Robert Singer, the Executive Vice president World Jewish Congress, has a mission. The 61-year-old’s job is “to serve 102 Jewish communities around the world”. Singer travels a whole lot, almost all the time. This week, he visited Bulgaria, at an important moment: A big Nazi march in Sofia needs to be banned. Also, Bulgaria’s voting behavior at the United Nations is not satisfactory to the Jewish world community. Imanuel Marcus spoke to Robert Singer in Sofia.
The Berlin Spectator: How do you like Bulgaria so far? What have you seen?
Robert Singer: Sofia is a beautiful city and the people here have been very welcoming. I know the president of the Bulgarian Jewish community, Dr. Alek Oscar, and his staff quite well already, but it has been a great pleasure to meet with other members of the community and to see first-hand not just their passion for Jewish life, but also the strong sense of patriotism they have as Bulgarian citizens.
The Berlin Spectator: You know the story about courageous, non-Jewish Bulgarians who prevented a deportation of their Jewish compatriots in 1943. Today, 75 years later, what should young Bulgarians and young Europeans learn from those events?
Robert Singer: The courage of non-Jewish Bulgarians, led by the Orthodox Church with the support of society at large, to stop the deportation of their Jewish neighbours is an element of history that should certainly never been forgotten and is deserving of emulation. 48,000 Jewish lives were saved because of the bravery and courage of ordinary citizens who refused to stand by in silence and indifference as their compatriots faced certain death. I hope that young people all over the world, not just in Bulgaria and elsewhere in Europe, learn and heed the lessons of this positive example. Those who risked their lives to save another human being were heroes, but they were also just ordinary people like you and me.
But we cannot forget that at the same time so many Bulgarians of goodwill stood up for their Jewish compatriots, other Bulgarians, including in the government, were all too willing to collaborate with the Nazis. We cannot forget that Bulgarians were complicit in the arrests and deportations of 11,300 Jews from the Bulgarian-controlled territories of Macedonia, northern Greece (Thrace) and eastern Serbia, sending them to their deaths in the Nazi death camp of Treblinka in German-occupied Poland. Bulgarian society has only recently begun to confront its culpability in this. Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieza acknowledged this in her recent remarks noting International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and while we are encouraged by the government’s recent efforts to combat anti-Semitism, there is still work to be done.
In Europe today, we are seeing a frightening rise in anti-Semitism and xenophobia, amid a growing wave of far-right and ultra-nationalist movements, including those who continue to glorify notorious anti-Semites, such as the ultra-Nationalist Hristos Lukov, Bulgaria’s chief promoter of the Holocaust. What is most frightening is the alarming rate at which these movements are entering governments, and finding their way into the mainstream.
We see certain groups shamelessly engaging in historical revisionism to whitewash the horrors of World War II and portray Hitler’s willing helpers and other fierce anti-Semites as nationalist leaders deserving of praise. We see this in Hungary, with the celebration of Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy, we see it in Ukraine with praise of Stepan Bandera, and we see it right here in Bulgaria with the annual glorification of Lukov. Today, as Bulgaria holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, it is more important than ever that it upholds the critical EU values of tolerance and the rejection of extremism and anti-Semitism.
We must do everything in our power to remind and teach young people the truth about what happened in World War II – that the Nazis tried to wipe out the entire population of Europe; that nationalist leaders were complicit in promoting this evil campaign in their own states; that ordinary people were drawn in as collaborators to these crimes; and yes, that ordinary people stood up in the defense of their Jewish brethren and in defense of humanity.
As time passes and there are fewer and fewer witnesses, the Holocaust will become distant memory, a piece of history relegated to books. Holocaust denial, historical revisionism and the rehabilitation of WW2 war criminals are phenomena that already exist – unless we fight against them now, they will continue to challenge us. It is our duty to keep the truth on the surface and ensure that future generations are not manipulated by those glorifying hatred and violence
The Berlin Spectator: You have met the leaders of Shalom and the Central Israelite Spiritual Council in Bulgaria, as well as other member of the Jewish community in Sofia. What is your impression of this community and the activities its leaders are working on?
Robert Singer: The Bulgarian community is small but thriving, with an incredibly active leadership. I am constantly impressed by their passion and dedication, and their ability to balance a strong focus on remembrance and their vibrant history, together with an eye looking forward in the best interest of future generations. The community is involved in a number of diverse projects at the moment, and are an integral part of the World Jewish Congress.
One of the reasons that I came to visit this week was to bring to a close an initiative that the WJC and the Shalom organization have been leading together for months: A petition to the prime minister demanding that an administrative ban be placed on the annual Lukov march on February 13. We launched this campaign together in November, and since then, more than 170,000 people around the world have signed on.
Think about this: almost 170,000 people – many of them who probably never heard of Lukov, and who know little or nothing of Jewish life in Bulgaria – have stepped in to support the community and put a stop to public manifestations of anti-Semitism and glorification of Nazis. The community also took a leading role in the WJC’s We Remember campaign in Europe, bringing the entire Bulgarian Foreign Ministry together to reject anti-Semitism ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The campaign reached more than 500 million people, and we thank both the community and the ministry for their support. In short, the Bulgarian Jewish community may be small, but its impact is huge.
The Berlin Spectator: Ukraine is your birth country. It is not so far away and it has a Black Sea coast, like Bulgaria. Yet the situation of the Jewish minority is different. Could you elaborate?
