst in modern history. I am glad to say that in our recent conversations with the Bulgarian authorities, we have heard firm opposition to this annual event. Bulgarian government leaders have made it clear to us that the question of halting the Lukov March is a question of a lack of proper legislation, rather than lack of support to stop such an event. So, in our view, the most important thing that can be done, in Bulgaria and elsewhere in Europe, is to enact strong legislation to enable authorities to prevent such manifestations once and for all.
I am sure that Bulgarians will have strength to do the right thing when it comes to Lukov March, the same way they did the right thing in 1943 by protecting their Jewish neighbours.
Anti-Semitism in Europe: Is there any country that one can point to as having made some progress against anti-Semitism – and if so, how – or is the current picture one solely of a worsening situation?
As I’ve said, you do not have to go far from here to find a good example of progress in the fight against anti-Semitism. You have it right here in Bulgaria, with strong steps taken by the government to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, the appointment of a national coordinator for fighting anti-Semitism, and the firm declarations against the Lukov March.
I believe that there are two forces working in parallel: on the one hand, we see the rise of anti-Semitic incidents and a worsening of the situation across Europe, while on the other hand we also see a lot of decent Europeans resisting anti-Semitism and taking a firm stand against it. They may be less vocal than the instigators of hatred and xenophobia, but they are not outnumbered. These Europeans are taking a stand because they know what such hatred can lead to, and they know that animosity against Jews does not end just with Jews.
There is a worrying trend spreading through Europe today that is deeply tied to anti-Semitism – rising nationalistic populism. Let us not forget that Hitler was a nationalistic populist. In recent years and even months, we see more and more people on the European political scene using populist tools, and while not all are classical neo-Nazis, they are appealing by and large to a xenophobic and anti-Semitic constituency. They are far more dangerous than neo-Nazi demonstrators, in fact, as they have the ability to wield influence within the government and draw large segments of the population in with their message.
What more can leaders of European countries be doing in the fight against anti-Semitism? And what about European countries where ‘nationalist’, ‘far-right’ parties are part of the government?
Education, education, education: This is the greatest tool we have to fight anti-Semitism. We must raise awareness about the dangers of anti-Semitism and all forms of xenophobia and racism. We must clearly preserve the memory of the Holocaust, and we must teach the next generation how to continue sharing these lessons.
We also urge leaders of all government to adopt IHRA’s definition of anti-Semitism. The importance of having a universal definition in place cannot be overstated. We can only fight the problem if we can define it. European leaders must also develop a suitable legal framework to deal with anti-Semitism head on and efficiently, including in countries like Bulgaria where steps are already being taken. We need legislation to ensure that active measures against hatred can be taken on the ground, without legal restriction. In countries with far-right or nationalist parties in the government, it is even more important for the leading members to promote such legislation, to ensure that the framework is in place before it is too late.
The same goes for hate speech and material on the internet. The World Jewish Congress has conducted two studies in recent years to evaluate the incidence of anti-Semitism on social media and the internet, and we firmly believe that we must have the same legal protection online as we want to see if offline, in civil society. It is incumbent upon social media companies to show moral corporate responsibility and abide by their own guidelines and code of conduct restricting hate speech. We urge governments to strictly regulate this issue in parallel to curb its proliferation. Germany has already begun leading by example on this, setting a law into effect on January 1 to enforce prohibitions against hate speech, including pro-Nazi ideology, by requiring sites to remove banned content within 24 hours or face fines of up to 50 million euros ($62 million). This is an excellent test case, particularly when considering that among the countries surveyed in the WJC’s study on Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic symbols on the internet in January 2018 compared to the same period in 2016, Germany showed a remarkable decline in anti-Semitism online, compared to a 30 percent increase elsewhere in the world.
Looking across the world, which geographical area, or areas, currently is of the most concern when it comes to the rise of anti-Semitism?
It is no secret that in Europe, especially in some countries in Central and Eastern Europe, we are seeing a rise in far-right parties, which are today the source of our most serious concerns when it comes to anti-Semitism. Some of these parties have swept huge numbers in elections, and have entered the government, allowing for common refrains of anti-Semitism to reemerge as legitimate. This is an extraordinarily worrying trend that must be stopped. Equally worrying across Europe is the rise in the far-left’s attempt to delegitimize the State of Israel, a movement which attacks the Jewish right to statehood and which has spurred into an unadulterated form of anti-Semitism.
What do you see as the major factor or factors currently aggravating the rise of anti-Semitism globally, and again, what is the most effective strategy to combat this?
There are two major factors of anti-Semitism globally today, coming from both the far-right and the far-left, as I just mentioned. On the far-right we have neo-Nazism and traditional anti-Semitism, and on the far-left we have anti-Zionism and attacks against the Jewish communities amid a disproportionate and often baseless criticism of Israel. There can be no doubt that these are two sides of the same anti-Semitic coin, both fueling anti-Jewish hatred across the continent. Jewish communities are bearing the brunt of the political ideologies of both the far-left and the far-right, sometimes in the form of danger to their physical security. In many places in the world, Jews are afraid to openly show their Jewish identity.
Effectively combating this phenomenon requires escalated education on issues including the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, and diplomatic coordination on multiple levels to ensure the security of the communities. The World Jewish Congress recently launched a Holocaust education website together with Unesco, as a tool for both preserving the memory of the Shoah and also fighting the xenophobia of today.