By Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner
As my family left a screening of Operation Finale at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum a few weeks ago, I could tell my daughters had been moved by the film. Their silent introspection turned outward as we made our way home.
Our discussion about the movie’s depiction of the conditions that led to the Holocaust and portrayals of lingering anti-Semitism prompted them to ask the question that has troubled many of us since the dark days of the Third Reich: “Could something like this happen again?”
Operation Finale tells the story of the hunt for Adolf Eichmann, a key architect of the Nazis’ “final solution,” who in 1960 was living under a false identity in Argentina. After his capture by Israeli operatives, Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem held him to account for his pivotal role in the Nazi regime. This was a critical moment in the pursuit of justice after the Holocaust.
More than 70 years have passed since the end of the Holocaust, and the number of living survivors gets smaller each year. We are losing the people who have bravely spent the past seven decades bearing witness to the horrors of the Shoah. The generation being born today will likely never meet or speak with a survivor.
We are reaching the moment when the Holocaust moves from contemporary event to part of history. Worse yet, and perhaps not coincidentally, this is happening at a time when bigotry and xenophobia are finding new voice in North America and Europe.
How can I tell my daughters this could never happen again when anti-Semitic incidents have increased by 60 percent in the United States from 2016 to 2017, and approximately one-quarter of adults surveyed in the 100 countries that make up the ADL Global 100 Index of Anti-Semitism harbored anti-Semitic attitudes?
Hate and bigotry have become more prevalent and strident in public discourse and politics in recent years. Xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric has driven nationalist politics in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and elsewhere, including Germany. On the left, criticism of Israel too often veers into anti-Semitism.
Stories have the power to shift thinking, discourse and behavior. Indeed, one reason that the Eichmann trial looms so large in history is that it was among the first times in the post-war era that the public heard directly from those who had experienced the death camps, the ghettos and the other inhumanities of the Holocaust. Their first-person testimonials profoundly changed the world’s understanding of the scale and brutality of the Nazis’ mass murder.
With the fading of those voices comes an age when each of us must confront hatred, racism and bigotry in our own modern society without the living reminders of what can happen when we ignore rising waves of misguided nationalism, or anti-Semitism in the name of justice. Movies like Operation Finale will play an increasingly important role in shaping the public’s knowledge of the Holocaust.
As a father, I want only to reassure my daughters that nothing like this could ever occur again. But I know better. The truth is that we must continue combating harmful stereotypes, meeting violence with peace, and telling the stories of those who can no longer speak for themselves if we are to abolish once and for all the conditions that allow hate to fester.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism.