Rabbi Michael Melchior was the Minister for Israeli Society and the World Jewish Community in Ehud Barak’s cabinet from 1999 to 2001. Today, as Israel’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, he is responsible inter alia for Israel’s relationship with the world Jewish community. This includes Shoah restitution payments as well as problems of international racism and anti-Semitism. Melchior confirms that, in the first decades of its existence, Israel neglected many diaspora and Shoah-related issues. He attributes this to the new state’s more immediate problems: “First and foremost Israel had to look after its existential problems. The Jewish world was mostly seen from this angle.”
“At the same time, the international situation was not propitious for dealing at an international level with many of the financial and other aspects of the aftermath of the Shoah, such as the persecution of war criminals. Fairly rapidly after the end of the Second World War, the world became divided between West and East. The Cold War made the Americans give priority to building a new Germany and creating a Western bloc to confront the Soviet Union and its satellites. They were no longer interested in pursuing the many unfinished elements of World War Two.
“There was also an ambivalent attitude toward Shoah survivors in the decades after the Second World War. It took a long time for this to change, along with Holocaust education. The Eichmann trial played a major role in gradually altering the Israeli conscience. I visited Israel for the first time in 1972. Today, the attitude toward Holocaust Remembrance Day is totally different and much more appropriate than it was then. At the time, the great American Jewish scholar Rabbi Sol Lieberman said that, as long as they do not know how to commemorate Holocaust victims, Israelis will likewise be unable to celebrate Independence Day.”
Claims against Germany
Some issues, however, were dealt with relatively early. “The payments for Israel’s financial claims against Germany in the 1950s became extremely important for Israel’s economy. With respect to the restitution issues – which did not concern Israel directly – I do not think anyone consciously decided not to deal with them. Israel had many immediate matters to take care of and Holocaust aftermath problems were hardly present in the minds of its leaders. World Jewish organizations fought a valiant battle up to a certain point. Thereafter, they passed the problem onto Israel and, from thereon, it was suppressed in their leaders’ awareness.
“The claims against Germany in the 1950s were economically important for Israel and assisted the building of the state. They helped finance the absorption expenses of many immigrants, including Holocaust survivors. It was justified that Germany took some responsibility to assist Israel, which was a haven for refugees. Germany pays pensions and other support to individuals in Israel directly, and also since the beginning of the 1990s more than 50% of the funds the Claims Conference received from Germany have been invested in Israel to help Holocaust victims. This sometimes creates the erroneous impression that Germany was the main source of funds for Holocaust survivors.
“Much of the money for that purpose comes, however, from Israel’s own budget, mainly from the Ministry of Finance as well as from the National Insurance Institute. I am not claiming that we do enough for the survivors, who are unfortunately neglected all too often; but Israel is morally committed to assisting a population that has suffered in an unprecedented and unfathomable way. One should not focus too much on the economic aspects of the restitution money, but should understand that it primarily enables some justice to be done toward the survivors. “We have also done far too little for the ‘righteous gentiles,’ people abroad who helped the Jews and some of whom now have major financial problems. Once again this was not a conscious decision but an issue which has also been suppressed and neglected.”
The Reemergence of the Restitution Issue
“The fall of communism over a decade ago was the main reason the restitution issue could reemerge. Another was increased public interest in the Holocaust. Suddenly restitution came to the forefront. The huge robbery of Jewish property is one of the many dark sides of the liquidation of European Jewry. However, until a few years ago, there was no public awareness of its magnitude and multifaceted character. It had never been researched properly, but now circumstances created the opportunity to do so.
“Israel left this new round of restitution battles to the international Jewish organizations. The government did not want to enter into direct conflict with European states out of political and economic considerations. This position was also convenient because of the continuing lack of awareness at the highest level of the country’s leadership about this issue. There was no political interest in the subject and only a moderate economic one. So Israel gave its backing and moral support to the Jewish organizations to carry out the restitution fight.
“Today there is, perhaps, more public interest in restitution, but it remains mainly a curiosity. In Israel so many storms rage at the same time that it is difficult to face them all. Yet attitudes are also influenced in a major way by the difference between Jewish identity in Israel and abroad. Even the subject of the assets of the Holocaust victims in Israel was not properly dealt with. When it emerged recently, it did not raise much interest.
“It is not incidental that when diaspora subjects are raised in government sessions, only a few ministers show any interest. These include Sharon and Peres, for whom Jewish identity is a different matter than for the younger generation. Another one is Natan Scharansky, who immigrated to Israel from abroad and has been a prisoner of Zion. I am simultaneously an immigrant and obsessed with the Jewish people, so that does not really count.
Lack of Interest and Education
Melchior elaborates: “The lack of interest in diaspora issues reflects secular Israeli education, which keeps Jewish identity out of pupils’ consciousness. Many secular educators see Judaism as a monopoly for national religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Even for these communities, diaspora issues are not of major concern and the subject thus finds itself in a void.