Robert Singer: Every Jewish community in Eastern Europe share commonalities, with similar experiences contending with anti-Semitism, Nazism, and communism, and certain cultural and linguistic overlaps. The Jews of the Balkans, however, are quite diverse from those of Ukraine; Bulgarian Jews are Sephardic, for example, while Ukrainian Jews are Ashkenazi. Even Jews living in Bulgarian-controlled lands in WWII – parts of Serbia, Greece, and Macedonia, for example – had different traditions than the Jews of Bulgaria itself. Following communism, Bulgaria and Ukraine emerged into very different realities as newly independent states. Bulgaria is a member of the European Union, while Ukraine is not. But without even delving into these differences, it is important to also consider the distinction in community size, which makes any real comparison difficult. Ukraine has a long and dark history of anti-Semitism, with enormous losses in the Holocaust, yet its community is still much larger than that of Bulgaria. In addition to that, every Jewish community is unique, diverse in culture, tradition, and the ecosystem in which it grows and thrives.
The Berlin Spectator: If a Martian came to Earth and asked the UNHRC, UNRWA, the UN General Assembly, UNESCO, the PA, the BDS movement or some European governments about Israel, he or she would hear it was an Apartheid state and an occupation force, which had no cultural heritage. That Martian would learn that Israel has no right to defend herself, while all other countries do, that musicians from abroad should not perform in Israel, that Jews drink the blood of Palestinian children, that they poison the Palestinians’ water supply, that they should not install metal searchers because those would make it harder to murder them, and that they should not have a capital or a state in the first place. When will these conspiracy theories against Israel, which are mostly based on blunt anti-Semitism, finally be thrown overboard?
Robert Singer: Firstly, I would hope that a civilization intelligent enough to fly through space and discover other entities on other planets, would also be intelligent enough to collect narratives from each side, and even more importantly collect the evidence to make its own judgment. I would also hope that they would be intelligent and sophisticated enough to see through manipulation, recognize bias within the larger picture, and examine the facts and context on the ground.
You have pointed to the critical undertone of anti-Israel activities that far too many people deny, or try to ignore: the fact that they are rooted in anti-Semitism. The former chief rabbi of Britain, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, put it succinctly when he said: “Anti-Semitism through different times took different forms, however it was always linked to the current important issue: in the middle ages it was religion, so Jews were portrayed as infidels and the murderers of Christ, during the industrial revolution Jews were blamed for both emergence of communism and capitalism, now when human kind is more concerned with human rights, it is the Jewish state, the State of Israel, that is blamed to be an Apartheid state.”
The circumstances change and the conspiracies and lies take new shape to adapt to the political norms of society, but the process is the same and as is the target. Remember the anti-Mason demonstrations across Europe, at the dawn of World War II? Clear and obvious exhibitions of anti-Semitism. Today, we see the same trend under the title of anti-Zionism.
As to the question, when will it stop? I do not have the answer. For decades and centuries and millenia, the Jewish people have fought for self-determination and sought to tackle the ugly beast of anti-Semitism and persecution. It is a battle we will continue to fight. We will not win this battle today or the next. But what we can do is remain vigilant in telling the truth to broader society. We must continue to make it clear that the State of Israel, the Jewish state, is a legitimate and non-negotiable member of the family of nations. We must try to seek support and urge the world to consider the narratives on each side, to collect evidence before reaching judgement, and to recognize the bias and double standards that abound.
The Berlin Spectator: The US decision to move their embassy to the Israeli capital has spurred a lot of criticism in Europe. Most countries voted for an UNGA resolution which says the decision was wrong. What should we read into that kind of voting behavior?
Robert Singer: Let us be clear that the US’ announcement regarding its embassy and its official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital are both a part of its longstanding policy toward Israel and also a great example of its unbending support as Israel’s strongest ally. We welcome other states that have had the courage to move in this direction too, such as Guatemala, and hope to see even more support in the future.
Jerusalem is the indisputable capital of Israel and the historic capital of the Jewish people. Every country has the sovereign right to recognize this truth, and no international vote or claims to the contrary will change the facts on the ground. The UN General Assembly resolution against the US declaration is indicative of the greater trend within the United Nations of double standards, bias against Israel, and attempts to impose external influence on a solution that must be reached directly between the two sides in mutual agreement.
We hope that other member states, particularly those who are Israel’s allies, to reject the political maneuverings ongoing in the UN and start voting fairly.
The Berlin Spectator: The Bulgarian community is working on a big project which involves a kindergarten and a school. It is being supported by organisations you know very well, which have been helping Eastern European communities a whole lot. What significance do projects of this kind have, in this part of Europe?
Robert Singer: This project, along with the many other engagements that the Bulgarian Jewish Community is involved in regarding education and the future of the younger generation, sends a critical message in Europe that the community is here to stay and that it is looking forward, to growth, development, and continuity. While the WJC is working with communities of all sizes and strengths across six continents, not all are as active, as well-connected, or as equipped with the resources to deal with the same challenges. There are some places in the world today, where despite our efforts, there will be no Jews in just a few decades. This project is of great significance for the small community, but it also can have deep significance and impact for all citizens of Bulgaria. It proves that Bulgarian Jews feel at home here, as proud Jews and proud Bulgarian citizens, and are free to celebrate their identity and culture, as an integral part of greater society.
Note: This interview was first published by Magazine79.