Letter from the Anti-Semitism Front

Letter from the Anti-Semitism Front

AJC Executive Director David A. Harris writes a monthly letter offering his insights and analysis of current concerns facing American and world Jewry.

Letter from the Anti-Semitism Front
July 31, 2003

Much has been written and said-and rightly so-about changing attitudes toward Jews. There is no need to restate the case at length. Suffice it to say that an increasing number of Jews-and some non-Jews as well-have noted a growth in anti-Semitism, including new mutations of the world's oldest social pathology, and, as disturbingly, a steady decline in the antibodies that have fought it off in the postwar period.

This change appears most pronounced in Western Europe, where anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-globalization are merging in a dangerous mix. Purveyors tend to come overwhelmingly from the precincts of the universities, the intelligentsia, the media, and the extreme left.

And, of course, the extreme right, finding new life in railing against the growing immigrant populations in Western European countries, may have put the Jews on the back burner for the moment, but the essential ingredients of racism, xenophobia, and, yes, anti-Semitism remain intact as the pillars of their ideology and pose no less a long-term threat.

The principal danger, though, emanates from within the Islamic world. Since Muslims comprise a majority in 56 countries and a growing minority in scores of others, in essence, this represents a global phenomenon.

It would be highly irresponsible to paint with a broad brush stroke and suggest that all Muslims are implicated, when in fact this is far from the truth. At the same time, it would be equally shortsighted to pretend that anti-Semitism is non-existent in the Islamic world, or restricted to a tiny number of extremists, or nothing more than discontent with this or that Israeli policy. The problem is real, it is serious, and it can't be swept under the rug.

By contrast, in the United States, Jews have felt relatively secure and immune from the disturbing trends abroad, believing in the "exceptionalism" of American society. Yet a series of recent and highly publicized events on American campuses and in the lead-up to the war in Iraq has raised concerns about whether these are simply isolated and ephemeral incidents or, conversely, harbingers of more to come from a country undergoing profound sociocultural changes.

What's been less discussed, however, is what to do about all this.

Let's be realistic. Given its longevity, anti-Semitism in one form or another is likely to outlive us all. That seems like a safe, if unfortunate, bet. No Jonas Salk has yet come along with an immunization protocol to eradicate forever the anti-Semitic virus, nor is any major breakthrough likely in the foreseeable future.

Europe's sense of responsibility and guilt for acts of commission and omission during the Shoah, such as it may have been, is rapidly waning. Instead, we hear unapologetic references from various quarters to Israelis as the "new Nazis," descriptions of Jews as "manipulative," "clannish," and "excessively influential," and even paeans to terrorists and suicide bombers as "freedom fighters." Not very encouraging, is it, especially against the backdrop of a Holocaust that took place on European soil and that was preceded by centuries of mistreatment of Jews?

And not long after celebrating the milestone of an observant Jew being selected by a major political party for the second spot on its presidential ticket, American Jews have witnessed the "poet laureate" of New Jersey, who bizarrely placed blame for 9/11 on Israel, being given a standing ovation by audiences at such leading universities as Yale. Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian students are planning a national conference at Rutgers in October that calls for a Palestinian state "from the river to the sea" and glorifies homicide bombers who kill Israeli women, men and children. And a U.S. congressman publicly called on Jews to press the Bush administration regarding Iraq, suggesting that Jews, having allegedly pushed for war, were uniquely positioned, by dint of the power ascribed to them, to stop it.

At the same time, we've learned something about how best to try to contain anti-Semitism, marginalize it, discredit it, and build a firewall around it. In other words, we've come to understand what's likely to work and, for that matter, what's not.

Given everything that's going on, this may be a good moment to review, however briefly (even if this letter is not short), various strategies. I've identified at least eight key "actors" in the fight against anti-Semitism.

First, let's get down to basics.

At the risk of stating the obvious, societies based on democracy, pluralism, and equality before the law are the best guarantors for Jews or any minority (and for the majority as well). Freedom and respect for all mean freedom and respect for everyone.

When that notion is deeply entrenched, the results can speak for themselves. Among the best examples was the Danish rescue of its Jewish population, who were targeted for deportation by the occupying Nazis exactly sixty years ago. The Jews were seen as Danes who happened to attend a different house of worship. In helping the Jews, non-Jewish Danes felt they were simply assisting fellow Danes, an entirely natural and unexceptional thing in their own minds.

Second, democratic societies are a necessary but insufficient condition for defending against anti-Semitism (or other forms of racially, religiously, or ethnically motivated hatred). Translating lofty ideals into daily realities requires many things, not least the exercise of political leadership. And this is where we meet head-on the challenge of what works and what doesn't.

Let me explain this point at some length because it is especially important. Political leaders set the tone for a country. By their words or silence, by their engagement or indifference, they are able to send messages of one kind or another to the nation as a whole.

It's hardly worth considering the role of leaders in those Muslim countries where the problem is most virulent because they've either been encouraging anti-Semitism, or else they've lacked the courage and will to tackle it. In any case, democracy, pluralism, and equality before the law are rare commodities in such places.

Still, I can't help but wonder what would happen if a prominent Arab leader like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt woke up one morning and decided that enough is enough-anti-Semitism is not only wrong, but a stain on the Arab self-image of tolerance and moderation-and led a campaign in the Arab world against those who demonize and otherwise dehumanize Jews. The effect would be electrifying. Dream on, you probably say, and I can't argue with you, but hope does spring eternal.

In Europe, with few exceptions, leaders in recent years have fallen short when it comes to confronting anti-Semitism.

Take the case of Lech Walesa, the hero of the Solidarity movement. In 1995, as president of democratic Poland, he attended a church service in Gdansk. The priest, Rev. Henryk Jankowski, a known anti-Semite, did not disappoint. He referred to the Star of David as "associated with the symbols of the swastika as well as the hammer and sickle," and that wasn't the half of it.

What did President Walesa do in response? Did he walk out of the sermon? Did he issue a statement immediately after the service? Did he disassociate himself from Father Jankowski? None of the above. He simply chose to remain silent.

The American Jewish Committee met with President Walesa shortly after this incident took place. It was a revealing session.

We pressed the Polish leader to speak out and quickly. We argued that any further delay would only reinforce the image that Father Jankowski's venomous remarks were acceptable to Walesa and legitimate in mainstream Polish society.

He pushed back, contending that there was no point in turning a small incident into a national story.

We responded that the presence of the Polish president in the church during such a sermon made it, by definition, a national, indeed, an international, story. The onus was on Walesa to repudiate the priest's bigotry.

Our message, we feared, fell on deaf ears. We left the meeting feeling we had utterly failed in our mission.

Ten days after the sermon, though, and with pressure coming from the U.S. and Israeli governments, the president grudgingly issued a statement, but the damage had been done. A not-so-subtle message had already been sent to the people of Poland. And, in any case, there was no condemnation of the priest, only some general words about Walesa's repugnance of anti-Semitism and his appreciation of the Star of David.

Or take the case of Jacques Chirac, the French president. No one who knows him would suggest that he harbors anti-Semitic feelings. To the contrary, he has always demonstrated friendship for the French Jewish community, even if his foreign policy is heavily tilted toward the Arab world.

Yet this leader, who had the courage in 1995 to accept French responsibility for the crimes of Vichy-something none of his predecessors had done-was painfully slow to react to the wave of anti-Semitic attacks that hit France starting in the fall of 2000.

And, to be fair, since there was a government of "cohabitation" between Chirac and Lionel Jospin, the prime minister at the time and a Chirac foe, Jospin's cabinet was no quicker to respond. Yet Jospin, like Chirac, was known as a friend of the Jewish community.

Why, then, the delayed reflexes when these leaders must have understood that not only Jews were under attack, but-and this point must be emphasized again and again-the highest values of democratic France as well?

Whatever the reasons, and there is much speculation about them, the bottom line is that, inevitably, a message was sent out to the perpetrators-North African youth living in the suburbs of major French cities-that their despicable acts were not taken terribly seriously. The result: they concluded they could act with impunity.

Incidentally, in the past year since a new prime minister and cabinet have taken office, a very different-and much tougher-message has been projected, especially by the minister of the interior, responsible for law enforcement, and the minister of education. Some positive results have been achieved, even if the challenge is enormous, and the French Jewish community at least no longer feels a sense of total abandonment by the government.

Let me offer one other example, though it involves non-Jews. Nonetheless, it is instructive.

Beginning in the early 1990s, shortly after German unification, right-wing violence against foreigners erupted. The towns of Rostock, Mölln, Hoyerswerda, and Solingen became synonymous with expressions of hatred. In Solingen, for example, five women of Turkish origin were killed when skinheads torched a home. And in Rostock, not only was a shelter for foreigners, mostly Vietnamese and Romanian gypsies, burned to the ground, but many town residents took to the streets and openly encouraged the right-wing extremists.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a decent man who skillfully presided over the mammoth task of German unification, underestimated the significance of these tragic events.

