This article by Karen Pollock appears in the Jewish News and follows the trial of John Galliano in Paris this week
The trial in Paris of John Galliano has reopened what was a profoundly shocking incident. To hear a fashion designer, better known for his outlandish outfits than for his opinions, expressing racist and antisemitic views was bad enough. The further evidence released on YouTube showing him boasting about his love for Hitler only compounded our disbelief that such a famous and feted individual could behave in such a shocking way.
Was Galliano just a deluded and drunk man talking nonsense and drawing attention to himself for all the wrong reasons? Who knows. Unfortunately, either way his comments betray a dangerous world-view sadly shared by many people.
Whether racist and antisemitic comments are pre-meditated or not, if they slip out in the rantings of someone who has lost control, be it through alcohol or drugs, or if they are planned to incite racial hatred, they betray a wider problem in society. There is a dogged persistence of antisemitism. And there can be no doubt that antisemitism continues to pollute public discourse, from the racists we have always fought against and from more surprising and shocking sources, as we have seen recently in the media.
In the past few months we have seen the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange talking in an interview with Private Eye editor Ian Hislop about a Jewish conspiracy and film director Lars von Trier indulging in bizarre public ramblings at the Cannes film festival about Jews and Nazis, in which he seemed to express admiration for Hitler. In recent years Hollywood’s Oliver Stone has claimed that the Holocaust is “focussed on because of the Jewish domination of the media” while Mel Gibson infamously and drunkenly claimed that “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” On each occasion, some have dismissed the perpetrators of these views as eccentrics or cranks. They don’t seem to see a pattern or believe that we need be particularly concerned.
Yet each of these incidents seem to confirm that antisemitism is indeed “a light sleeper,” never far away from the surface. The fact that offensive comments have come from such seemingly apolitical figures from the liberal worlds of fashion and film-making only reinforces this underlying antisemitism.
While it might be comforting to believe that antisemitism is dying out as enlightened values spread across the world, the reality is that even in the countries most committed to promoting equality and opposing prejudice, it remains a deeply embedded if sometimes apparently dormant problem. The fact that hateful words can spring so easily from the lips of successful individuals is a sobering reminder of how great a challenge we face.
We need to be vigilant in calling out antisemitism when we see it - and in ensuring that others understand that it is not a harmless eccentricity, its perpetrators under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It is racism, pure and simple, with potentially appalling consequences. The Jewish community needs no reminder of this. Throughout the 1930s, European Jews who believed themselves to be living in decent and tolerant societies saw how quickly casual prejudice could be transformed into brutal violence.
Educating young people is an important tool in helping to prevent prejudice and racism fermenting in local communities. At the Holocaust Educational Trust we work with young people from all backgrounds to ensure that future generations are never left ignorant of where antisemitism and hatred can ultimately lead. In learning about the Holocaust they are able to draw their own conclusions about the chilling consequences of allowing antisemitism to become acceptable in public discourse.
Many of the young people we have worked with have later chosen to campaign against racism and other forms of extremism in their schools or at university and I am extremely proud of this. In choosing to fight prejudice in their own communities, they show that just as failing to condemn offensive language can cause the incremental spread of hate, so small steps to combat racism can help to build a better society. Those students are a shining example to the rest of us – and a reminder that we must challenge and not excuse prejudice, wherever and whenever we encounter it.
Karen Pollock is Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust