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Antony Blinken’s Yom HaShoah speech was remarkable — it acknowledged U.S. complicity

Thursday marked Yom HaShoah, a day when we remember the unparalleled horrors of the Holocaust, honor the six million Jewish lives lost, and affirm that such tragedies should never be repeated.

This somber day typically includes statements from U.S. government officials reflecting on the Shoah and pledging “never again.” In his speech during the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Day of Remembrance Commemoration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken did something even more meaningful and, in some ways, unprecedented. He acknowledged “not only what happened, but also how it was allowed to happen,” including the role of the U.S. government.

This speech was personal for Secretary Blinken, who recalled the harrowing story of his stepfather, Samuel Pisar, who survived the concentration camps and saw the words “never forget” etched into the walls of gas chambers.

But what was most remarkable about his words was his scathing reflection of the actions and inactions of the department he now leads, which contributed to the magnitude of tragedy in the Holocaust.

Blinken focused particularly on Breckinridge Long, an assistant secretary of state overseeing the issuance of visas during WWII, who made it harder for Jews to flee the Nazis and receive refuge in the United States. According to reports documented by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum, Long intentionally withheld information about the mass killings and lied to Congress about the number of Jewish refugee admittances. He asserted that the State Department was doing everything it could to rescue Jews, when the truth was the opposite.

Even worse, Long didn’t hide what he was doing, nor did he act alone. He wrote government cables affirming a policy to “postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas” by putting “every obstacle in the way.” Some at the State Department helped Long draft and implement these policies. Others watched silently, their inaction demonstrating tacit acceptance of Long’s willful and inhumane refusal to save lives.

Blinken also acknowledged those within the U.S. government who pushed back, including Treasury Department officials who appealed to President Roosevelt to take action in a January, 1944 report that concluded the U.S. government “…will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination.” Now, by acknowledging and accepting that the U.S. government bears responsibility for not saving more lives during the Shoah, the Secretary of State has heeded those officials’ heroic calls.

But beyond serving as an honest assessment of history, Blinken’s speech was a critical call to action.

He noted the current rise of antisemitism in the United States and around the world, and the increasing threat of domestic extremism motivated by bigotry. “Hatred of the Jews tends to go hand in hand with hatred of others – including LGBTQ+ people, people of color, people with disabilities, and refugees,” Blinken said. These words were reminiscent of the former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power’s ominous warning that antisemitism is “the canary in the coal mine for the degradation of human rights more broadly.”

Just as this speech was personal for Blinken, it’s personal for me. I vividly remember where I was sitting when, as a teenager in the mid-90s, I learned that the U.S. government turned its back on Jews during the Holocaust. I was so troubled by the story of Breckinridge Long, told in great detail in Dr. David Wyman’s seminal book on the subject, “The Abandonment of the Jews,” that I called Wyman at Amherst to discuss his findings.

What most disturbed me was how this history contradicted the idealized version of American history that I was taught as a young Jewish American. Through this experience, I learned that the U.S. government is only as strong as its elected officials and leaders, some of whom have failed us. That’s why we as citizens have an obligation to elect those who share our values. This realization is why I went into government, where I served for 18 years for four members of Congress and the Obama administration.

And it’s why I’m now leading the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA), which was founded after Charlottesville. In last year’s election, we warned in a political ad that “hate does not stop itself, it must be stopped,” drawing parallels between Hitler’s rise and the recent rise of domestic extremism in the United States. The ad, which stirred some controversy, underscored the need to combat hatred as it emerges.

It’s the same message that can be gleaned from the story of Long and those who served alongside him in the U.S. government during the Holocaust. Those who stand idly by, witnessing the proliferation of hate or perpetration of atrocities are complicit. We all have an obligation to act. As Secretary Blinken told us in his speech, “we remember to learn. And we learn so that we do not repeat.”

He has clearly learned the lessons from the darkest moments of our past, which we all must do to ensure the promise of “never again.”

Halie Soifer is CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA). She previously served as national security adviser in the Senate to Vice President Kamala Harris, and as a senior policy adviser in the Obama administration

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