Rather than speak out forcefully and seek opportunities to identify with the targeted victims, he adopted a low profile, to put it charitably. When the American Jewish Committee and others urged the chancellor to be more visible, a spokesman indicated that Kohl did not engage in "condolence tourism." I wish he had.

I could offer many more examples.

It's striking how many times we've raised the issue of anti-Semitism with European leaders in the last couple of years, only to be told, in the case of a European Union commissioner, that she was "unaware of its existence," or, in the case of a foreign minister, that there was no evidence of anti-Semitism, even as a poll had just come out indicating that anti-Semitic stereotypes were a serious problem in his country. Why the blind spot? Why the denial? Again, there are several possible explanations, none of which offers any reassurance.

By way of contrast, Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, challenged his compatriots to confront the problem of anti-Semitism. In a newspaper article he wrote:

Do we actually comprehend what Nazi barbarism and its genocidal anti-Semitism did to us, to Germany, its people and its culture? What Hitler and the Nazis did to Germany's Jews they did first and foremost to Germans, to Germans of the Jewish faith! Albert Einstein was as much a German as was Max Planck.... That is why the question whether German Jews feel secure in our democracy and, though even today this can only be a hope, might one day be able to feel "at home" in it again, is not a minor one, but a question par excellence about the credibility of German democracy.

More such thoughtful and courageous statements from political leaders, bolstered by appropriate actions, are precisely what's needed. In America, perhaps, we've come to expect them, as when our government publicly condemned the rash of anti-Semitic canards blaming Jews for 9/11 or, just before, boycotted the hate fest under UN auspices at Durban. But elsewhere, at least when it comes to Jews, such statements and actions have been far less frequent or forceful.

Frankly, given Europe's historical record, it should be precisely these countries-knowing as they do where the slippery slope of hatred can lead-which assume worldwide leadership in the struggle against the cancer of anti-Semitism. Wouldn't that send a powerful message about learning from the past? We've challenged many European leaders to play just such a role, but admittedly with only limited success to date.

The words of Søren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher, ought to serve as a useful reminder: "Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backward."

The third area for consideration is the role of law, law enforcement, and the judiciary.

This gets tricky, I realize. American and European laws on what constitutes a punishable crime in the realm of incitement can be quite different. There are varying approaches to the proper balance between protecting free speech and criminalizing the propagation of racial or religious hatred.

For instance, a number of European countries, including Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland, have laws that make denial of the Holocaust a criminal offense, whereas the United States does not.

As one illustration, Switzerland adopted a law in 1994 that outlaws "public denial, trivialization and disputation of genocide or other crimes against humanity," with a maximum prison sentence of three years.

Ironically, we hear persistent complaints from countries like Austria and Germany that much of their anti-Semitic material, including video games and books, originates in the United States. The problem has only grown more acute with the rapidly increasing popularity of the Internet. We are often asked if there isn't a way around First Amendment protections to stop these unwelcome American "exports."

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, as we learned in a recent meeting with the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State:

It is an offense to use threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behavior with intent or likelihood to stir up racial hatred against anyone on the grounds of color, race, nationality, or ethnic or national origins. Under recent anti-terrorism legislation, the maximum penalty for the offense was increased from two to seven years' imprisonment. Under the same legislation, it is also now an offense to stir up hatred against a racial group abroad, such as Jews in Israel [emphasis added].

The range of ways in which democratic, law-based societies seek to deal with hate speech and hate crimes could fill volumes, as would an evaluation of the impact of such efforts.

Moreover, there is an entire body of international conventions (and organizations) to consider in the struggle against anti-Semitism.

The Soviet Jewry movement relied heavily on such instruments as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Helsinki Final Act to buttress the case for the rights of Jews in the USSR.

So, too, do we need to consider as tools the protections enshrined in documents like the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. Article 20 of the latter document, as one example, includes the following language: "Any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence shall be prohibited by law."

One recent and effective use of an international organization was the two-day meeting in Vienna devoted to anti-Semitism that was convened by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Importantly, there is agreement among the governments involved to gather again next year.

The topic of national and international law and covenants, touched on only briefly here, is unquestionably important. In the final analysis, it goes without saying, what really counts is not just the laws and mechanisms on the books, significant though they may be, but the degree of commitment to their implementation and enforcement.

Fourth, there is the media, which, as we all well know, plays an extraordinarily powerful role not only in shaping individual attitudes, but also in influencing the public policy agenda and priorities of decision-makers. As someone once suggested, "If CNN didn't report on it, did it ever actually happen?"

In parts of the Muslim world, of course, the media, whether in government or private hands, or the murky space in between, is a convenient vehicle for propagating anti-Semitism. Professor Robert Wistrich, an expert on anti-Semitism and the author of a superb monograph for the American Jewish Committee entitled Muslim Anti-Semitism: A Clear and Present Danger, offers several examples of the media's role in peddling unadulterated anti-Semitism.

