9 November 2020

Secretary-General Calls on World to Stand against ‘Lies and Loathing’ that Propelled Nazis, Threaten Societies Today, Encouraging Return to Reason

Following is the text of UN Secretary‑General António Guterres’ video message upon receiving the Theodor Herzl Award from the World Jewish Congress, today:

Let me start by thanking Dr. [Henry] Kissinger for his kind words.  Successive Secretaries-General of the United Nations have benefited from his perspectives on world affairs.  I congratulate the legendary Zubin Mehta on receiving the Teddy Kollek Award for the Advancement of Jewish Culture.

With its Theodor Herzl Award, the World Jewish Congress has bestowed on me a high honour.  I take this as another sign of your enduring support for the work of the United Nations.  Indeed, the engagement of the World Jewish Congress dates back to the San Francisco conference in 1945 at which the world Organization was founded.  Your involvement continued with your contributions to the elaboration of the landmark Refugee Convention of 1951.  And it has spanned the decades since, rooted in the horror of the Holocaust and the plight of people anywhere who face hatred, insecurity and need.

Today, that mission is more important than ever.  In recent months, a steady stream of prejudice has continued to blight our world:  anti‑Semitic assaults, harassment and vandalism; Holocaust denial; a guilty plea in a neo‑Nazi plot to blow up a synagogue.

And with COVID-19, another virus has spread — anti‑Semitism and hatred of many kinds.  Age‑old blood libels have been given new life.  Other groups have also been falsely accused – and faced not just vilification but violence.

Meanwhile, disinformation and conspiracy theories have gained alarming ground.  They come in different forms.  But they all traffic in the same venom:  dehumanizing and scapegoating the other, whether it is Jews, Muslims, migrants, refugees and so many others.

We must fight on two fronts:  the pandemic and the poison.

Let me stress:  for me, the fight against anti-Semitism is deeply personal.  I came of age in modern Europe as it was recovering from the war.  Opposition to the tyranny of fascism was central in the development of my social and political consciousness.  To see neo‑Nazis and white supremacists on the march today is bone‑chilling.  To see them infiltrating militaries and security establishments heightens the danger further still.

We must stand together against hatred in all its forms.  Our world today needs a return to reason – and a rejection of the lies and loathing that propelled the Nazis and that fracture societies today.

I cannot omit my own country’s record from this picture.  One of the darkest chapters of Portugal’s history was the discrimination and persecution of the Jews during the Middle Ages, culminating in the expulsion of its Jewish inhabitants in the sixteenth century.  This was a colossal betrayal, with consequences felt for centuries.  Nothing can undo the damage.  But during my time as Prime Minister, I felt it necessary to find ways to atone for Portugal’s part in the xenophobia that was so widespread in the Europe at that time.  I worked with Parliament to adopt a decree revoking the expulsion – a symbolic step, to be sure, but one that reflected not only the depth of our remorse for the past, but a lesson learned for the future.

Not long after, I visited the Netherlands, to which many Portuguese Jews had fled, to apologize on behalf of my country and to deposit a copy of the decree at the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam.  That beautiful building echoed with deathly silence – itself a symbol of a vibrant community lost to horror.

The descendants of those that survived the expulsion from Portugal became the victims of the barbaric extermination by the Nazis.  Now, as Secretary‑General, I am working to mobilize a global coalition against bigotry.

Even before the virus struck, following a surge in anti‑Semitism, anti‑Muslim hatred, racism and other forms of discrimination, the United Nations launched a plan of action against hate speech.  After a series of monstrous acts of mass murder at synagogues, mosques and churches, we introduced a plan to protect places of worship and other religious sites.  And since the spread of the virus this year, our new “Verified” initiative has been combating rampant misinformation about COVID‑19.

This ceremony coincides with the anniversary of Kristallnacht.  In remembering that night when so much was broken – synagogues, shops, faith itself - I want to sound a note of hope for repair.  It is within our power to emerge from the pandemic with stronger communities, and more cohesive societies, by addressing the inequalities and injustices that have been exposed so starkly.

Solidarity within and among countries will be crucial.  For us as individuals, that means speaking out even when one’s own group may not be in the direct firing line, and never abetting efforts to target others.

Hatred doesn’t discriminate.  Let’s remember what history tells us about the descent into repression and violence:  one day it is your neighbour under attack, the next it is likely you.

I am also calling for a global ceasefire so that we can focus on our shared enemy  the virus.  My envoys and I are exploring every possible opening for peace.  In that context, and mindful of the role that the United Nations itself played in the establishment of the State of Israel, it remains my fervent hope that next year, a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians can start again towards the goal of two States, living side by side in harmony and peace, in the context of a positive environment of regional cooperation.

Your contributions in advancing the human condition will be critical.  I will continue to stand with you in the fight against anti‑Semitism and discrimination of every kind.  The United Nations is your steadfast ally in the essential struggle to uphold equality and dignity for all.  Thank you again for this recognition.

For information media. Not an official record.