Monika Antanaitytė: Not Empty Slogans But Actions against Anti-Semitism Demonstrate Civic-Mindedness

An educational/informational event called “The Specific Features of Expressions of Hate in Lithuania: Lessons from the Past and Prospects for the Future” with lawyer and member of the board of the Coalition of Human Rights Organizations Monika Antanaitytė was held in Mažeikiai on August 13. In the run-up to the event, lawyer commented on a new forms of anti-Semitism and the challenges they pose, and the importance of an open society in preventing anti-Semitism.

Is it really true that anti-Semitism in Lithuania is part of the past and not the present? Has it perhaps taken on new forms?

As in the entire world, so it is in Lithuania, Anti-Semitism is far from being a thing of the past. On the contrary, at this time we can identify new, modern forms of it. Anti-Semitism under the effect of technology has moved into the social media and internet news media long ago. One could say these expressions of hate speech are almost uncontrollable. There are also cases of Holocaust denial and gross deflation of its scope. Another problem which isn’t frequent here but has become an especially chronic problem in other EU countries is denial of the state of Israel, so anti-Semitism is often a part of modern political narratives.

How is anti-Semitism expressed in everyday life? What sort of expressions of discrimination does the Jewish community in Lithuania encounter?

My early practical personal encounter with anti-Semitism was back in grade school. It was hard to understand why a group of young people had come up with anti-Semitic attitudes. Also as an 11th grader once when I visited the Vilnius synagogue I saw an anti-Semitic inscription being cleaned off the wall. I couldn’t understand how this sort of anger could accumulate towards a specific ethnic community, especially since the consequences of the Holocaust had been so dire on the people of Lithuania, while the homogenous demographic map of Lithuania showed people of this ethnicity constituted less than one percent of the population. Maybe these early experiences partially resulted in my academic choices.

It also so happened that in my early legal career I received the fantastic opportunity to work at the Jewish community. I worked at the Community for six years and the experience expanded my horizons and increased my knowledge. Actually my attitude was a bit pessimistic. I had thought the Community receives many complaints from people who had in one context or another suffered from anti-Semitism. The reality was different: the Community rarely received these sorts of complaints or requests for help and consultation. A specific set of problems, the individual experience of anti-Semitism, tended to come up in private conversations, during research being performed and during formal discussions. On the other hand, over those years I saw a relatively large number of cases of anti-Semitic vandalism and destruction of property.

Although anti-Semitic hate crimes, especially the most dangerous where a person’s life or physical integrity is threatened, almost don’t exist in Lithuania yet, one can state anti-Semitism in Lithuania has taken on a specific latent form. It is less observable, harder to detect, but nonetheless this kind of anti-Semitism is no less dangerous. The spectrum of latent anti-Semitism is the most broad, and most often it comes up in everyday stereotypes which are alive and well in our society, almost having become part of Lithuanian folklore.

What effect does the nationalism growing in strength across Europe have on anti-Semitic attitudes? Are there cases of Holocaust denial in Lithuania?

All the different flavors of discrimination, not just anti-Semitism but also homphobia, Romophobia, misogyny and others, find a place under the umbrella of extreme nationalism, now as it was more than 75 years ago. Clearly the strengthening forces of right-wing extremism are forming a certain ideology and are contributing to the encouragement of expressions of hate, or at least are creating a safe space for this to develop and an especially dangerous culture of impunity.

Lithuanian law is rather exceptional in the European context because the Lithuanian criminal code bans Holocaust denial and belittlement along with incitement to hate based on ethnic and other grounds. Basically those who apply Lithuanian law should be helped by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which the Lithuanian Government adopted in early 2018. Even so, unpunished instances of gross Holocaust denial and diminishment continue, even at the institutional and political level. It is a great shame that recently some statements by so-called opinion makers recall the rhetoric of the infamous anti-Semitic appeal of the Lithuanian Activist Front.

Has Lithuania really learned the lessons of the past? Why is it so hard from some Lithuanians to admit there were both rescuers of Jews and Nazi collaborators in Lithuania during the Holocaust?