In Europe over the past three years, there have also been numerous documented instances of anti-Semitic images and stereotypes seeping into mainstream, not fringe, outlets.

Among the most disturbing developments were during the period of the Church of the Nativity standoff, when some newspapers reawakened the deicide charge-finally put to bed by the Catholic Church, in 1965, at Vatican Council II-and, more generally, the transference of Nazi images onto Israel, with the Israeli prime minister equated with the Fuehrer, the Israeli military likened to the Wehrmacht or even the SS, and the West Bank represented as an Israeli-run concentration camp.

Such depictions go well beyond any conceivable legitimate criticism of Israel to something far deeper and more pernicious, and must not be left unchallenged.

Here in the United States, while there have been some distressing images, my principal concern has more to do with belated-and insufficient-reporting on anti-Semitism in the Arab world as well as its reemergence in Europe. The media must be helped to understand the significance and newsworthiness of these issues. It's certainly not a lost cause, but it is an uphill battle.

To be sure, there have been stories here and there and the occasional column or editorial. But they have been relatively few and far between. I was especially struck by the lack of media interest in the Wistrich study, which, incidentally, makes for hair-raising reading.

Released at a press conference at the National Press Club in May 2002, it generated only a few articles, all in the Jewish or Israeli press. A Reuters reporter covered the event and filed a long story, but, we later learned, her editors apparently didn't find the topic of sufficient interest. One wonders what it would take to capture their attention on the subject. And this is not the only such example, either.

The study of Saudi textbooks, cosponsored by the American Jewish Committee and released in January 2003, met essentially the same fate. The major media outlets never reported on what was the first detailed report documenting the hatred and contempt of the West that Saudi children are taught from Grade One. Is this not deemed relevant to a fuller understanding both of 9/11 and the larger war on international terrorism?

Fifth, there is the role of the "values" community, including religious, ethnic, racial, and human rights leaders and their institutions.

Ideally, each of these actors should regard an assault on any one constituency, e.g., an anti-Semitic or racist incident, as an attack on all-and on the kind of world we are seeking to create-and respond forcefully. In a way, without wishing to stretch the analogy, it would be akin to a NATO member seeking support from other members under Article 5, which deems an attack on one as an attack against all.

Alas, there is no charter binding the values community, although there is an important provision in the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel, signed in December 1993, which might provide a model. Article 2 includes the following language:

The Holy See and the State of Israel are committed to appropriate cooperation in combating all forms of anti-Semitism and all kinds of racism and of religious intolerance, and in promoting mutual understanding among nations, tolerance among communities and respect for human life and dignity.

Virtually identical language could be used to create a charter for nongovernmental organizations committed to advancing human relations and mutual respect. What's needed, in effect, is a Coalition of Conscience in the voluntary sector.

Meanwhile, there are best-practice examples that can help guide us.

Shockingly, a cinder block was thrown through a bedroom window displaying a Chanukah menorah in Billings, Montana, ten years ago. It was the room of a five-year-old boy. Fortunately, he wasn't hurt. What followed was quite remarkable.

Led by local church leaders, the police chief, and the editor of the Billings Gazette, the town, previously quite apathetic, responded by placing thousands of paper menorahs in the windows of shops and homes. It was an exceptional and effective way of reacting. It said to the hate mongers: We are one community and we will not allow you to divide us.

In the same spirit, responding to the wave of arson attacks targeting African-American churches in the south in the 1990s, the American Jewish Committee joined with the National Council of Churches and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a display of ecumenical partnership, to raise millions of dollars to rebuild the damaged houses of worship. Moreover, AJC adopted the Gay's Hill Baptist Church in Millen, Georgia, and helped construct it from the ground up after it was completely destroyed in an act of hate.

The concept of a Coalition of Conscience also explains why the American Jewish Committee sent a delegation to a mosque in Cologne, Germany, in 1993 to attend the funerals of the five women of Turkish origin killed in their home in Solingen, and why, more recently, we chose to mobilize our resources to assist Muslim victims of Serbia's ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

Every major religion has a variation of the golden rule. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once remarked, "We are commanded to love our neighbor: this must mean that we can." We can, but do we?

Words are important, but timely and principled actions are what really count. And those within each faith tradition committed to the values of compassion and concern for all must lead the way.

Sixth, there is the long-term and irreplaceable role of education. As the Southern Poverty Law Center put it:

Bias is learned in childhood. By the age of three, children are aware of racial differences and may have the perception that "white" is desirable. By the age of 12, they hold stereotypes about numerous ethnic, racial, and religious groups, according to the Leadership Conference Education Fund. Because stereotypes underlie hate, and half of all hate crimes are committed by young men under 20, tolerance education is critical.

About 10 percent of hate crimes occur in schools and colleges, but schools can be an ideal environment to counter bias. Schools mix youths of different backgrounds, place them on equal footing and allow one-on-one interaction. Children are naturally curious about people who are different.

There are a number of tested and successful school-based programs designed to teach mutual respect. Incidentally, I'm not a big fan of using the word "tolerance" in this particular case; it strikes me as rather weak. The goal should not be simply to teach people to "tolerate" one another, but, ideally, to respect and understand one another.

That said, organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Facing History, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Jewish Committee have all developed acclaimed programs used in schools across the U.S. and, increasingly, in other countries where diversity is a factor in the population, which these days is just about everywhere. And the State of New Jersey has led the way in creating a curriculum based on the lessons of the Holocaust for all high-school students.

The challenge in the United States, given its vast size and decentralized school system, is to reach enough schools, then to get a long-term commitment to inclusion of such programs in the curriculum. Moreover, there is a need, of course, for adequate teacher training and also for monitoring impact, both over the short term and the longer term as well.

In addition to such programs, the American Jewish Committee has developed another model for schools. Named the Catholic/Jewish Educational Enrichment Program, or C/JEEP, it links Catholic and Jewish parochial schools in several American cities. Priests and rabbis visit each other's schools to break down barriers and familiarize students with basic elements of the two faith traditions. Students who might otherwise never meet have an opportunity to come to know one another. The goal is to "demystify" and "humanize" the "other," and it works.

Again, as with the curriculum-based programs, the biggest challenge here is the sheer number of schools and the resources involved-not to mention the occasional bureaucratic hurdle-in order to reach anything approaching a critical mass of students.

(It remains to be seen what impact Mel Gibson's upcoming film, The Passion, will have on Catholic attitudes toward Jews, but, given current reports, it is hardly likely to be positive.)

One more word on education. When schools in Saudi Arabia or madrassas in Pakistan teach contempt, distrust, or hatred of others, be they Christians, Jews, or Hindus, or, for that matter women, we face a whole other challenge.

Shining the spotlight of exposure on these school systems is vital, which is why the American Jewish Committee cosponsored the Saudi study. Sharing the information with governments that have influence in these countries is necessary. For instance, Saudi spin doctors talk of the "enduring values" between their country and the United States. Surely, then, that gives Washington some leverage in Riyadh. And from our long experience in dealing with problematic curricula and textbooks, perseverance is the key. Things seldom happen overnight.

Seventh, there is the role of the individual. In a more perfect world, the combination of family environment, education, religious upbringing, and popular culture all lead in the same direction-to molding individuals with a strong commitment to the values of mutual respect and mutual understanding, social responsibility, and moral courage.

Our world is far from perfect. We may never succeed in completely eliminating anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred. Still, we must always strive to build the kinds of societies in which the altruistic personalities of the good women and men of Denmark, or the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon (described as "the safest place in [Nazi-occupied] Europe for Jews"), or the likes of an Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jan Karski, Raoul Wallenberg, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Andrei Sakharov, are increasingly the norm, not the exception.

As I look around today, I see countless decent people, whether in the United States or elsewhere, who reject any form of anti-Semitism. But, frankly, there are too few prominent non-Jews of the likes of a Per Ahlmark, the former deputy prime minister of Sweden, prepared to speak out on the danger posed by contemporary anti-Semitism.

And finally, in the struggle against anti-Semitism, new or old, we must take into account the key role of the Jewish world, including the State of Israel and local, national, and international Jewish organizations.

The Jewish community looks radically different than it did, say, sixty or seventy years ago. Today, there is an Israel; then, there was not. Today, there are sophisticated, savvy, and well-connected Jewish institutions; then, Jewish institutions were much less confident and sure-footed.

Collectively, we have the capacity to track trends in anti-Semitism, exchange information on a timely basis with other interested parties, reach centers of power, build alliances within and across borders, and consider the best mix of diplomatic, political, legal, and other strategies for countering troubling developments.

We may not succeed in each and every case. But we've come a very long way thanks to a steely determination, in Israel and the Diaspora, to fight vigorously against anti-Semitism, while simultaneously helping to build a world in which anti-Semitism-and everything it stands for-is in irreversible decline.

Note: This is #32 in a series of occasional letters on topics of current interest.


Date: 7/31/2003
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