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New U.N. Chief Speaks at New York Synagogue

by George Baumgarten, January 25, 2017

 The United Nations’ new Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres of Portugal, in his first major address outside the U.N., spoke this past Shabbat at New York’s Park East Synagogue. In what has become an annual event, the Upper East Side congregation, led by Rabbi Arthur Schneier, held the special service in advance of the International Day of Remembrance in Memory of Victims of the Holocaust (27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Red Army). It annually invites members of the U.N. Diplomatic Corps to that service, at which Secretary-General Guterres spoke.


     Rabbi Schneier welcomed the Secretary-General, as well as the other diplomats present—including those of Germany, Russia, the U.S. and others. He told how he had witnessed the destruction of his synagogue in Vienna, on “Krystallnacht”, in 1938. By the time he was liberated in Yugoslavia in January 1944 by the Red Army, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews had gone to their deaths in the camps. Echoing words of the Secretary-General, he said that the only way to stop hatred is to prevent it. “A crime perpetrated against religion”, he said, “is the greatest crime against religion”.


     Secretary-General Guterres noted that the congregation were assembled “…to remember what was the most horrendous crime against humanity in history”. And, in a passage which could be a definition of “genocide”, he reminded them that it was “…an attempt to eliminate an entire people”.


     Guterres then noted the presence of survivors, and made particular mention of one who was no longer able to be President, the U.N. “Messenger of Peace” and Nobel Laureate in Peace, Elie Wiesel.


     The Secretary-General—who served as Portugal’s Prime Minister—then mentioned the expulsion of the Jews from his country (in 1497, five years after the similar expulsion from Spain), and told how he had gone to the great Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, as Prime Minister, to “apologize” for that expulsion. He noted how that community descended from survivors of the Inquisition was nearly wiped out by the Nazis. In that context, he said, the Holocaust was but the culmination of centuries and centuries of Jew-hatred, which originated with efforts to hold all Jews responsible for the death of Jesus, some two millennia ago. And he referred to that expulsion as “…an immense stupidity because it deprived my country of the contributions of the dynamic cultural community that would help us overcome the difficulties of development”.


     Guterres told how Portugal is now offering citizenship to descendants of expelled Portuguese Sefardim. And he noted that his wife, who is Deputy Mayor of Lisbon, had recently signed an agreement for the construction of a Portuguese Jewish Museum. He further mentioned that anti-Semitism is rarely practiced in a vacuum. Quoting former British Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, he said that “the hate that begins with the Jews never ends with the Jews”. But he still noted that “…probably the most common form of expression of intolerance is still expressions of anti-Semitism”. It often leads to and/or goes hand-in hand with “racism, xenophobia or anti-Muslim hatred”.


     Finally, Secretary-General Guterres promised to be “on the frontline of the battle against anti-Semitism”. That would, he said, the best way to honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.



                               © Copyright 2017 George Alan Baumgarten




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