Rabbi Schneier, Holocaust survivors, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,
It is a privilege to be here at Park East Synagogue again with you in solidarity and love, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, to remember the six million Jews and many others who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust, and to re-commit to preventing any repetition of those crimes.
I have visited you on this occasion every year since I became Secretary-General. But I want to stress that I am with you in spirit every day; that the United Nations stands with you every day, together with many people around the world who believe that an attack on one is an attack on all.
Solidarity in the face of hatred is needed more than ever, as we are seeing a worrying resurgence in antisemitic attacks, here in New York and around the world.
Just thirty miles from here, less than a month ago, a knife attack on a Hanukkah party left five people injured at a rabbi’s house in the small community of Monsey. That came a few weeks after the killing of four people in a shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City. A bomb found in a van belonging to the attackers could have killed many more.
New York City saw a 21 percent rise in antisemitic hate crimes in 2019, part of a trend in cities across the country. Antisemitic incidents in Los Angeles more than doubled; Chicago recorded a 46 percent increase.
The situation for Jews in Europe is, if anything, even worse.
France saw a 74 percent increase in antisemitic attacks in 2018. In the United Kingdom, antisemitic attacks rose by 16 percent to a record high.
An attack on a synagogue in the German town of Halle during Yom Kippur last October left two people dead. In Italy, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor was provided with an armed escort after she suffered a torrent of antisemitic abuse.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We need to name this phenomenon for what it is: a global crisis of antisemitic hatred; a constant stream of attacks targeting Jews, their institutions and property.
Almost every day brings new reports of hate crimes. Many of the perpetrators are inspired by previous attacks, glorifying the assailants and creating a self-reinforcing vortex of violence.
Neo-Nazis and white supremacists are resurgent, organizing themselves and spreading their poisonous ideology and iconography online. The internet, from social media to online gaming platforms and the dark web, is their playground and their recruiting office. They manipulate video content and poison young minds.
This upsurge of antisemitism cannot be seen in isolation from an extremely troubling increase in xenophobia, homophobia, discrimination and hatred in many parts of the world, targeting people on the basis of their identity, including race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, disability and immigration status.
Attacks against religious minorities are a particular concern. Around the world, we have seen Jews murdered in synagogues, their gravestones defaced with swastikas; Christians killed at prayer, their churches torched; and Muslims gunned down in mosques, their religious sites vandalized.
As the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks, has said: “The hate that begins with Jews never ends there.”
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,
When the soldiers of the Soviet army entered Auschwitz 75 years ago, they were stunned into silence by what they saw. The Nazis’ efforts to hide their crimes were undermined by the clear evidence of millions of clothing items and tons of hair.
To quote Primo Levi, the liberators felt “guilt that such a crime should exist”.
Like the soldiers, we are revolted by the horrific details of Auschwitz. But it is our duty to look and to continue looking; to learn and to relearn the lessons of the Holocaust, so that it is never repeated.
The most important lesson is that the Holocaust was not an aberration committed at a particular moment in history by a few unspeakably sick people.
It was the culmination of millennia of hatred, from the Roman Empire to the pogroms of the Middle Ages. My own country, Portugal, committed an act of utter cruelty and stupidity by expelling its Jewish population in the fifteenth century.
European Jews were excluded from almost all areas of economic activity; scapegoated if they succeeded; and defined as inferior. One scheme put forward decades before Hitler’s rise to power involved shipping all eastern Europe’s Jews to the African island of Madagascar.
When I visited Yad Vashem two years ago, I was appalled once again by the ability of antisemitism to reinvent itself over millennia. It may take new forms; it may be spread by new techniques; but it is the same old hatred. We can never lower our guard.
And far from being the project of a few insane individuals, the Nazi genocide of Jews and other vulnerable people involved architects, scientists, doctors, lawyers, engineers, drivers, bureaucrats, soldiers. Millions of people were desensitized to crimes against humanity taking place around them, often described by euphemisms like “special measures”.
As the great writer Hannah Arendt said, most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.
The Holocaust was a complex operation arising from long-held prejudices, and required the corruption of society from top to bottom; the corruption of language; of education and political discourse.
As we work to live up to the promise of “Never again”, we need to examine our own prejudices; guard against the misuse of our own technology; and be alert to any signs that hatred is being normalized.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Prejudice and hatred thrive on insecurity, frustrated expectations, ignorance and resentment. Populist leaders exploit these feelings to whip up fear, in pursuit of power.
When any group of human beings is defined as a problem, it becomes easier to commit human rights abuses and to normalize discrimination against them.
Combating prejudice requires leadership at all levels that fosters social cohesion and addresses the root causes of hatred.
It requires investment in all parts of society, so that all can contribute in a spirit of mutual respect. Political, religious and community leaders must make inclusive leadership their urgent priority.
Promoting social cohesion and human rights, and addressing discrimination and hatred are among the overriding aims of the United Nations, particularly through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. We will continue to support countries around the world in building inclusive, diverse, respectful societies that aim to provide lives of dignity and opportunity for all.
Education is a critical part of the solution. Recent surveys found that a third of Europeans knew a little or nothing about the Holocaust and that half of American millennials could not name a single concentration camp. Ignorance creates fertile ground for lies and revisionist history.
“Never again” means telling the story again and again. I was pleased to hear that New York schools will be addressing antisemitism and hate crimes in the classroom.
As Holocaust survivors grow older, we must carry their testimony forward from generation to generation. I am deeply impressed by the innovative use of technology that preserves the experiences of individual survivors for posterity.
Museums have an important role. The excellent exhibit on Auschwitz that is currently at the New York Museum of Jewish Heritage was one of the most visited in Europe last year. I myself saw it twice.
At the United Nations, the Holocaust Outreach programme and UNESCO provide written and video materials that inform, raise awareness and spur action against hatred and discrimination worldwide.
We are also working to promote the responsible use of technologies including social media that are supercharging the spread of hate speech and false narratives.
The United Nations Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech that I launched last year represents our commitment to act as one against this phenomenon. I intend to take the discussion forward at an inter-ministerial conference later this year.
I have also launched a United Nations Plan of Action to Safeguard Religious Sites, which offers concrete recommendations to support governments so that their citizens can observe their religious rituals safely. I thank Rabbi Schneier for his efforts to protect religious sites, and his work with the Appeal of Conscience Foundation to promote interfaith understanding.
Our prevention efforts must also guard against the corruption of language. Euphemisms and coded expressions cannot be allowed to hide bigoted ideas or crimes.
Words can kill. The Holocaust began with words.
We must be alert to words and expressions echoing Nazi concepts like “blood and soil” that are, incredibly, making their way back to the mainstream. We cannot tolerate the normalization of poisonous, corrosive rhetoric.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, my dear friends,
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – and the establishment of the United Nations.
Out of the incalculable horror of the death camps, the world made a new start, founded on mutual respect and our common humanity.
Today, as our values come under attack from all sides, we reaffirm them with greater conviction than ever.
We will never forget.
We will stand firm every day and everywhere against antisemitism, bigotry and hatred of all kinds.
We stand with you, for human rights and dignity for all.