Cohen: There is hope, even as anti-Semitism is on the rise

What about the persistence of this prejudice? Why won’t it go away?

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LYON, France – At the confluence of Hanukkah and Christmas, which converge this year like the mighty Rhone and Saone Rivers in Lyon, here is a heartwarming illustration of Germany’s ongoing campaign to right the evils of Nazism.

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In this chapter, the mayor of Kiel, a city in northern Germany, invites the descendants of Rachel Posner, the wife of a rabbi, to return to the city for a family history exhibition. Posner took an iconic photo of the family’s Hanukkah menorah in 1931.

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The photo shows her family’s menorah, with nine candles, sitting in front of the window. The Nazi banner flies nearby. The Nazis are not yet in power, but the picture is ominous.

The Posners fled to Palestine in 1933. Neither they nor their descendants had visited Germany until the mayor’s invitation. And so it happened that on Sunday – the first of eight nights of Hanukkah, which ends with Christmas – the family lit the menorah in Kiel. Then they did the same in Berlin on the second night, this time at the residence of the President of Germany.

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However, the story would be happier if the family’s return had taken place in a more hopeful climate. Or, more bluntly, the cancer of anti-Semitism that raged during the Holocaust had completely disappeared.

That is not true. Not in Germany, where the Jewish community has recovered and prosecutors are reporting five incidents a day by 2022. Not in France, home to the largest number of Jews in Europe, where thousands have left for Montreal and Israel. And not in Canada, where anti-Semitism is also making a comeback. For example, a recent report on anti-Semitism in the University of Toronto medical school is staggering. Bernie Farber, who has spent his feverish career fighting anti-Semitism, calls it “the most damning document on post-World War II post-World War II post-Semitism Canada”. There are other examples.

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What about the persistence of this prejudice? Why won’t it go away? In 1965, Tom Lehrer, the brilliant American satirist, remarked on the naivete of National Brotherhood Week in a catchy ballad:

“Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics, // and the Catholics hate the Protestants, // and the Hindus hate the Muslims”, “And everyone hates the Jews.”

In Lyon, the third largest city in France, the Jews are hated. During the occupation of France, Lyon was the fiefdom of Klaus Barbie, head of the Gestapo. He was responsible for the deaths of 14,000 Jews, killing and torturing prisoners himself. Because of his cruelty, he was called “The Butcher of Lyon”.

Today, Barbie’s story is illustrated here at the Resistance and Deportation History Center. Lyon was the center of the resistance, led by Saint Jean Moulin. The story is also told in Unhealed Wounds: France and the Klaus Barbie Affair by Erna Paris, the brilliant Canadian historian who passed away earlier this year. There are synagogues, shops, restaurants and other symbols of Jewish life in a community that was all but wiped out.

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Now the Jews of Lyon are trying to challenge the new regime of prejudice. Opened during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cultural Institute of Judaism is down an alley and behind steel doors. Like all Jewish institutions in Europe, it is a target.

But the message is openness, not fear. Through exhibitions in showcases, on large and small screens, but also through virtual reality, it tells the story of Judaism. She does this in accessible, easy language that young people in particular can understand. The hope is that knowledge will overcome ignorance.

Henri Fitouchi, the director, is graceful and charismatic. Last year, he says, the center had just 2,000 visitors; he hopes for more this year. To him, fighting anti-Semitism is the work of Sisyphus: forever rolling that big rock up the hill and hoping it doesn’t roll down again.

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As we leave, Henri hands us a small Hanukkah menorah and candles. He stands at the window of our flat, five floors above the Rue de la Bourse, in sight of the French tricolor. The candles will burn every night this week, like the one in Kiel, which still drives out the darkness after all these years.

Andrew Cohen is a journalist, Carleton University professor, and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.

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