To be sure, President Biden and Vice President Harris have spoken out strongly against hate crimes, the terrifying normalization of social media hate speech, and the alarming rise in anti-Semitism. But no one can miss the strength and emotion evoked by a grandson of European Jews returning to Poland, and in particular to Auschwitz, where more than 1 million of the 6 million Jews were murdered.
Before leaving, Emhoff wrote an op-ed with Deborah Lipstadt, the US special envoy for anti-Semitism. “If we reflect on history, we know that the intolerance that fueled the Holocaust did not end when the camps were liberated,” they wrote. “Antisemitism may be considered one of the oldest forms of hatred, but its insidious impact and deep dangers are not relegated to the past.” And because anti-Semitism is not a thing of the past or something over there (Europe), they emphasized the need not only to remember, but also to to trade.
“We all have a responsibility to speak up and make it clear that anti-Semitism is wrong, just like any other prejudice,” he and Lipstadt wrote. “We should all condemn anti-Semites as dangerous and denounce those who don’t. There is no neutrality against evil. Standing still is not an option. Silence is indeed what enables vile oppressors to thrive and grow this vicious virus of hatred.”
In his visits to Auschwitz, to the Polish city from which his family fled, and to the Holocaust Museum in Berlin, Emhoff was an emissary from the White House. But he also showed a level of personal grief and understanding, sometimes lost in thought or wiping away tears. He personified the link between the unimaginable horrors of the past and their current echoes.
During a roundtable at the White House before his departure and Tuesday at an interfaith meeting in Germany, Emhoff stressed that remembering is not enough. “I met with community leaders and members to discuss the bold actions we collectively need to take to combat anti-Semitism and hate in all its forms,” he told the audience in Germany. “I’m very encouraged by the discussions.”
Emhoff has highlighted two critical dilemmas for those determined to quell a resurgence of anti-Semitism. To begin with, it is essential not only to understand the magnitude of the holocaust, but also to bring it to an understandable level – his family, his city, his relatives. Making something concrete from what is abstract for many today is a great challenge for activists, educators and artists.
But the far greater challenge is to maintain a level of active opposition commensurate with the ongoing threat. As Emhoff said, it requires us to challenge anti-Semites and those who look the other way. It requires us to confront social media platforms to take responsibility for what their algorithms power and magnify. And it should spur us to include the Holocaust in the high school history curriculum.
Emhoff has spoken of a government-wide response – and a response from society as a whole. In his position, he has the opportunity to demonstrate that the response to anti-Semitism begins, but does not end, with remembering. If he can do that and foment a national reckoning with all forms of hatred, his importance will come not from his lineage, but from his legacy.