“Against this background, it was easy for Israel to leave the reemerged restitution struggle to others. Some politicians also realized that there was a conflict of interest between handling these claims while promoting Israel’s interests politically, economically, and militarily. When I became a minister, I tried to change the situation and to increase Israel’s involvement; I discovered little opposition. It was more a matter that nobody had wanted to deal with.
“There are many considerations, such as economic, military, political, human rights, and Jewish interests in Israeli policy-making. Nevertheless, Israel – as the center of the Jewish people – must take its responsibilities in the cultural, religious, and social spheres seriously. Israel, thanks to the triumph of Zionism, also has a responsibility as the demographic center of world Jewry. When we raise diaspora issues today, there is almost wall-to-wall support in the cabinet and other government bodies, with a simultaneous lack of interest in the subject.
“Looking back, I think that Israel still played an important role in the restitution struggle. Although I do not think the Israeli government must always stand in front and fight alone, as the Jewish state we must take responsibility for dealing with such issues and participate in relevant discussions and processes. Otherwise, the Americans could justifiably ask: Why should we be the spearhead, if the Israeli government takes no interest? There were indeed some such reactions in the United States.”
Norway: A Personal Vantage Point
“Great differences existed with how various countries handled the new restitution process. Where it was handled responsibly, background discussions created major awareness of the Shoah. I watched this closely in Norway, where I was chief rabbi at the time.
“Thousands of articles on Shoah-related issues were published. Through them, an entire generation that knew nothing about the Holocaust became familiar with its relevance. This led to a situation in which the Norwegian parliament supported restitution payments unanimously. This vote reflected a broad popular desire to do something. What was restituted in recent years is minor – both materially and morally – compared to the damage done during the Holocaust and the negligence thereafter. Yet the importance of this positive process, through educating a new generation, far exceeded that of the payments made toward survivors and heirs for assets stolen.
“Bureaucrats on the government-appointed investigation commission did their best to eliminate the restitution issue as fast as possible. Public opinion, however, did not allow this. A crucial role was played by the Jewish community, which did its homework and provided the correct figures. Particular credit goes to Bjarte Bruland, a non-Jewish historian who had never seen a Jew before he became interested in the subject, and to Berit Reisel, who led the battle in the commission for the Jewish community. All this work, and broad support in the media, resulted in a public opinion that didn’t allow the bureaucrats to kill the project in an immoral way.”
An Information Center for Holocaust Survivors
“Restitution concerns half a million Israeli citizens. National newspapers have always found it difficult to write on Shoah-related issues, in spite of significant readership interested in the subject. They should have dealt with restitution in more detail and in a more balanced manner.
“Besides Itamar Levine, of the economic daily Globes, who played a pioneering role, and a few others, restitution has not received due attention. This is regrettable because survivors occasionally see sensational headlines, which frustrate them. They read about agreements to disburse billions of dollars and wonder why they receive nothing from such huge sums. They have not understood that the main beneficiaries from payments for slave and forced labor are non-Jews. Nor is the German population aware of this.
“Therefore, I have taken the initiative to establish an information center for Holocaust survivors, together with the survivor organizations and the Claims Conference, which is partly financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This center helps those who do not know their rights to navigate the bureaucracy. It resulted from a survey by the Brookdale Institute, which showed that the survivors lacked knowledge of how to exercise their rights. As a Jewish state, we are obligated to provide information so that anyone entitled to restitution can receive it easily. Not only do interested individuals address themselves to the center, but many volunteers seek out survivors to help them obtain what is due, sometimes even by filling out the application forms.”
“Another major subject in Israel-diaspora relations is the reemergence of anti-Semitism. In Israel, people have started to take an interest in this subject, not through orderly study but due to the attention it receives in the media. There is a renewed interest to learn more about what has been a suppressed part of our national ethos. People understand that there is an important yet poorly explained relationship between the Shoah and the renewal of anti-Semitism. I hope we will be able to teach this subject in a balanced way.
“Here Israel must also take responsibility and become more involved in the protection of Jews abroad. This struggle is part of our national and Jewish identity. We also have a universal task to undertake; anti-Semitism is a problem for the non-Jewish world as well. We can and must contribute to combating it, using our long and bitter experience regarding the consequences of silence regarding this prejudice.
“The delegitimization of the Jewish national identity and the dehumanization of the Jews opens the gates for physical attacks. We try – via worldwide connections and an Internet site – to obtain systematic information on all anti-Semitic events. The number of physical attacks is so huge today that we can no longer keep track. This physical violence, however, gives only a very partial glimpse of the development of anti-Semitism.”
Relating Anti-Semitism to the Shoah
“The current wave of anti-Semitism must also be related to the Shoah. The horrors of Auschwitz did not originate in Auschwitz. They are rooted in the demonization of the Jews, which afterwards found a political expression in the theories of the Nazis. Yet we should not simplistically equate today’s situation to that of Germany in 1938. Synagogues were burned then and now, indeed, but the circumstances are radically different. First and foremost, today Israel exists. Secondly, almost all Jews in the world live in democratic states with equal civil rights.
“In every generation, however, the sickness of anti-Semitism reemerges with new characteristics. It is important to understand these and to learn how to fight them. The most dangerous new proponents of anti-Semitism are radical elements of fundamentalist Islam, with its deep popular roots from which violence rises. This totalitarian fundamentalism tolerates no other opinions. It not only attacks Israel, but Christianity, American society, Europe, and even the Arab states. While a phenomenon of ‘new’ anti-Semitism, Islamic fundamentalism uses all the tools of its classic counterpart: delegitimization, dehumanization and demonization.”
Confronting State Anti-Semitism
“Given the many new mutations of anti-Semitism, it is crucial that we establish an appropriate research capacity which can follow and analyze developments. We do not even have detailed definitions of anti-Semitism. For example, Holocaust denial has become an important issue again. It originated in Europe, but it has now become part of Arab anti-Semitism. Nothing is impossible: one author claims in one place that the Holocaust did not occur but was a Jewish invention. Yet, elsewhere, he states that the Jews merited the Shoah!
“The Internet has, over the years, become an important tool for anti-Semites, who in the past had great difficulty in finding an audience. Today one can sit within the four walls of one’s home without public censorship and shielded by tolerant laws which permit the spreading of hate theories. In the United States, the First Amendment of the Constitution provides protection for those who incite. In many other countries it is important to work on legislation against incitement.”
“Israel must also be involved in the battle and research on the anti-Semitism emanating from rogue states. They combine their theories about Jews with a desire to possess means of mass destruction. They also hamper states which do not possess such weapons from reaching peace in the Middle East. These are complex interrelationships which we know far too little about and which should be researched much more.
“To confront the danger of anti-Semitism, we have to find partners. Our opponents have created ‘impossible’ coalitions, such as the triangular one between fundamental Islamists, fascists, and extreme leftists. The tools of modern anti-Semitism are transborder in scope. Arab satellite television stations daily spread their poison, broadcasting to the entire Moslem world including Bangladesh, Tunisia, and Malaysia. Recently, when I was in a hotel in Geneva and turned on the television, I found about the same number of Arabic channels as those in all other languages combined.”
A More Sophisticated Combat
“Israel must become more sophisticated in its fight against anti-Semitism. Fortunately, we are no longer in the situation of the pre-war Jew who could only suffer when attacked. As an independent state, we can also use force when we have to. One aspect of our struggle must be to better explain our complex reality.
“When we fought for the freedom of Soviet Jews, it was clear who was the victim and who was the oppressor. We must be sophisticated enough to avoid accusing people of anti-Semitism where it does not exist, or to neglect anti-Semitism when it passes the red line of criticism and turns into demonizing the State of Israel and the national identity of the Jewish people and its history.
“The United Nations’ Anti-Racism Conference in Durban in September 2001 was a watershed in the anti-Semitism debate from several viewpoints. The Arabs succeeded in kidnapping the conference in order to demonize the Jewish people, focusing on Israel. Yet they went too far and turned their proposals into explicit anti-Semitism. Suddenly, for the first time in many years, the Islamic bloc was defeated. World public opinion was not with them. Today the Arab world is asking itself, ‘What went wrong in Durban?’
“Durban gave us the feeling that it is possible to fight anti-Semitism and sometimes win. It is important to build coalitions as there are many people who are not anti-Semitic. Nor is the world willing to support everything the Arabs want, even if at Durban the Western democracies woke up very late.”
Developments in the Arab World
“At the same time, we do not understand either the negative or positive complexity of developments in the Arab world. One of the positive ones is the Alexandria process, which tries to bring together religious leaders of Islam with those of other religions. I have participated in such a dialogue in Norway where, on certain occasions, the Norwegian Islamic Association asked me to represent them to the government and arranged for me, before I became an Israeli minister, to meet representatives of countries who officially refused to meet Israelis.
“Some Arab leaders realize that they have to counteract the image that Islam is a recipe for the explosion of the future of humanity. These people understand that one way to prove that is the ability to tolerate a small Jewish state in the huge sea of Arab population.
“Though the overall picture is problematic, we should not neglect the positive phenomena. While the number of anti-Semitic incidents in France is major, we have seen Moslem leaders in Paris, Marseilles, and Lyon who were willing to take public positions against them.”
