The Right Side of History

On April 19, 1506, a pogrom broke out in Lisbon, Portugal, led by Dominican priests shouting “Death to the Jews!” and “Death to the heretics!” Rioters following these fanatical churchmen through the city ended up murdering some 2,000 New Christians — Jews who’d been forcibly baptized in a mass conversion nine years earlier. Their bodies were dragged to Lisbon’s central square and burnt in two huge pyres.

I discovered this crime against humanity in 1990 while researching daily life in Portugal in the 16th century, but when I asked my Portuguese friends what they knew about the massacre, they all replied, “What massacre? What are you talking about?”

I soon discovered that the pogrom wasn’t mentioned in schoolbooks or history texts. It had been erased from memory.

This amnesia in Portugal seemed to me a second crime because those 2,000 dead New Christians were as real to themselves as we are to ourselves. They had joys and sorrows, birthdays to celebrate, bad backs and chest colds, and houses waiting for a spring cleaning. And dreams yet to fulfill.

And so I decided to make the massacre the background for the novel I was planning about a Jewish manuscript illuminator living in Lisbon. In such ways throughout my life, I have learned that I have a deeply subversive personality; it gives me a great sense of purpose to write of events that those with economic and political power would prefer to whitewash or forget.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon ended up telling the story of Berekiah Zarco, a studious young New Christian who survives the Lisbon Massacre only to discover that his beloved uncle, his spiritual mentor, has been murdered in the family cellar. While beset by grief and despair, he decides to try to track down the killer. But as a Kabbalist interested in the symbolic significance of events, he grows far more interested in what his uncle’s murder and the pogrom mean for his family, the Jews, all of humanity and even for God. Berekiah offers the reader his own interpretation on the last page of the novel, and his words give the narrative a chilling significance.

By now, the book has been published in 23 languages. And made me an enemy of the Church hierarchy. The most repressive wing of the Catholic Church — Opus Dei — has placed the book in the category of absolutely forbidden works.

I’m pleased by this ban because it is proof that those with religious and political power who want to prevent the truth from being exposed are afraid of me! As well they should be. Because I have no intention of keeping quiet.

With any luck, the movie of The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon will start filming in September. But more important than the book’s success is what it has taught me: that I value the chance to write about people whose voices have been systematically silenced. It gives me the energy — the slow burn of anger that I need to keep me going over the two to three years it takes me to write a novel. It also makes me feel as if I’m fighting on the right side of history, which seems the best possible place to be.

I would ask you to remember this: The right side of history is always the side that has a memory.

I start with how the Lisbon Massacre was nearly completely forgotten because we may want to believe that the Holocaust is certain to remain central to the telling of modern history. That is incorrect.

Many past crimes against humanity have already been forgotten. I grew up in the state of New York, which was once the territory of the Iroquois and other Native American tribes. But we devoted not a single day in our classes to their culture, history, religion and music. And to how they were brutally chased off their land and murdered by the U.S. government. Unfortunately, complacency and guilt and political interests encourage a wilful forgetfulness in whole populations. And that’s what will happen to the Holocaust unless we work very hard to prevent it.

Already, there are grave signs that most people in America and Europe have no understanding of the Nazi genocide. In the United States, 41 percent of adults and 66 percent of men and women born after 1980 do not know what Auschwitz was or is. They have no idea of how many Jews died in the death camps; or how many Roma or gays or Communists.

The memory of the Holocaust is fading.

Worse: It has to compete with neo-Nazi propaganda and Holocaust deniers who now spread their sick lies on social media with near total impunity. Antisemitism is ferociously strong now in countries like Japan, Sweden and Spain, where there are hardly any Jews. And in Hungary, Lithuania and other Eastern European countries where there once were thriving Ashkenazi communities, history has been rewritten to exonerate their citizens from any blame. It is now a crime in Poland to write or talk about Polish collaboration in the Nazis’ plan to exterminate the Jews.

I doubt that anyone in those countries and the rest of the world will know anything but the vaguest outlines of the Holocaust 100 years from now. So I think that remembering is extremely important, especially if we wish to halt the rise of the ethnic and religious hatred that is blossoming all over the contemporary world.

About 40 years ago, I learned about the extent of antisemitism in the modern world under very difficult circumstances. It was 1982, the year Argentina invaded the Falklands and that “E.T. phoned home.” That summer, I did an internship at the offices of United Press in Paris. At the time, it was one of the major news agencies.

