by Iris Lifshitz-Klieger, London
Friday, 22 November 2019
“I am concerned for the future of my children and grandchildren”
Moshe Kantor, President of the European Jewish Congress and the World Holocaust Forum Foundation, enlists the world’s most prominent leaders in the fight against antisemitism. In two months time, he will bring Putin and Macron, Trump or his Vice President and 30 other world leaders to Israel, to participate in a conference sponsored by President Rivlin. “As world leaders gather in Davos to discuss the economic situation,” Kantor argues, “so they should discuss the state of global morality”. The daughter of Noah Klieger, the Auschwitz survivor journalist who became his friend, closed an exciting circle with him this week.
Almost 15 years have passed since my late father, veteran journalist at Yedioth Ahronoth, Noah Klieger, a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp, met for the first time, a Jew of Russian descent, Vyacheslav Moshe Kantor. It happened when Dad went to cover the First World Holocaust Forum, held in Auschwitz in 2005. Dr. Kantor then served, among other roles, as President of the Russian Jewish Congress. A year later, in September 2006, Dad met him again. This time in Kiev, where he went to cover the events marking 65 years since the brutal massacre in Babi Yar, where 50,000 Jews were murdered.
At Babi Yar, a friendship was formed between the two. Two months later, my father went to visit Kantor at his house in Geneva. I well remember Dad’s excitement when he returned from that visit. It was no longer an article about a Jewish businessman, rather a philanthropist determined to work for Holocaust commemoration. Dad met a man who entered his heart.
And so, he told me: “When I arrived at Kantor’s villa, on a hill overlooking the beautiful lake, I expected to meet a very affluent person with all that it encompasses. But when I walked in, I stood shocked for a moment. It was no longer just a luxurious villa. The house looked more like a museum, dedicated entirely to Jewish artists, as a testament to defy anyone who has tried and is still trying to hide the Jewish roots of the great artists who grew up in Russia. This person decided to collect these art works to prove that Jewish art in Europe survived the Holocaust and that no one would dare blur the Jewish identity of the artists who created them.”
This week I met Kantor at his London home. And just as my father wrote in December 2006, I also found myself in a museum of works by the greatest Jewish artists of all time, from Chagall to Modigliani. “I’m so proud that I got to know an Auschwitz survivor like your father,” he told me “By the way, Noah didn’t immediately make friends with me, on the contrary. At first, he was very suspicious of me. He didn’t stop asking me questions. Only after we had a deep conversation about the state of antisemitism that was already on the rise, the glances we exchanged already came from a place of great appreciation and genuine concern for the safety of Diaspora Jews. ”
Kantor (66), who has been President of the European Jewish Congress since 2007 and President of the World Holocaust Forum Foundation, is considered the most important Jewish leader in Europe today – and has even been included in the list of the 50 Most Influential Jews in the World. Most of all, he is known for his persistent fight against antisemitism and racism.
In two months from now, on January 23, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Fifth World Holocaust Forum will be held in Jerusalem. The forum, initiated by Kantor in cooperation with Yad Vashem and under the auspices of the president of the State of Israel, Ruvi Rivlin, will be titled: “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism.”
This is actually the first time the Forum has taken place in Israel, in the presence of leaders from all over the world. So far, more than 30 leaders have confirmed their participation in the event, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Italian President Sergio Mattarella, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen and US President Donald Trump or his Vice President, Mike Pence, “we’ll know soon,” says Kantor.
“As world leaders gather each year in Davos to discuss the economic situation or Munich to discuss the security situation, so too should they discuss the world morality situation,” argues Kantor, “to examine the state of our society and work together to address the threats and dangers of extremism, racism and antisemitism. The message that will come out of Jerusalem will be clear: There is no place for antisemitism in our global society. ”
Education, legislation and punishment
He is married to Anna, a father of five and a grandfather of six. In addition to the houses in London, Geneva and Moscow, they also have a home in Israel, in Herzliya Pituach, which he usually visits during holidays with his family.
So, what worries you the most these days?
“I am very concerned for the future of my children and grandchildren. We are in an emergency situation when it comes to increasing violent antisemitic incidents and their intensity. It’s no longer about a destruction of a monument or a desecration of a cemetery. It’s about murdering Jews. Jews are afraid to go to synagogue, wear a Kippa (a skullcap), some leave their homes in fear for their lives.
“The feeling of an emergency is growing among Jews in many countries around the world. Antisemitism has recently intensified in a way that casts doubt on the very continued existence of Jews in many parts of the world, unfortunately. We saw this especially after the second mass shooting in a synagogue in the US. Almost every taboo related to Jews, Judaism and Jewish life seems to have been broken today.
“It’s not an easy thing to say, but the truth is that 75 years after the end of the Holocaust, Jewish life in Europe is under threat. Terrorist attacks on Jewish centres and synagogues are making headlines, but beyond that, Jews are being targeted with hate and violence every single day. On the streets, in schools, at universities, synagogues, online and on social networks. That reality has led to a situation where more than 80 percent of European Jews feel unsafe in Europe,” says Kantor.
