By our collective act of remembrance, we can ensure that Europe’s greatest tragedy remains in the past, writes Tony Blair
Fundamental to defeating extremism everywhere is defeating anti-Semitism – here, in Europe and globally.
Following the attacks in Paris earlier this month, Sabbath was not held at the Grand Synagogue in France for the first time since the Second World War.
After the slaughter of innocent people at the Charlie Hebdo offices, and the brutal killing of four people in a kosher supermarket, the city of light was in darkness.
The attacks rightly shocked the world. But the deliberate targeting of Jewish people was sadly familiar.
Despite our best efforts to build a consensus around tolerance, anti-Jewish sentiment is growing in Europe.
Last year, a litany of anti-Semitic offences was carried out across the continent. Synagogues and schools were spray-painted with slogans and swastikas in Copenhagen, Sofia and Stockholm.
Tombstones were desecrated in Greece, Norway and Hungary. Even before the attacks in Paris, the continent witnessed horrific killings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, and at a Jewish school in Toulouse the year before. Violence and intimidation make for headlines. But equally disturbing has been the way anti-Jewish sentiment has translated into mainstream politics.
In 2013, far-right parties saw unprecedented success in the European parliamentary elections. Golden Dawn – a Greek political party that denies the Holocaust – gained three MEPs.
In Hungary, Jobbik, an anti-Semitic far-right party, secured 23 seats after receiving one in five votes nationally.
Behind every hate crime or act of extremism are specific factors; from individual psychological reasons to broader causes of poverty and exclusion. But in this instance, there is an uncomfortable common thread, one which Jewish people recognise instinctively.
Throughout history, Jewish people have often found themselves the victims of targeted violence – and absurd conspiracies.
When I was Prime Minister, I was accused of surrounding myself with a “cabal of Jewish advisers.”
No one commented on the religious background of my remaining advisers. But anti-Semitism is not ultimately about Jews. The old hatred often reflects contemporary concerns: whether economic malaise or cultural insecurity. Today, in the hands of some extremists, it serves as a proxy for a broader rejection of modernity, progressive values – and the existence of the state of Israel.
At the heart of Europe’s new and rising anti-Semitism is an undercurrent of anti-Zionism. Criticism of Israeli policy turned into violent action during last year’s Gaza conflict, when anti-Semitic offences increased dramatically.
In the UK alone, 543 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded in July and August – more than the total from 2013. Caught between identities in a climate of hostility, European Jews are increasingly considering Aliyah. According to the Israeli government, France accounted for the majority of Jewish immigrants, with more than 7,000 moving to Israel last year – more than double the 2013 figure.
Our response here is crucial. Europe’s tolerance and approach to oppression is in many ways a product of the events of the 1930s and 1940s.
For Europeans, the persecution and destruction of the Jewish community and other minorities by the Nazis is a scar on the face of the 20th century. But the reaction to the horrors of the war affirmed and embedded deeper European values: the Enlightenment ideals of freedom and equality, and an urgent desire for peace.
Out of its darkest hour came Europe’s greatest achievement: the collective rejection of conflict that led directly to integration, and the world’s only borderless union. At its best, Europe is the ultimate rejection of the narrow intolerance of the past.
That makes the current situation all the more inexcusable. The only future that works is one in which people are respected as equals whatever their faith or culture, and we have a collective responsibility to say so. In history there are no bystanders. You take sides by inaction as much as by action.
The human proclivity is often to worry no more than is required by necessity; to believe that somewhere, somehow, the invisible hand of justice will self-correct our societies. But this is not the case. The people who make a difference are those who stand in defiance: of intolerance, of hatred, of death. Such people are needed in Europe today. That is why Holocaust Memorial Day will have an extra resonance this year.
When we introduced it in 2001, we wanted people to remember that it was hatred that created the merciless tyranny of the Holocaust.
This year, as we mark 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we should go one step further, and reflect on the meaning of perseverance, survival and reconciliation – values which the Jewish people have learnt through trauma.
One day will never stand as a true testament to the millions that lost their lives – not only Jews, but also Roma, Poles, the disabled, and more. But by collectively remembering, we can ensure that Europe’s greatest tragedy remains in the past. We can reaffirm our post-war promise: never again to allow the forces of extreme ideology to upend our societies and corrode our humanity.
For the Jews of Paris – and for all the people of Europe – that declaration cannot come soon enough.