On my first day of work, I walked into the United Press offices, and five reporters and photographers were watching a TV mounted on a side wall. The receptionist pointed out to me the acting bureau chief. His name was Georges Sibera. He was balding and paunchy. His face was red, and he was sweating heavily. He looked drunk. Although I couldn’t see the TV from my angle, the sound made it clear that it was a news report having to do with Israeli soldiers razing a Palestinian village. While I waited for a pause, Georges raised his middle finger toward the TV and cursed the Israeli soldiers. A few minutes later, when the report ended, I stepped up to him and introduced myself. And the very first thing he said to me — I swear that I’m not making this up — was, “I hope you’re not another Jew!”

Do you sometimes wonder if you would admit to being Jewish when faced by a hostile, very possibly drunk, anti-Semite?

I felt my head shrinking turtle-like into my shoulders, smiled weakly and said, “For better or for worse, I am indeed Jewish.”

He looked me up and down. An insect about to be squashed might feel as encouraged as I did at that moment. And then he showed me to my desk.

I worked for Georges the anti-Semite for three months that summer. Perhaps out of perverse pleasure, he had me cover all the anti-Zionist rallies.

I spent hours perfecting my articles about these rallies, though little of what I wrote interested American readers. But my disappointment soon lost all importance. Because at 1:15 p.m. on Aug. 8, 1982, two assassins from a Palestinian terrorist group tossed grenades into the dining area of Jo Goldenberg’s, a well-known Jewish Restaurant in the Jewish Quarter of Paris. They then ran inside firing automatic weapons, murdering six persons and injuring 22 others.

That evening I went to see the restaurant, which had been cordoned off, though it was easy to spot dried blood on the cobblestones outside.

The next morning, Georges sent me to the Hotel Dieu hospital to interview the husband of one of two Americans murdered in the attack. His name was David. His wife Ann had been killed. They were university professors in Chicago and had been working on a book about the history of architecture. Ann and David had been sitting at the counter when terrorists tossed their grenades inside.

David and I spoke together all morning, in part because he was desperate to talk in English with someone. Though he had been wounded in the shoulder by a bullet, he was able to speak coherently. He told me that he and Ann had survived the two grenade explosions and had tried to crawl together to the back of the restaurant. As soon as the blasting of automatic weapons began, he had covered her body with his. He was sure of it. He simply couldn’t understand how she’d been killed.

What David told me over the hours we talked together gave me my first three lessons in Jew-hatred. First: That it can turn deadly when you least expect it. Second: That attacks like this — on innocents far from any conflict — never make any sense. Third: If you are Jewish and manage to live your life without ever being attacked, count yourself lucky, because being beaten, stabbed or shot is just a question of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the weeks that followed, I learned a disheartening fourth lesson: that many supposedly intelligent people are unable or unwilling to distinguish between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. I want to emphasize that the attack that killed Ann and wounded David was nothing but visceral antisemitism. Why?

The people killed were French and American citizens, not representatives of Israel or its government. The terrorists chose a Jewish restaurant owned by a French Jewish citizen in the country’s capital. And yet many Parisian newspapers referred to this as an anti-Zionist attack — exactly the lie that the terrorists wanted them to write, which infuriated me. And still does.

And here’s a fifth lesson: Justice is hard to come by in the very unfair world we live in. Though we now know where the men suspected of planning the attack and carrying it out are currently residing, the governments of Jordan, Norway and the Palestinian Territories refuse to allow them to be extradited.

Even today, nearly 40 years later, when I hear an anti-Semitic trope or reference — no matter how slight — I think of David.

My most recent personal experience with antisemitism came last spring.

A bit of context. Whenever a new novel of mine is published, I generally come to the United Kingdom to do promotions. My latest book, The Gospel According to Lazarus[fn]See review by Jacob Staub[/fn], was launched last April. So an old friend of mine who is a part-time book publicist began trying to set up events for me three months before that. In March of last year, for the first time, I was turned down for being Jewish.

At that time, my publicist called and confessed — in a distressed tone I’d never heard before — that I had just been rejected by two cultural organizations that had previously shown enthusiasm for hosting an event with me. “They asked me if you were Jewish,” he said, “and the moment I replied that you were, they lost all interest. They even stopped replying to my emails and returning my phone messages.”

I’ll call my publicist John, as he prefers to remain anonymous. John told me that the final conversations he had with the two event coordinators convinced him that they weren’t anti-Semitic themselves, but they feared a backlash in the form of protests by their members and others if they extended an invitation to a Jewish writer.

