July 15, 2019
In one of the most substantial and far-reaching discussions on antisemitism ever convened by the U.S. government, AJC Chief Policy and Political Affairs Officer Jason Isaacson on Monday joined scholars, senior officials, and policymakers at the Department of Justice to sound the alarm about the rise of anti-Jewish hatred.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr condemned antisemitism in all its forms in opening the daylong summit, which included remarks by FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and Elan Carr, the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism.
“Like a physical body, a body politic must have an immune system that resists antisemitism and other forms of hatred,” Barr said. “My concern today is that under the banner of identity politics, some political factions are seeking to obtain power by dividing Americans… This is the breeding ground for hatred, and we must reject it.”
AJC’s Isaacson assured the audience that the level of antisemitism in today’s world has not reached pre-World War II proportions. Still, the dangers should not be ignored. Amplified by social media and couched as criticism of Israel, the latest rise in antisemitism around the globe comes from three sources – the far right, the hard left, and extremist ideologies propagated in the name of Islam, he said.
“Cloaked in the anonymity that the internet provides, people who once did not dare to share their abhorrent views in polite society have formed far-flung communities, targeting Jews and other minorities for bigoted derision, and egging on the violent and disturbed,” Isaacson said.
“Here at home, after the events of the last year, from Pittsburgh, to Poway, to rhetoric from some elected leaders—no, it is not 1939, but it’s 2019, and that is cause enough for concern,” he added.
Isaacson said there are several reasons why today’s challenges, though real, are materially different from the historic tragedy faced by European Jewry during the Holocaust. One obvious difference is the existence of Israel.
But it’s under the guise of criticizing Israel that the newest expressions of antisemitism have emerged, conference participants said. Masked in the language of human rights, activists call themselves anti-Zionists, but rather than present legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies, they question the very existence of the Jewish state.
Carr said the new forms of antisemitism aren’t that much different from the old. BDS resembles the strategy of economic suffocation used to destroy Jewish life in Germany. And the anti-Israel disguise, he said, is no different than the Nazis’ excuse for Kristallnacht, the November 1938 night in Germany when thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses were attacked and thousands of Jews terrorized and taken to concentration camps. The German authorities blamed the riots on the recent assassination of a German diplomat.
“Just because the Nazis claim that Kristallnacht was a response to something a Jew did doesn’t mean we’re so gullible as to believe it. We understand that Kristallnacht wasn’t a response to anything but rather furthered the overarching strategy of the Nazis to destroy the Jewish people,” said Carr. “Just because those who hate Israel claim that the antisemitic response is based on something Israel does doesn’t mean we’re so gullible to believe it. We understand their actions are part of their overall strategy of destroying the Jewish state.”
Like any other country or democracy, Israel does not deserve any special protection from criticism for the policy decisions that its government makes, Isaacson noted. “Yet when friends of Israel in this country have their loyalty as Americans questioned, when impossible standards are applied to Israel that are not applied to any other country, or when cartoons that would not have looked out of place in Der Stürmer, imputing sinister power to the Israeli prime minister, appear in The New York Times, then something more nefarious than simple criticism has taken place,” he said.
FBI Director Wray said authorities are working to get ahead of domestic terrorism by focusing on “what we haven’t yet imagined.” That involves monitoring communications and communities to make sure antisemitic violence is thwarted.
“Words can turn to violence,” he said. “Hate can quickly become hate crime.”
Isaacson and others presented strategies for combating antisemitism while protecting the rights to free speech and academic freedom.
“It is no longer sufficient to simply say that America is different from Europe,” he said. “In the global struggle against antisemitism and hate, we need to spend more time talking with other nations about finding common ground to our approaches. These conversations will not be easy, but the defense of democracy demands no less.”
“I do not suggest that we change our own conceptions or trample on the First Amendment,” Isaacson added. “Indeed, AJC and I would argue against many European ideas. Yet a global struggle requires a global strategy and these conceptions cannot be ignored.”
He said good speech is the best antidote for bad speech. Rather than stay silent when our colleagues or opponents express antisemitism, it’s best to address it. “What we say matters often more than how we legislate,” Isaacson concluded.