Eighty years ago in January, fifteen men sat around a table at a villa near Berlin and decided to eradicate a nation. To be precise, they decided how to eradicate a nation. Their decision, their “solution” as they perversely termed it, would lead to the murder of more than six million European Jews, though that is the easy-to-remember round number to which we so often default.
The murders had started long before the Nazi leadership met at Wannsee in January 1942: this was not the first time a group of European leaders had planned to rid themselves of the Jews. The meeting clarified not just the goal of wiping out Europe’s Jewry, but the path to solving the “Jewish problem” by modern means. It was the beginning of concretizing and systematizing the most efficient genocide in the history of the world.
Wannsee is a perfect avatar for what makes the Nazis unique. Their bloodthirst and brutality were unending, but these are qualities (if that is the word) that humanity displayed before and since then, and will certainly display again. Yet the Germans’ genocide was not a crime of passion. It was not a singular act of aggression, a response to particular incident or an erratic moment of rage. It was cold, calculated and strategic: a war aim. It was these irreconcilable realities — vicious crimes, coupled with technocratic detachment — that led Hannah Arendt to label their brand of evil “banal.”
Eighty years later, much has changed. But change, though welcome, does not mean all our problems are solved. Far from it. And change, for better or usually for worse, is pre-baked into antisemitism. Antisemitism is a mental condition, and it mutates like a virus. The hatred has taken myriad forms over the centuries: religious, national, mythical. It punches up: Jews are too rich, too powerful, and control too many things. It punches down: Jews are smelly, pushy and cheap, and their noses are too big. Antisemitism is like water: it finds and fills cracks, and morphs to its surroundings. That fluidity is one reason Jews are on high alert right now. A shift in the pressure leaves us vulnerable. And right now, the temperature is rising for all of us. Prices are rising, social division is constant and we’re in the second year of a pandemic whose end seems nowhere in sight. Plague, political dissatisfaction and economic distress: this trifecta is bad news for everyone, and especially for the People of the Book.
As ever, we Jews add another challenge, this one self-imposed. For as long as there has been Jew-hatred, there have been Jews who have believed themselves immune to it. If I just shave off my horns, they’ll be my friends. If I change my name, they’ll let me into their country club. If I work on Saturday, I won’t get fired. If I disavow Israel, they’ll tell their friends I’m one of the “good Jews.” (No, I’m not making this up: this selection into “good and bad Jews” was in fact employed by American Muslims for Palestine.)
In Nazi-controlled Europe, plenty of Jews mistakenly believed that their previous integration or social status would protect them. In his gorgeous but utterly devastating epistolary memoir Letters to Camondo, Edmund de Waal chronicles how most of the Camondo family had ample opportunity to escape to any one of their myriad homes. But most of them ignored these opportunities, believing instead that wealth and ultimately conversion to Christianity would protect them. They were wrong. And so are the Jews today who seek salvation by distancing themselves from Israel.
The goalposts are always shifting, but the goal remains the same. In the beginning, we were just supposed to criticize the Netanyahu government. Then we were supposed to criticize all Israeli communities over the Green Line in Judea and Samaria. Now it has become perfectly normal for people to gather in the streets of major European and American cities to chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The Nazis had a word for this kind of freedom: Judenrein, “cleansed of Jews.” Where is the state of Israel in this — on the moon? This delegitimization has undermined Jewish life in America, and it will continue to do so. If Jews are consistently demonized as being on the wrong side of the oppressor-oppression paradigm, all “good” Americans will eventually have to join in taking us down a level.
Ours is an age in which language conceals more than it reveals. We aren’t allowed to say what we mean, and in turn we often say things we don’t mean. The one topic where our hyper-restrictive customs do not apply is when it comes to all things Jewish. No one is concerned with “microaggressions” against Jews. Should we be grateful that there is no modern-day Wannsee in the works? Or is the fact that no one is shoving us into the gas chamber really something to celebrate? Meanwhile, the State Department’s diplomats sit around a table in Vienna, determined to empower a nuclear Iran.
Actions are preceded by ideas.“From the river to the sea” is a final solution by another name. Eighty years after Wannsee, Jews should see existential threats for what they are. And non-Jews should realize what history shows. When the virus that is antisemitism infects a nation, it is only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose for everyone.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2022 World edition.