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A Jewish-run shop after being vandalized by Nazis, November 10, 1938. OFF/AFP/Getty Images
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On the Origins of Anti-Semitism, Which Rages Today

‘Auschwitz, Rwanda, and Srebrenica are permanent reminders of the fact that just as incitement to genocide precedes the perpetration of that crime, the fomentation of racial, ethnic, or religious hatred invariably precedes incitement to genocide.’

Menachem Z. Rosensaft
January 28, 2016
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A Jewish-run shop after being vandalized by Nazis, November 10, 1938. OFF/AFP/Getty Images

Seventy one years ago, on January 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated around 7,000 remaining inmates at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp where more than one million Jews had been brutally, systematically annihilated as part of Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution. One year later, 21 German and Austrian men sat in the dock before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg charged with—alongside war crimes and crimes against peace—a brand new and untested cause of action under international criminal law: crimes against humanity.

For the first time in history, individuals were being held legally accountable for the perpetration of what we today know as genocide—a term that 70 years ago was in its jurisprudential infancy, created just two years earlier by Raphael Lemkin in his book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Two of the defendants at Nuremberg had not been political or military leaders of the Third Reich. They were media personalities who were accused not of actually killing anyone, but of inciting their audiences to murder Jews: Julius Streicher had been the publisher of the virulently and pruriently anti-Semitic newspaper, Der Stürmer, and Hans Fritzsche, the director of the radio department of Joseph Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry.

Prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones referred to Streicher as “Jew-baiter Number One” and told the Tribunal: “For the course of some 25 years, this man educated the whole of the German people in hatred and…incited them to the persecution and to the extermination of the Jewish race. He was an accessory to murder, perhaps on a scale never attained before.”

Another prosecutor, meanwhile, charged that Fritzsche’s radio broadcasts “literally teemed with provocative libels against Jews, the only logical result of which was to inflame Germany to further atrocities against the helpless Jews who came within its physical power…”

The prosecutions of Streicher and Fritzsche—the former was convicted and sentenced to death; the latter was acquitted—were the immediate jurisprudential precursors of, if not the catalysts for, a separate and independent new criminal cause of action that would in short order be featured in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide—namely, incitement to genocide.

The most prominent and publicized prosecutions for incitement to genocide have been before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). In a very real sense, media outlets such as the Hutu tabloid, Kangura, and the infamous Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines, took the inflammatory rhetoric of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, now available in German bookstores following a seven-decade long hiatus, and Streicher’s Der Stürmer, to its logical next step by providing specific directions—a roadmap, as it were—to Rwanda’s genocidaires.

We know, of course, in the words of the Appeals Chamber of the ICTR in its judgment in Prosecutor v. Nahimana, that “there is a difference between hate speech in general (or inciting discrimination or violence) and direct and public incitement to commit genocide.” However, if “incitement [to genocide] is a step toward genocide,” as Susan Benesch, director of the Dangerous Speech Project, has observed, then I would argue that inciting discrimination and violence against a targeted group constitutes an equally significant, perhaps even inevitable, step toward incitement to genocide.

It is against this backdrop that the frightening resurgence of physical, sometimes deadly, anti-Semitic manifestations in many parts of the globe takes on ominous overtones. Attacks on Jews, whether by neo-Nazis or pseudo-Jihadists, do not occur out of nowhere. They are almost always the result of long-term indoctrination by hate speech. And we must also bear in mind at all times that the Nazis did not invent the concept or even the rhetoric of anti-Semitic incitement to violence.

The intellectual roots of modern-day anti-Semitism can be found in the late 19th century writings of Wilhem Marr in Germany, Georg von Schönerer in Austria, and Édouard Drumont in France, among others. “I hold the Jewish race to be the born enemy of pure humanity and everything noble in it,” Richard Wagner wrote to King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1881.

Decades before Hitler, Goebbels, Streicher and other Nazis spewed their anti-Semitic venom, Drumont had fomented popular hatred against Jews in France by depicting Jews collectively as a malevolent alien presence within French society and the French body politic.

Beginning in his La France Juive, first published in 1886, eight years before the arrest of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, and then in his popular newspaper, La Libre Parole, Drumont moved French anti-Semitism from a mere negative prejudice to what should be more accurately termed Judeophobia, or a visceral loathing of Jews as a collective arch-enemy who must be eradicated.

So why is any of this relevant today? First, because we must differentiate not only between hate speech and incitement to genocide, but also between garden-variety anti-Semitism and rhetoric that calls for violence against Jews. While no type of anti-Semitism should ever be condoned—Jean Paul Sartre wrote that this particular bigotry “does not fall within the category of ideas protected by the right of free opinion”—it is the latter variant that poses a far greater threat, in certain instances even a potentially existentialist threat. Contrast, for example, the British poet T.S. Elliot, who certainly wrote unpleasant and derogatory verses about Jews but who never, to my knowledge, urged that they be killed, with the French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline who likened Jews in his 1938 book, L’École des cadavres (The School of Corpses), to bacteria that must be destroyed “completely! absolutely! inexorably! Like the perfect Pasteur sterilization.” (“… intégralement! absolument! inexorablement! comme la stérilisation Pasteur parfaite.”)