I was shocked and upset. I never expected that my career in Great Britain would be prejudiced by my being Jewish. Even just asking about my religious affiliation struck me as outrageous. Obviously, I do not believe that anyone benefits when writers are censored for their ethnicity or faith.

And once again, let’s not get sidetracked with references to Israel. Although it’s perfectly legitimate for those who oppose Israeli government policies to protest against them — I often do so myself — I have no connection with Israel. I have neither investments nor family there. It’s true that my new novel is set in the Holy Land, but it takes place 2,000 years before the foundation of the State of Israel. As for my nationality, I’m American and Portuguese.

But as I learned back in Paris in 1982, a great many people refuse to acknowledge the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Or between a Jew and an Israeli. In their minds, all Jews are responsible for Israeli policy. We all therefore deserve to be shamed and punished. Any Jew who is even slightly well-known, like me, is unable to post anything on Facebook — a quiet dinner with friends, a book launch, a trip to the U.K. — without receiving insults and even occasionally threats from anti-Israeli trolls.

Happily for me, my particular case is unimportant; I’ll be able to write my novels and make a living even if I never receive another invitation to speak in Great Britain. But what about Jewish artists, writers, scientists and others whose careers are hindered or blocked by fears about protests?

This I know: Anyone who fails to be welcoming to Jews because they fear a backlash makes it possible for the haters to have their way — to spread their irrational prejudice and make shunning Jews seem acceptable.

New horror stories about contemporary antisemitism appear every day, way too many for me to list. Hate crimes against Jews, like the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018 that killed 11 worshippers, are way up. And the attacks are more violent than ever. A good deal of prejudice against Jews is made even more repugnant and dangerous by the bullying of bigots who aim to stifle indignation and protests — to shut us up. When all else fails, blame Jews. Because you will suffer no serious consequences. And who knows, some very ignorant people may even believe you.

One of the most upsetting pieces I have read over the past few months concerns Liliana Segre, an Italian Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz who has been given a police escort because she receives 200 online threats every day, many against her life. One teacher from Veneto wrote on Facebook: “Segre would do well in a nice little incinerator.” Why has this 89-year-old woman been victimized? Because she has proposed forming a parliamentary commission to combat racism, antisemitism and incitement to hatred.

Jew-haters have no scruples. And when you think they can’t descend any lower, they do.

Another recent example from my own life of the ubiquitous nature of Jew-hatred: I ride the train each week in Portugal from Porto to Lisbon. On the particular day I wish to discuss, back in 2018, four British men were sitting around their table at the center of our carriage. The train left Lisbon at 10 a.m., and by 11 a.m., each of the tourists had drunk two large cans of beer and were talking very loudly. When they started discussing the 9/11 attacks in New York, one of them said to the others, “Remind me to tell you the REAL story.”

“No, tell us now,” one of his friends replied.

“Right. Well you know it wasn’t really bin Laden who was behind it all.”


“It was the Israelis.”


“Yeah, they paid the Americans to carry out the attacks themselves.”

“You sure?”

“Absolutely. There’s proof all over the Internet.”

This particular conspiracy theory and others that are equally inane are believed by millions of people in America, Britain, the Middle East and all over the globe. They are convinced that Jews financed the 9/11 attacks as a money-making scheme.

At the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in August of 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that there were good people amongst the neo-Nazis and Klansmen assembled there. One counter-demonstrator, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 were injured when a white nationalist named James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into the crowd of protesters. And here’s the stuff of nightmares: the chant of the racists marching that day was: “JEWS WILL NOT REPLACE US!”

Why that particular rallying cry?

Right-wing groups all over the world spread the belief that the white “race” — and I’m using that unscientific term because it is the word they use — is doomed to extinction. What they call a “rising tide of color” — of black people and Latinos – will overwhelm and exterminate them. And who finances and controls this rising tide? You guessed it: the Jews!

Reading about these conspiracy theories, I had a small revelation. None of this insanity is anything new. Antisemitism has been based on inane slanders since the Middle Ages.

Edward I expelled the Jews from England in 1290 because of allegations of ritual murder, in particular the Blood Libel that Jews kill Christian children in order to use their blood in their religious rituals, including the making of matzah. That might be the most bizarre and hard-to-believe conspiracy theory of them all. And yet millions of Englishmen and women did believe it.