“Europe is another subject for research, as its attitude toward Israel and Jews is so complex. The main issue there is Israel’s status and the morality of its position. To a certain extent, in Europe today there is a process of dehumanization of Jews. One way this expresses itself is through multiple efforts to delegitimize Israel, by presenting it as another South African apartheid state, a target of all enlightened people. When I was a child in Copenhagen, even before the official boycott, we refused to purchase any South African products. That was the right thing to do. This campaign against Israel is the wrong thing to do.
“If we look at individual countries we find diverse reactions. The Scandinavians, who always support the underdog, are often willing to condemn suicide bombers while simultaneously showing understanding for their actions as a means of last resort. They do not understand that combating such terror is a fundamental issue for humanity, not just Israelis. Nor do they comprehend the cultural, religious, and social background for this phenomenon, and how dangerous it is for the future of democracy and civilization.
“Norway, for instance, has only marginal economic interests in the Arab world. It owns more oil deposits than most Arab countries. It has few Moslem inhabitants, most of whom originate from countries for which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not very relevant. Classical anti-Semitism plays only a minor role.
“Why, then, do so many anti-Israel positions come out of certain elements in that country? There are various explanations. Several extreme anti-Israeli journalists have almost monopolized the media information on the Middle East. If the average viewer sees very one-sided pictures day after day on television, he needs much resistance in order not to take anti-Israeli positions. In most Norwegian media, there is no true reflection of the problems and dilemmas of the nations in the Middle East. They have lost every sense of proportion, democracy, and basic moral values.
“On the other hand, one finds a basic sympathy toward Israel in all parts of Norwegian society, especially among Christians. And today, due to a specific political constellation, the Christian Party holds a key position in the Norwegian government.”
Better Information Policies
“Israel must distinguish between national information policy and our dealings with anti-Semitism issues, which I do not think are identical. As far as the first is concerned, we have not successfully clarified to the Europeans that our war is not against the Palestinian people and their desire for independence. In the United States this is easier to explain and, therefore, there is far more identification with the Israeli position. One finds, in particular in the American written press, a much more balanced position than in most Scandinavian newspapers.
“We should not ignore that part of the problem is due to conceptual problems in the Israeli public relations effort, which has failed in refuting the image of the Israeli Goliath with its strong war machine against the poor and suffering Palestinian people.
“We should have made it consistently clear that the Arab world has the option to live with us in peace. The Palestinian people can live honorably next to us, but not instead of us. In such a scenario, both Israel and the Palestinian state will have recognized borders. But this solution is incompatible with simultaneous incitement and terror; and it is our task as a government to explain this. Public relations are crucial in all modern warfare. Yet, in reality, both the Foreign Ministry’s information budget and our national information effort are very minor.”
The Public Trial of Anti-Semitism
“In 1983 I helped organize an international hearing in Oslo against anti-Semitism, which dealt with the anti-Semitic outburst at the time of the Israeli-Lebanese war. The main anti-Semitic expressions which we find now were already in use then. It was the first time European anti-Semitism had targeted Israeli national identity.
“One could take the speeches from that meeting, without changing a word, and print these anew. What always happens with such collective hate is that, if one does not react appropriately, the anti-Semites raise the volume. In each wave of anti-Semitic outbursts, both the violence and the verbal attacks become stronger.
“In that public trial, Professor Leo Ettinger, an Auschwitz survivor, spoke. A Norwegian psychiatrist, he had been among the first to investigate the Holocaust syndrome. He analyzed what the Norwegian newspapers wrote about the 1982 Lebanese war and interpreted it as an effort to cover up the guilt of Europe. Many Europeans had collaborated with the Nazis or stood passively by when Jews were being murdered. Now Europeans were trying to claim that Jews were doing something somewhat similar. This implied that apparently what had happened to the Jews was deserved or not so terrible.
“Other psychological aspects of anti-Semitism, including prejudices against Jews, are deeply rooted in European culture. After the war these were suppressed, because what they had caused had become so evident. Now they could come out into the open, as Europeans could convince themselves that there was something true in those prejudices. This enabled the ‘new’ ancient hate to erupt.
“We must also better understand the connection between totalitarianism and anti-Semitism. It is against this background that we are trying to establish a worldwide organization in which Jews and non-Jews will collaborate in fighting anti-Semitism.”
Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld
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Rabbi Michael Melchior was born in Copenhagen. He is the eighth generation of Scandinavian chief rabbis in his family. In 1980 he became chief rabbi of the Norwegian Jewish Community. From then until 1999 he divided his time between Oslo and Jerusalem, where he served as International Relations Director for the Eli Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. In May 1999 he was elected to the Knesset as Meimad’s first candidate on the One Israel list. In July of that year, he was appointed Minister for Israeli Society and the World Jewish Community. Since 2001 he has been Deputy Foreign Minister.