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Opinion: There’s a cure for the root cause of anti-Semitic attacks

I am the grandson of Holocaust survivors. My grandparents, Stanley and Lusia Igel, and Henry Ferber, escaped the systematic murder machine of the Nazis and their collaborators. But much of the rest of my family did not. They, along with over 6 million other Jews, lost their lives in a genocide that targeted them solely because they were Jewish.

The Holocaust was more than seven decades ago, but the same hatred that animated it, unfortunately, lives on. Less than two weeks ago, The Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg was targeted. In the early hours of the morning, an unknown vandal grabbed a can of black spray paint and desecrated our museum with two large swastikas and the message, “The Jews are guilty.” It’s an age-old anti-Semitic trope; anti-Semitism has been around for thousands of years.
It is one of many such recent incidents across the United States and the world. In Tucson last weekend, the door of the Chabad on River synagogue was vandalized with a swastika and an anti-Semitic slur, police said.
At Florida State University, in Tallahassee, the door of a Jewish student’s apartment was similarly defaced last week, with the word “Nazi” scrawled threateningly. Jews eating at a kosher restaurant in Los Angeles were attacked last month with anti-Semitic slurs, including “dirty Jew,” and had glass thrown at them, witnesses said (Los Angeles Police Department officials are investigating it as a hate crime).
In Brooklyn, two Jewish teenage boys were surrounded by an angry group that physically assaulted them when the boys refused to repeat anti-Semitic words. Former State Assemblyman Dov Hikind tweeted that a Muslim Uber driver drove the teens to safety.

After reading all this, you might wonder why I am hopeful.

It’s simple. The good in people will always overwhelm the bad. Immediately after the cowardly crime was committed at The Florida Holocaust Museum, the community came together. People reached out to ask how they could help. The White House sent a letter of support. Within one week, the museum hosted a solidarity gathering that brought together people of all backgrounds, religions, races and political affiliations.

The speakers included an imam, a reverend and a rabbi. While that sounds like the beginning of a joke, I believe it’s the start of something much deeper.

The vandal’s symbols of vitriolic hatred were erased within hours. He or she failed to scare us. The perpetrator succeeded at something, though: bringing hundreds of people to the museum — an institution dedicated to educating the world so that a genocide like the Holocaust never occurs again.

What does that education look like? For one, reminding people of the righteous courage that has come before and which they might come to expect from others and from themselves.

My aunt was only three years old when my Polish grandparents decided that in order to save her, it was necessary to give her up. They made arrangements to meet at a street corner at a designated time and left her in a baby carriage in the care of a Catholic woman they had never met. At great risk, this woman gave my aunt a new identity. It is because of the bravery and selflessness of a complete stranger that my aunt is still alive today.

Even my own existence is an opportunity to educate. My grandparents often told me the story of the Gerula family, relative strangers who hid my family in a barn on their property. Literally one day after my family was moved to another location, the Gerulas were arrested for hiding Jews, tortured for weeks and ultimately executed. They never gave up my family’s location.

Recently, through the efforts of the museum’s director of education and research, Ursula Szczepinska, I learned of Roman Segelin. He hid my family under the floor of his small farmhouse. When arrested and tortured, Roman also refused to divulge the whereabouts of my family. He was executed, too.

On Memorial Day, remember this secret troop of Jewish commandos from World War II

I would not exist but for the superhuman acts of ordinary individuals. That power to act exists in all of us, and the museum saw that power in the community’s response to the graffiti incident.

When the lessons of the Holocaust are taught, social researchers often explain people’s behaviors and choices using four categories: perpetrators, victims, bystanders and upstanders.

The first three are self-explanatory, but you might not have heard of the fourth. Upstanders are people who take action to make a positive difference — even when it is not easy or popular. They do the right thing, regardless of circumstance.

As long as we are all willing to be upstanders, good will prevail.

How do we create upstanders, and eliminate perpetrators, victims and bystanders? Education is the key. More states must continue to pass legislation mandating Holocaust education be taught in schools (18 states already do).
To supplement these mandates, other states should follow Florida’s lead in implementing fact-based standards for all such Holocaust education. Also, as the number of living Holocaust survivors and rescuers continues to dramatically dwindle, now is the time for all of us to visit Holocaust educational institution to learn these stories of tragedy and triumph directly from the people who were there.

These stories hold the key to creating new generations of upstanders of all ages.

At the museum’s solidarity gathering, we asked attendees to bring a book that was meaningful to them. Within every book and within every person lives teaching and learning. At one point in our proceedings, everyone held their book in the air to physically remind people that education is the solution to stopping anti-Semitism.
My book was “The Jews of Silence,” by Elie Wiesel. I have a copy that he signed personally for me. My grandparents had lost most of their family and everything they owned in the war. In the midst of picking up the pieces of his own life, my grandfather worked tirelessly within his means to create a future for orphaned children who had survived the Holocaust. He found clothing, food and refuge for them. One such orphan was Wiesel. He never forgot what my grandfather did, and communicated that to my family.

It is with these individual stories and artifacts — like our books and thousands of other objects in the museum’s collection — that we will continue to teach the world.

Anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred are diseases that seem incurable. The root cause is ignorance. Good news, we have a cure for that: education.

That cure lies in all of us. We must support institutions like The Florida Holocaust Museum and other such organizations that teach about hate, including how it is overcome. And when anti-Semitic incidents happen, we must continue to come together, make our voices heard and show that we will not be deterred.

In other words, we must be upstanders.




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