Jonathan Greenblatt's Remarks to the U.S. Agency for International Development on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Thank you so much for inviting me to join this commemoration today.

On Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, we join with communities across the world to remember the attempted annihilation of the Jewish people.

I’m honored to be with you all at USAID because in many ways your work is about hope, the one true antidote to hate, and a force that should provide the inspiration to prevent future horrors as we saw in the Holocaust.

But this day is deeply personal to me.

My grandfather came to this country as a refugee almost 80 years ago, fleeing Nazi Germany.  His family traced their lineage in Germany back centuries. My great-grandfather fought in the first world war for Germany. Yet the Third Reich and the Nazi Death Machine robbed him of his family and his heritage, destroyed his home, obliterated his sense of place.

And my wife and her family also came to this country as refugees some 40 years ago. Her family claimed that their lineage in Iran dated back millennia to the original expulsion of Jewish communities from ancient Israel by the Babylonians. Yet the Islamic Revolution and the death cult of Khomenism robbed them of their heritage, destroyed their home, obliterated their sense of place.

Many of us have personal connections to stories like these that have propelled us to do the work we do today. As part of this work, we are embodying the lessons learned from the systematic, transnational annihilation of European Jewry.

We honor the memory of the Holocaust for three very important reasons.

First, it’s a deeply disturbing truth that today too many people have literally forgotten the horrors of the Holocaust. Those who suffered in the ghettos and perished in the death camps for no other reason than the fact that they were born Jewish. The entire neighborhoods and communities, wiped out. The rich culture of Jewish life, erased.

Unfortunately, in 2022, we do not have the luxury of forgetting the Holocaust. Because we are surrounded, right now, with a confluence of factors that are eroding Holocaust memory.

The number of living survivors – those who remember the Holocaust firsthand and can attest person to person about what they experienced – are dwindling, leaving us to rely on history books and documentaries to retell their stories.

Holocaust denial is on the rise. This is the most chilling form of the erosion of memory, those who claim that the number of victims were exaggerated, that the gas chambers weren’t real, that Jews created the Holocaust fiction as a means to justify the creation of the state of Israel. As farcical as this sounds, we’ve seen such dangerous conspiracies gaining traction: on campuses, in newsrooms, in school board meetings, in WhatsApp chats – in all these spaces, deranged ideas abound such as, for example, that in order to fairly teach about the Holocaust you need to teach it from “both sides.”

And then there’s the diminution of the reality of the Holocaust by trivialization and false comparisons, something we’ve seen far too often in recent years.

We see anti-vaxxers drawing odious and false comparisons between COVID precautions and masking guidelines to the Nuremberg Laws.

Flat out wrong. But not just wrong – disgusting.

We see radical antizionists claiming that Zionism is the equivalent of Nazism or that the Jewish state itself is committing genocide.

Indisputably wrong again.  But again, not just incorrect, but appalling.

We deeply appreciate this administration’s commitment to combat Holocaust denial and distortion, and we welcome President Biden’s commitment to honor the memory of the six million with increased efforts to combat this insidious antisemitism.

We’ve also welcomed the bipartisan passage of the Never Again Education Act in 2020, a marquee bill with supporters on both sides of the aisle that commits the U.S. government to develop and disseminate resources to teach about the Holocaust here at home.

Multilateral organizations like UNESCO also want to engage in this work – and even some governments who previously promoted antisemitic conspiracies. All of this is encouraging. Indeed, I believe that now is the time to champion Holocaust education around the world, and to leverage new alliances – like the Abraham Accords – to combat Holocaust denial and distortion in every corner of the globe.

Second, we must also remember the Holocaust because of the shocking rise of antisemitism in recent years. This week, ADL released our latest data on antisemitic incidents in the U.S., showing that acts against Jews have reached an all-time high, rising 34 percent last year and the highest number reported in four decades. We found that Jews are attacked, harassed, and assaulted – in their homes, at their synagogues and schools and JCCs, and at their businesses – at an average rate of seven times per day. And that number does not even begin to account for the tsunami of outrageous, raw antisemitism that Jews experience daily on social media. This rate of antisemitism is astonishing, horrifying and unacceptable.

And many countries around the world, including those that served as safe havens for Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust, such as the UK, Canada, France and even Germany, have likewise experienced historically high numbers of attacks against their Jewish communities in recent years. The numbers just keep going up.

Nearly 77 years after the end of World War II, we cannot remain complacent about rising antisemitism. There is a need for more education, not only about the Holocaust but also about the consequences of unchecked hatred and what it can do when it spreads through society as it did in Nazi Germany.

Finally, we must remember that, to paraphrase the Claims Conference, it starts with words. Long before he perpetrated his genocidal campaign against the Jewish people, Hitler savagely and serially demonized the Jews at every opportunity. Long before the slaughter in Rwanda, Hutu leaders denigrated their Tutsi neighbors. And long before his barbaric invasion of Ukraine, Putin and his henchmen delegitimized Ukraine as a country and dehumanized Ukrainians as a people. For more than a decade, he has denigrated the country, questioning its authenticity and employing state media to amplify his menace.

This is a reminder that we must take tyrants at the words. We can’t dismiss their threats but instead need to steel ourselves because, if we don’t respond fiercely and forcefully to such intimidation and terror, history shows us that we will rue our inaction. Whether the hate comes from leaders in Moscow or Tehran or Beirut, we ignore these despots at our own peril – and we as well as our allies and friends may be the victims if we stand idly by in the face of dehumanization and delegitimization.

And so, in the face of such extremism, who really is surprised by the catastrophe in Ukraine? It is no wonder that we hear of the atrocities being perpetuated by Russian forces.  

Once again, we see children slaughtered as they wait for a train to leave their home country to safety. We see entire city blocks left in smoldering ruins. We see mass graves filled with entire neighborhoods. We see hospitals flattened and schools obliterated.

This is what happens when you dehumanize an entire people. And it’s happening again in Europe, in a place where we hoped the words “Never Again,” would be closely remembered.

One fortunate difference today is that, unlike then, many countries have opened their borders to the millions of refugees fleeing Ukraine. They have done so, in part, because of the memory of what happened during the Holocaust, when humanity ignored what was happening to the Jews of Europe, and when nations, including the United States, turned away refugees.

I speak as a citizen of the U.S., but we all—as citizens of the world and fellow human beings—have a moral responsibility to open our hearts and our doors to refugees. For those of us in the Jewish community—those of us whose parents or grandparents once faced a similarly callous and unwelcoming world in the darkest of times—we feel a particular responsibility to welcome in refugees.

For we, too, once were strangers.

This caring for strangers is exactly the type of work that you all do every day at USAID. Central to your mission is the appreciation that every human life has value.

Under the leadership of Administrator Samantha Power, someone who I’ve known for many years and is a longtime ally of ADL, you all truly embody the creed of Never Again.

You all, in your work to educate, feed, clothe, and heal those in need around the globe, hold us true to the promise of Never Again. This isn’t just theory to you, this is practice. You ensure that never is now.

While today, Yom HaShoah, is a very dark day, being with you gives me hope. You give me hope that people can learn from the challenges of the Holocaust to protect our democratic societies, value human life, and maintain a peaceful world.

We are grateful to USAID for all of your work on behalf of the American people, to respond to crises around the world. Thank you for your tireless efforts to promote human rights and protect religious freedom for all people - Such moral leadership is essential to helping preventing future genocides and atrocities like the Holocaust.

Thank you.