It seems Lithuania is really learning. That is illustrated by good examples such as the successful Tolerance Campaign conducted by the Lithuanian Jewish Community dedicated to the discovery, learning and acceptance of Lithuanian history and culture, by such large public initiatives such as the March of Memory in Molėtai and the public’s sincere interest in the diary of Yitzhak Rudashevski, a teenage Holocaust eye-witness. In no way should the informal educational initiatives of individual teachers be dismissed, either, which serve to fill in the gaps in Holocaust education in school curricula.

New psychology research and studies show the traumatic effects of the Holocaust aren’t limited to a single generation. Does the shame of those who killed Jews or collaborated lodged in the subconscious also pass from one generation to another? Researchers in the appropriate field might be able to answer that question and offer solutions. It really does seem as if some Lithuanians at the mention of the Holocaust immediately assume a defensive position and attempt to compare the Holocaust with the losses of the Soviet regime, often ignoring the fact Jews also suffered much from the latter regime.

Recently public discussion has arisen on the commemoration of people who contributed to Lithuania in certain ways but who were also notable for their anti-Semitism. What do you think this discussion tells us?

It’s good the discussion is happening at all. Silence and apathy on this issue would be of more concern. On the other hand, it is strange there is discussion about the commemoration of Holocaust perpetrators, but there is a lack of will and there is delay in taking real action. This action should include not just removal of these commemorations, but also further education which could reflect all aspects of this controversial issue. It is rather surprising to see the impassioned apologetics on behalf of these controversial figures, the possible political exploitation of the controversy and this kow-towing to nationalists instead of orienting the public towards deeper knowledge and a deeper understanding. So this discussion reflects in a peculiar way the problems of the priorities of value-systems and even devalues the heroic actions of those courageous Lithuanians who rescued Jews, belittling the danger of the circumstances in which they operated. In terms of percentages, more Jews were exterminated in Lithuania than in Nazi Germany itself, and mass murder on this scale was only possible under the corresponding ideological conditions prevailing.

The day of remembrance of the Roma genocide was observed for the first time officially in Lithuania in early August. When do you think discussion of the persecution of gay people will also be discussed in Lithuania?

I think the observance of Roma Genocide Remembrance Day truly symbolizes a kind of positive break-through and represents yet another step in the direction of historical justice. But the challenges of Roma integration and insuring their rights doesn’t end there, this is more like a good start for further work. It’s difficult to say when the persecution of homosexuals will be discussed more widely, but it’s best not to wait and to start now. I think the success of the Baltic Pride 2019 festival demonstrated the majority of Lithuanian society are sufficiently open and mature for this sort of discussion. It’s also important to bring to the public’s attention problematic issues facing those with disabilities and other at-risk groups. And not just through the prism of history.

How can each of us contribute to the establishment of an engaged community open to all people? What measures can contribute to fighting anti-Semitism?

We hardly need to re-invent the bicycle in this area. Appropriate education is the best skeleton key to an engaged and open society and the best prevention for the spread of all forms of hate. I’m not just talking about school curricula, but also about the private sector and law-enforcement institutions. Other crucial elements are interinstitutional cooperation and a systematic position on the problems of human rights, because people often become victims of multiple discrimination without realizing it. Also important is inculcating a basic understanding of human rights in Lithuania.

I believe what is also needed is a reconsideration and fortification of the categories of patriotism and civic-mindedness. Working at the Jewish Community, I often received reports from individuals who weren’t connected to the Community on indications of possible damage done to one or another Jewish site, for example, vandalized headstones. The empathy, the concern of these individuals for the state of Jewish cemeteries, the solidarity expressed through Holocaust commemoration initiatives and their answer to those who still worship the organizers, ideologues and executors of the Holocaust in Lithuania–all this moved me. We received many reports on anti-Semitism and hate speech. It is actions of this kind rather than empty slogans which reveal the real content and standard of civic-mindedness and patriotism.

Lawyer Monika Antanaitytė delivered a presentation at the educational/informational event “The Specific Features of Expressions of Hate in Lithuania: Lessons from the Past and Prospects for the Future” on August 13 in Mažeikiai, Lithuania. A photography exhibit called Faces of Diversity has been shown during the event as well. Participants received a free copy of the exhibit catalog.

ESFIVP-I-2The article was prepared in the framework of the project “Change in Business, Public Sector and Society – New Standards for Reduction of Discrimination”. The project is implemented by the Office of the Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson, partners are the public institution Human Rights Monitoring Institute and LGL Association.