In the most famous case, 45 years before the expulsion, King Henry III gave official authorization to the allegation that a murdered 9-year-old Lincolnshire boy named Hugh had been kidnapped by Jews, tortured and crucified. The king had 90 Jewish residents of Lincoln arrested and charged them with ritual murder. Eighteen of them were hanged. Hatred of Jews grew so strong over the following decades that Edward I decided to rid his kingdom of that evil, poisonous, murdering minority once and for all.

A prediction … Conspiracy theories are going to become more powerful and influential over the coming years. Because we live in an age when hundreds of millions of people get their news from Tweets and Facebook posts. An age in which the leaders of the most powerful nations in the world make no attempt to distinguish between facts and fraud.

Unfortunately, lunatic fantasies always have the advantage over the truth because they appeal to ignorant people’s need for a hidden and all-encompassing reason why they haven’t got the life they want.

Just how bitter and under-educated are the people who subscribe to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories? And why are they so enraged?

The United States is a country where tens of millions of old people lose all their savings because of an inadequate and underfunded national health-care system. It is a country where diabetics go into debt to buy insulin — or dangerously ration its use — because prices are inflated to make huge profits for pharmaceutical companies. In America, insulin costs seven times what it does in neighboring Canada. The crazy, unwinnable war on drugs puts kids smoking marijuana in prison for 10 years or more. Prisons run by private companies make huge profits from their misery. The result? A criminal justice system designed to incarcerate as many people as possible. 2.2 million Americans are currently behind bars — more than a fifth of the entire world total. It is also a country where refugee children are kept in cages and separated from their families, and the president speaks of their homelands as “shithole countries.” Kids grow up without learning Darwin’s theory of evolution or the history of slavery because these topics are considered incompatible with biblical teachings.

The minimum wage has fallen catastrophically over the last 50 years. If the federal minimum wage in 1968 had kept pace with inflation and productivity, it would now be $22 per hour. Instead, it’s $7.25. About 70 percent of Americans born into poverty will die in poverty. A great many low-income kids born in ghettos never make it out. Their schools, funded by diminishing local taxes, are often inadequate and sometimes dangerous.

As for the shrinking middle class, families go into lifetime debt to pay for their kids’ education because universities now cost about $60,000 per year in tuition and fees. In America’s rust belt, where manufacturing plants and unions have been destroyed, as well as in its rural areas, the hopelessness is so great that drug use is at epidemic proportions. More than 42,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2016, and millions more remain so addicted that they see no way out.

As a result of all this, 45,000 Americans commit suicide every year. Another 1.1 million attempt it.

America alone among developed nations has seen its citizens’ life expectancy fall three years in a row and for the first time in a century.

Given all that, is it really surprising that unemployed white men in particular are attracted to neo-Nazi hate groups that offer them comradeship and a purpose in life and access to weaponry? Considering their inadequate education and reliance on the social media for news and opinions, is it any wonder that they don’t understand who really is responsible for their desperately difficult lives and instead blame Jews, blacks, immigrants and feminists?

So how are we going to fight this? A few recommendations:

Extend health care as widely as possible. Reinforce the education system. Teach your children that a good education isn’t a luxury; it’s their right. As is health care. As is a decent job at a decent wage.

Vote against all politicians who systematically lie. Who give tax breaks to the super-wealthy. Who reveal in coded language that they despise minorities.

Denounce anyone who spouts conspiracy theories. Keep your children from falling prey to them and all hate-filled ideologies by insisting that they learn to reason and think for themselves.

Show your kids that you respect knowledge. And respect the truth.

Fight all prejudice.  Stand up for Muslims and blacks and gays and Native Americans who are treated badly. And ask them to do the same for you.

Refuse to adopt the language of scapegoating. Speak and act compassionately. Show solidarity and empathy for refugees, and for everyone else who struggles to get enough food and adequate shelter. Keep in mind that except for the accident of birth, you could be one of them.

I return to the Holocaust for a moment and quote Erik Cohen, the narrator of my novel The Warsaw Anagrams. Erik doesn’t survive the Nazi genocide. But before he is killed, he speaks to his best friend about the annihilation the Jews are facing. “After the Germans lose,” he says, “they’ll want us to forget all that has happened. Remember one person — even just one! — and you will have foiled their plans.”

So part of what we do at a Holocaust Remembrance Day is foiling the Nazis’ plans. Be grateful for that chance. We owe it to the dead — to the millions who were murdered in the death camps — to keep foiling the plans of the Nazis’ ideological copy-cats throughout the contemporary world. Every day. In every way.

And remember: The right side of history is always the side that has a memory.

Based on a speech delivered in Colchester, U.K., on Holocaust Remembrance Day 2020.

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