Steven Spielberg Just Gave an Incredibly Timely Speech about Antisemitism – Kveller
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Steven Spielberg Just Gave an Incredibly Timely Speech about Antisemitism

In a speech at the University of Southern California, the renowned director decried intolerance and celebrated Jewish resiliency.

USC Awards Their Medallion To Holocaust Survivors

via Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

This weekend, Steven Spielberg gave a powerful speech that many have said needs to be heard across the world, tying the current political moment with the Holocaust history he’s been so immersed in for all his life, while decrying intolerance of any kind and celebrating Jewish resiliency.

It happened at the University of Southern California, where the filmmaker was being honored for his work to preserve the memory of the Holocaust through the Shoah Foundation, which he founded 30 years ago. The university awarded its highest honor, the University Medallion, to the 56,000 Holocaust survivors who provided their testimony to the foundation. Thirty of those survivors were in attendance, including Celina Biniaz, who was rescued by Oskar Schindler.

Spielberg started his speech with an ode to his mom, Leah Adler, saying that being there to celebrate all the foundation has accomplished “fills me up” — an expression his late mother often used.

The Holocaust, he told the crowd, or as his parents called it when growing up, “the great murders,” was part of his life from early childhood. He recalled how he learned to count by being taught the numbers tattooed on the arms of survivors from Hungary who his grandmother Jenny taught English to in their shared Ohio home.

One survivor taught him how to tell apart a nine from a six by moving his arm up and down. “I was only 3, but I have never forgotten that,” he shared.

He talked about his own experience with antisemitism that he explored in his excellent autobiographical film “The Fabelmans,” which in his small California high school came in the form of discrimination “verbally, and physically, and through silent exclusion.”

Those experiences, he recounted, were a stark reminder that “the distance between my grandmother’s table and the halls of my high school wasn’t very far,” and that anti-Jewish discrimination didn’t start or end with WWII.

Spielberg went on to say that while immersing himself in Holocaust history for “Schindler’s List,” the moments of light that punctured the darkness was when he could talk to survivors, whom he visited in Krakow while working on the Academy Award-winning movie. The mission to document and preserve their stories became paramount to him, and the driving force behind the Shoah Foundation. The testimonies they recorded in those decades, he shared, are “what survivors have intoned for 80 years — never again, never again, never again.”

“Yet in listening to them,” he shared, “the echoes of history are unmistakable in our current climate.” He decried a kind of “radical intolerance” he sees now, that “others” people who are different and rationalizes prejudice.

We see this “machinery of extremism” in action on college campuses, he claimed, where 50% of Jewish students have said they felt antisemitism because of their Jewish identity, a hate that exists in tandem with anti-Muslim, anti-Arab and anti-Shikh hate.

“The dehumanization of any group based on their differences are the foundation of fascism,” he told the crowd. “It’s an old playbook, but it’s been dusted off and being widely distributed today.”

He said that he feared that we will “once again have to fight for the very right to be Jewish.” He also talked about how we can denounce the heinous acts of Hamas on October 7 and still have compassion for women and children dying in Gaza, that it is the beauty of our people that “in the face of brutality and persecution, we have always been a resilient and compassionate people who all understand the power of empathy… this makes us a unique force for good in the world.”

He said the work of the Shoah Foundation is more crucial now, in the wake of the October 7 attack and the rise of “misinformation, conspiracy theories and ignorance,” than it was in 1994 when it was founded. Spielberg claimed that stopping the rise of antisemitism and every kind of hate is critical to the health of our democracy, and sharing these stories with a new generation is a way to fight against history repeating itself. He urged the importance of focusing on “Jewish survival and Jewish vitality,” and sharing stories of Jewish courage.

He recalled how at a recent event, a survivor stood up to speak, wishing first for the return of the hostages in Gaza. “She added something that I know will mean something to everyone here,” he recounted. “We need peace, peace and understanding. We should respect each other.”

When her wishes comes true, Spielberg said, “we can live in a world where our essential freedoms are common across all countries, people and religions, and that will be the most joyful story ever told.”

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