One can draw a direct ideological line from Drumont to Céline to the likes of Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, who would become Vichy’s second commissioner-general for Jewish affairs, and who harangued in 1938 before the Paris Municipal Council against what he called the “youpinisation,” or the “kike-ification”—of France. And one can continue drawing that same ideological line from Darquier and his ilk to the French comedian, actor and political activist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who has declared publicly that “the big crooks of the planet are all Jews,” as well as other similarly-minded contemporary anti-Semites who are still very in evidence.

After a lull of more than 70 years, anti-Semites in a succession of European countries now unabashedly shout and brandish signs proclaiming “Death to the Jews” and “Gas the Jews”—only now these slogans are heard and seen primarily at pro-Palestinian demonstrations rather than at Nazi or neo-Nazi rallies.

As French Prime Minister Maurice Valls accurately noted at the 2014 commemoration of the roundup of Jews at the Vel d’Hiv, the Vélodrome d’Hiver, in Paris: “Traditional anti-Semitism, this old European disease, is joined by a new anti-Semitism that cannot be denied or concealed, that we must face. It spreads on the Internet, in working neighborhoods, among ignorant young men who hide their hatred of Jews behind a façade of anti-Zionism or a hatred of the state of Israel.”

It should not have come as a surprise or shock to anyone, therefore, that anti-Semitism has become popular again, even fashionable, in certain circles. Graffiti containing the ominous phrase “Juden Raus,” or “Out with the Jews,” appears all too frequently, often together with a swastika, presumably to leave no doubt as to the vandal’s mindset or intent. In this context, let us briefly think back to precisely eight decades ago, to 1936, when a German firm in Dresden produced and distributed a highly popular board game called, wait for it, “Juden Raus!” According to a 2003 article in the journal, Board Games Studies,one month after ‘Kristallnacht’ the distribution firm of Rudolf Fabricius offered a 33.1/3 percent discount on “Juden Raus!” at the price of RM 4.50.” The same article mentions, incidentally, that the official SS newspaper, Das Schwarze Korps, was sharply critical of this particular game for trivializing official German anti-Semitic policies.

Lest there be any doubt in anyone’s mind, the lethal impact of phrases like “Death to the Jews” and “Juden Raus” was realized in places such as Auschwitz, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen.

Precisely the same dangerous hate speech used to incite violence, sometimes lethal violence, against Jews can just as easily be directed against other minorities—and that is perhaps one of the most powerful lessons we can glean from both past and present xenophobic outrages. We have seen it before—aimed at Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, immigrants, and other strangers—and in today’s volatile political climate we are seeing it used yet again, this time against Muslims.

In his 1899 collection of articles, Les Juifs contre La France: une Nouvelle Pologne (The Jews Against France: A New Poland) published by the aptly named Librairie Antisémite at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, Drumont railed against the “inexorable universalism” of the Jew that threatened to destroy France (Drumont’s term was “supprimer”) just as the Jews, according to his perverse worldwide, had destroyed Poland.

According to Drumont (translated from French): “The Dreyfus Affair has allowed all the Huguenots, all the German or Hungarian Jews who had insinuated themselves in the University to throw off the mask that they had thought necessary to wear for a while, to relieve themselves publicly, to spit out the venom that existed inside them, to render up to us the bottom of their soul.”

Replace Jews with Muslims in this sentence and one gets a fair approximation of certain contemporary hate speech that should concern us deeply on the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It would also serve us well to bear in mind that the aforementioned 1938 remarks by Louis Darquier de Pellepoix were in direct reaction to the presence in France at that time of large numbers of Jewish refugees.

And then, when we consider placards, posters and graffiti proclaiming “Muslime Raus” or “Araber Raus” in Germany, or the equivalent sentiment voiced in France, or the United States, or elsewhere, we are brought face-to-face with contemporary manifestations of hate speech that have the potential of morphing into—if they have not already become—incitement to violence or worse against groups other than Jews.

Auschwitz, Rwanda, and Srebrenica are permanent reminders of the fact that just as incitement to genocide precedes the perpetration of that crime, the fomentation of racial, ethnic, or religious hatred invariably precedes incitement to genocide. We must, therefore, make every effort to condemn and take action against violence-inciting hate speech wherever and whenever it manifests itself. Otherwise, we will have no excuse if a dark part of history were to repeat itself.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Associate Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen” (Kelsay Books, April 2021).