What is the role of the leaders in this situation?
“Antisemitism is no longer just a ‘problem for the Jews’, and it should interest world leaders because it is now essentially an action directed against democratic life. It is a symptom of a much more acute problem. Today, when Jews are attacked on the street, it actually is an assault against democratic values and executive power.
“It is also clear now that antisemitism is no longer the exclusive agenda of the far-Left, the far – Right and radical Islam – it has already become mainstream, the common denominator of all extremists in the political spectrum, who promote an agenda of intolerance. And as the political center weakens and becomes more fragile, movements and extremist groups try to gain political power by attacking the foundations of a democratic society.
The “Yellow Vests” movement in France is one example. They started protesting against rising fuel prices and a minimum-wage increase, so how did it suddenly turn against Jews? Why? Because it’s the easiest thing to go against Jews.
“Unlike the 1930s, antisemitism today is not led by heads of state. In other words, there is no place for a single remedy for the problem, rather, it requires the involvement of the leadership to deal with it on all levels – legislation, education, enforcement and punishment. There is no magic solution.”
What do you think is the difference between antisemitism today and what we saw in the past?
“Even 15 years ago, when we started the Forum, there was antisemitism everywhere, but it was latent, more concealed. Now the situation is that society is ready to tolerate extremism. Even in countries where there are anti-extremist laws, they do not apply to antisemitism. Antisemitism has developed and penetrated many strongholds in society. It exists today, in politics, academia, culture, in every aspect of life. There has also been an increase in open, shameless and explicit hatred directed against Jews, for example, in the Labor Party that Jeremy Corbyn has destroyed with antisemitism. This is why we should always remind leaders who are tolerant of antisemitism that it needs to be stopped. ”
So, slogans aside, what can be done practically?
“Firstly, to build a strategic plan. A roadmap needs to be drawn up with the leaders and an agreement to take joint action. I mean, for example, to call on EU countries that have not yet adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism – as recommended by the EU Council – do it urgently, it should be universally accepted.
“Secondly, we must demand that world leaders take practical steps against antisemitism. The punishment should already be given to those who dare to spread antisemitism in words, before it turns into violent action. Some countries have already understood this. For example, France adopted very firm legislation against Holocaust denial during the 90’s, and later added legislation against boycotting people and products based on nationality, in an attempt to confront a new type of antisemitism – the delegitimization of the Jewish state.
“Two years ago, Germany also adopted a law against hate speech online, to address the biggest and most challenging platform of antisemitism and racism – the internet.
Great Britain has created a task force, combined of law enforcement agencies, legal institutions and civil society organizations to effectively share information and act against these phenomena. An integral part of the war on antisemitism is cooperation with security forces in each country to eradicate, deter and alert to the phenomenon.
“On the other hand, there are countries that have not yet adopted legislation against antisemitism. For example, there is concern in Austria, where the Freedom Party has entered parliament. While some members of this party have changed their rhetoric, they still have to step away and remove themselves from the party’s past. To be acceptable in Europe, it must dispose of all the elements of its dark past and take practical steps, which must, at least, include the immediate rejection of any person with an antisemitic past or a person who has expressed antisemitic views publicly or online.
“In addition, there should be zero tolerance for antisemitism and other forms of hatred. Those who have shed the blood of Jews are driven by incitement, lies and myths against the Jewish people. Remember, no one is born to hate, so we must instil values of equality, acceptance and tolerance, and that of course begins with education – teaching the lessons of the Holocaust, from generation to generation. The pledge ‘never again’ should be an international pledge, not a Jewish one.
Following the success of “The Story of Eva”, the World Holocaust Forum also intends to raise awareness of the problem of antisemitism among the future generation, through the popular platform: Instagram. Ahead of the event in Jerusalem, a large-scale Instagram project will be launched, during which public leaders from around the world, from opinion leaders to entertainment stars and social network leaders, will call for an end to rising antisemitism, under the slogan: “STOP THIS STORY!”. The campaign will showcase the never-ending story of antisemitism with unique video technologies and will be broadcast as a sequence of stories.
“Jews today need an international alliance against antisemitism,” says Kantor, pointing to the alarming figures as published by the annual Kantor Center for Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University: 2018 saw the highest number of Jews murdered in a single year in decades – 13 victims. The number of serious violent incidents recorded worldwide was close to 400 – up 13 percent over the previous year: 387 cases compared to 342 in 2017.
“The greater the decline of world morality, the greater the risk of a global disaster. The level of antisemitism in the world should be used as a moral barometer and the Holocaust should be remembered as a lesson not to be forgotten,” Kantor concludes.
In light of everything you said here, where do you see yourself living with your family?
“A day will definitely come, when I will move the center of my life and my family to live in Eretz Israel. Until then, I have much more to do as part of my mission here in Europe.”