Dear Chief Rabbi Lau,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is an honour to be here with you today at the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day later this week. Remembering the atrocities of the Shoah is difficult; it feels like pain in my heart and a twist in the stomach.
I can only imagine what a Yom HaShoah must be like for the Jewish community, what it must be like to remember the perishing of family, of ancestors.
This year we mark the 75th anniversary of the Wannsee conference, a 90 minutes long meeting that concealed the fate of European Jewry. In modern democracies we tend to think that institutions and civil services safeguard civilization, progress and the rule of law.
75 years ago such structured and well-regarded institutions came together to plan, organise and implement in cold bureaucratic language the annihilation of an essential part of the European population – the Jews.
We don’t speak of criminals, sadists or madmen but of administrators, lawyers, judges and technocrats who often didn’t do more than signing papers, developing timetables, adding numbers and participating in conferences. They were capable of destroying a whole people by sitting at their desk.
The late Zygmunt Baumann spoke about the very idea of the “final solution” as an outcome of bureaucratic culture: “We know of many massacres, pogroms, mass’ murders, indeed instances not far removed from genocide, that have been perpetrated without modern bureaucracy,(…). The Holocaust, however, was clearly unthinkable without such bureaucracy.”
Building resilience and civil courage among staff at the European institutions is one aim of our annual internal Commission training that we organise at the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day and I look forward to meeting with the participants at the end of a full day of learning and workshops this coming Thursday.
On a wider scale, last month the recently created High Level Group on combating racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance discussed the topic of training for police and judiciary with EU Member States and civil society. We will soon publish main guiding principles for hate crime training.
This past year several survivors of the Holocaust passed away, among them Nobel Prize Winner Elie Wiesel, who – like you, Rabbi Lau – was imprisoned at concentration camp Buchenwald where his father perished. Throughout his life he tried to find words for the cruelties of the Shoah, insisting that “Memory has become a sacred duty of all people of goodwill”. As the survivors pass away we must become the carriers of their messages.
The European Union fully shares this duty. In these challenging times, it is crucial to remember where we started. Memory is not only a reminder of the past, it is a guide for the future not to repeat mistakes, not to fall into the same traps, not to let discrimination and hatred spread again.
Antisemitism today appears in many forms and is not always easy to unmask. In May 2016 the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), where 24 EU Member States are member, adopted by unanimity a definition of Antisemitism as a non-legally binding tool. The Commission welcomes any useful initiative aiming at preventing and combating Antisemitism. At the occasion of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day we will make the IHRA definition available on our website dedicated to the fight against Antisemitism.
Let me assure you, I personally, and the European Commission as a whole, are determined to fight Antisemitism in all its forms.
There are, of course, obvious cases of Antisemitism because more than 70 years after the Shoah, Antisemitic incidents continue to be alarmingly high: for instance, declaring the Holocaust Memorial site in the heart of Berlin a disgrace for Germany is one of them. We will not tolerate such re-writing of European history, such attempts to extinct the memory of the Holocaust in line with a nationalistic and antisemitic agenda.
Another obvious Antisemitic incident are arson attacks on synagogues: There is no justification for Molotov cocktails being thrown into temples. No conflict anywhere in the world justifies violence against Jews or any other person on European soil. Rather: We will pass on the memory that synagogues, including the synagogue in Wuppertal, were burnt on Crystal night in November 1938. And we will remember to where these flames led.
And Antisemitism can sometimes hide behind Antizionism. We have seen in Europe, in several University campuses, a deplorable and dangerous conflation of Jew hatred and biased behaviour towards Israel as a state.
I am planning to visit Israel this year and to see among other how we can further join forces in the prevention and fight against Antisemitism.
Thirdly, religious extremism: calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion is not only Antisemitic, it is also insulting for our Muslim European population, who is also victim of such violence. It is simply a criminal act and must be prosecuted as such.
This past year has again seen horrific terrorist attacks, including the latest ones of driving trucks into crowds: Nice-Berlin-Jerusalem. Our thoughts are with the family and the friends of the victims. And our determination could not be stronger to prevent and fight such attacks driven by extremists in so many parts of the world. Israel and Europe face similar threats.
At the recent 10th anniversary of the EU-Israel Seminar on fighting Racism and Antisemitism, closer cooperation on fighting illegal online hate speech was identified as a common goal. We regard it as useful – together with Member States – to re-enforce education, not only about the Holocaust, about the pogroms and the dark sides, but also about Judaism in a more holistic way, about the contribution that the Jewry has made to European history and culture over the centuries. The seminar also looked at ways of reaching out to the Muslim community in this context.
I strongly believe, if we aim to explain the Holocaust and the role it played in building post-war Europe to Muslim youth, we must also take care to address the discriminations they might experience themselves. We must explain where discrimination has led to in the past and why it is so important to stop it at an early stage.
At the same time we must not fall into the trap of generalisation or stigmatisation: discrimination and stigmatisation of Muslims has increased significantly and we are fighting to break this trend. Hatred cannot be confided to one corner of society; sooner or later it will contaminate the air we all breathe. Therefore we stand up to fight all forms of hatred and xenophobia.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Some weeks ago the former German President Roman Herzog past away. It was he who – in 1996 – enshrined into German law the 27th of January as the Day of Remembrance of Nazi victims. Based on this initiative the day was declared in 2005 International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the United Nations, marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi extermination camp in Auschwitz Birkenau.
Yet, Holocaust deniers continue to have an audience.
The so-called “hard” Holocaust denial is criminalised by law. This includes denying that the Holocaust ever happened, that Auschwitz existed or as European legislation states “publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes”.
But what is often called “soft” Holocaust denial is much more difficult to unmask. Soft Holocaust denial accuses the Jews as a people or others of exaggerating the Shoah, it questions the relevance of the Holocaust for today’s world, it attempts to belittle the Holocaust by pointing to other situations. I believe Holocaust denial in whatever form has no place in our society.
On Thursday, in cooperation with the European Jewish Congress and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, we will be screening the film “DENIAL” here in Brussels.
The film recounts how Professor Deborah Lipstadt was sued for libel in Britain in 1996 by Holocaust denier David Irving after she called him a liar in one of her books. The case was heard in a London court, where the burden of proof in libel cases lies with the defendant, and Lipstadt was called on to prove that the Holocaust actually happened. Irving maintained that no Jews had been killed in gas chambers at Auschwitz, citing lack of evidence, and he belittled the claims of Holocaust survivors. The judge in the case ruled against Irving in 2000, finding that he had not been libelled by Lipstadt.
We are very pleased that after the screening the protagonist of the film, Professor Lipstadt, will engage in a debate with my colleague Frans Timmermans, Commission´s First Vice-President in a debate moderated by Sara Bloomfield, the director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In the face of rising Antisemitic and other forms of hatred, in the face of rising Antisemitic incidents and for as long as Holocaust deniers are still around, the European Commission is determined to prevent and combat Antisemitism in all its forms and to ensure that Jews can lead the lives they want to live in Europe. I believe it is time to join forces to stop working in our own little corners, to ignore differences that we might have with regards to other issues and to stand up for a common fight against hatred and Antisemitism.
Thank you very much for your attention!