"The latest attacks on Corbyn carry the implicit message that Meyer himself was an anti-Semite – a shocking and absurd claim."
British media have been abusing my friend, the late Auschwitz survivor Hajo Meyer, as part of their campaign to smear Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn as an anti-Semite.
In 2010, Corbyn hosted a Holocaust Memorial Day event in London, where Meyer was the main speaker.
In recent days, The Times created a furor with an article declaring that Meyer “made the comparison between the Nazi regime and Israeli policy.”
Right-wing Labour lawmakers opposed to Corbyn went on the attack.
MP John Mann declared that the event violated “any form of normal decency,” while fellow lawmaker Louise Ellman said that the event made her “wonder if this is the reason that the Labour Party wanted to dilute the definition of anti-Semitism in this way.”
Ellman – a long-time apologist for Israeli human rights violations – is an officer of Labour Friends of Israel, a lobby group with close ties to the Israeli embassy.
Ellman was referring to the deeply flawed International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism which mentions “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” as an example of anti-Jewish bigotry.
Under pressure from pro-Israel lobby groups, Labour’s National Executive Committee last month adopted the IHRA definition as part of the party’s rule book.
But the NEC dropped one of the examples included in the IHRA definition, which states that “claiming that the State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is a form of anti-Semitism.
Activists have pointed out that if adopted by the party, this clause could be used to ban a wide range of criticisms of Israel’s racist policies and violations of fundamental Palestinian rights.
Corbyn caves in
The latest attacks on Corbyn carry the implicit message that Meyer himself was an anti-Semite – a shocking and absurd claim.
The anti-Semitism smear against Meyer is disgusting and should be treated with utter contempt.
Instead, Corbyn did what he has done consistently since he became head of the party, which is pander and retreat in the face of Israel lobby pressure.
The Labour leader apologized for his role in the event and distanced himself from the views Meyer expressed at the meeting, passing the burden of defense onto Meyer’s shoulders.
But Hajo Meyer can no longer defend himself because he died in 2014.
Silencing a survivor
The 2010 Holocaust Memorial Day event took place the year after an Israeli assault on Gaza that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and injured thousands more.
Meyer was very upset by the assault because Palestinians were trapped in Gaza due to the blockade on the territory that Israel imposed starting in 2007.
He could not help but compare the situation of Palestinians trapped under Israeli occupation and bombardment with Jews caged by the Nazis in ghettos like the Warsaw Ghetto.
The 2010 event was co-organized by IJAN, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network.
In a statement last week, IJAN pointed out that a number of leaders in the British Israel lobby had attended the meeting, but that “most of them had clearly not come to listen.”
“Most of the Zionists clearly came to silence the Holocaust survivor, Dr. Meyer,” attendee Yael Kahn wrote after the event. “As soon as he started talking they shouted at him.”
The notoriously abusive pro-Israel bully Jonathan Hoffman, a former vice-president of the Zionist Federation, was one of several disrupters to be escorted out by police.
According to IJAN, another disrupter, Martin Sugarman, was removed for shouting at Meyer.
“On his way out he [Sugarman] stunned everyone by giving the Nazi salute and shouting ‘Sieg Heil,’” IJAN stated.
“I have never witnessed such contempt and disrespect to a Holocaust survivor,” Kahn observed. “The attackers would have labeled such conduct as anti-Semitic had Hajo not been anti-Zionist.”
Amanda Sebestyen, a participant in the 2010 event, confirmed to The Electronic Intifada that lawmaker Louise Ellman was there “the whole time.”
Indeed, Sebestyen wrote a letter to the Labour newspaper Tribune in 2010 highlighting how Ellman and others “sat unmoved without making the slightest attempt to quell their fellow supporters of Israel and create an open space.”
The observations, recorded in 2010, that Ellman was present are notable given that eight years later the MP is claiming she is only now learning of the event.
“I am exceedingly disturbed to hear that now there is evidence that Jeremy [Corbyn] was actually at a meeting where these sorts of views were expressed,” Ellman told The Times last week.
Since Ellman was there herself, why did she wait until now to express her outrage? Could it be that the whole affair is another manufactured crisis in order to pressure Corbyn because of his historic support for Palestinian rights?
Ellman did not respond to an emailed request for comment from The Electronic Intifada.
Lessons from the Holocaust
Hajo Meyer’s experiences with German Nazism defined him and made him sensitive to the suffering of others, especially Palestinians.
I met Meyer for the first time at a meeting of A Different Jewish Voice, a Dutch activist group.
I introduced myself as a child of parents who suffered under German occupation. My father was forced to work for the Germans and my mother could not finish her education because her school was closed.
During the Dutch famine at the end of World War II, she had to stand in a soup kitchen queue for hours.
The lesson I learned is to speak out when injustice is done, I told the the meeting.
That is why I got involved in supporting the fight against South African apartheid and the fight of the Palestinians for freedom, justice and equality.
Meyer and I immediately bonded. We stayed in touch and I interviewed him several times for The Electronic Intifada.
Meyer had to quit school in Bielefeld, his hometown in Western Germany, after the Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews in November 1938.
“It was a terrible experience for an inquisitive boy and his parents,” he told me.
At the age of 14, he had to flee alone to the Netherlands.
After the Germans occupied the Netherlands, Meyer went into hiding with a poorly forged ID.
He was captured by the Gestapo in March 1944 and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. There, the Nazis tattooed number “179679” on his arm.
Education was very important for the Meyer family and his eagerness to learn resulted in a doctorate in theoretical physics after he was liberated from Auschwitz.
His mother and father tried to leave Germany but without success.
They died after being sent to the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt.
Identification with Palestinian youth
Reflecting on his life, Meyer told me in 2011, “I have so much in common with Palestinian youth.”
“My own fate is so similar to what young Palestinian people in Palestine experience. They have no free access to education. Preventing access to education is murder in slow motion,” Meyer said.
“I was a refugee; they are refugees,” he added. “I experienced all sorts of camps that limited my mobility, just like the Palestinians.”
But acknowledging injustice was not enough.
Meyer was not afraid to speak out about how Israel was responsible: “I can in no way identify with the criminals who make it impossible for Palestinian youth to be educated.”
He was also appalled by the European Union’s failure to hold Israel accountable for its crimes, especially against Palestinians in Gaza.
In his 2005 book Das Ende de Judentums, Der Verfall der israelischen Gesellschaft – “The end of Judaism, the decay of Israeli society” – Meyer warned the German public that Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians could be compared with the early stages of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.
This point was also made in 2007 by Tommy Lapid, the late former chair of the advisory council of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
Meyer made it clear that he was not seeking to draw a parallel with the Nazi Holocaust.
But he and his publisher were still confronted with accusations of anti-Semitism.
Such accusations – especially in Germany – can make people reluctant to criticize Israel’s behavior.
It did not stop him from criticizing Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights, however.
In response, Meyer published a booklet to counter the deliberate abuse of the terms anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism by the Israeli state and its lobby groups.
He called for the utmost restraint in making accusations of anti-Semitism – a term that should be reserved for hostility against Jews as Jews.
Yet those attacking Corbyn today have no restraint and no shame.
They will even call a man who survived Auschwitz and lost his parents in the Holocaust an anti-Semite if they believe that is what it takes to shield Israel from consequences for its crimes.