São Paulo, Brazil
This piece originally appeared in Portuguese in Folha São Paulo, the largest-circulation paper and media website in Brazil.
American Jewish Committee (AJC) CEO David Harris Interview
Has there been an increase in antisemitism after the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas?
The short answer is yes. We saw the increase in antisemitism very much on display here in the United States, not to mention elsewhere. Every time that Israel is required to defend itself against terrorist attacks, there are those who challenge its very right to do so, seek to vilify the country, distort reality, turn facts on their head, and invoke antisemitic language and imagery.
How do you evaluate the way President Joe Biden acted to mediate the recent Israel-Hamas conflict?
U.S. President Joe Biden made clear America’s strong support for Israel and the absolute need for Israel to protect its citizens against the thousands of rockets fired indiscriminately from Hamas-controlled Gaza. This reflects Biden’s longstanding, decades-long friendship with Israel, as well as his deep understanding of the strategic threats faced by Israel in a tumultuous region.
Do you see ways to solve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?
Absolutely. The solution was understood as early as 1947, including by such distinguished statesmen as Brazil’s Osvaldo Aranha, who, at the time, served as President of the United Nations General Assembly. The answer then, and the answer today, is the creation of two states for two peoples. One state, Israel, has thankfully existed since 1948. The other state, a Palestinian state, could have been established at the same time or, for that matter, on several other occasions since then. Tragically, however, every such opportunity has been rebuffed by the Palestinian leadership. With a spirit of good will and compromise, this outcome is still attainable.
How do you see the Biden administration's actions and plans regarding Jews and Israel?
With respect to the Jewish people, there is a long track record of close ties with the President. In fact, through marriage, there are several Jews in his own family today. He has a profound grasp of Jewish history, an understanding of the Holocaust, and an awareness of the danger of resurgent antisemitism now. Similarly, he has an intimate knowledge of Israel, going back to the 1970s and the leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. He’s known every Israeli leader since, and also has a broader grasp of the region, including both the opportunities, such as the Abraham Accords, and the threats, especially from extremist state and non-state actors.
What are the main challenges faced by Jews in the U.S. today?
Overwhelmingly, our main challenge is the surprising surge in antisemitism, which comes from multiple sources, both right and left, and has included violence and intimidation. While the United States historically has never been free of antisemitism, by contrast with Europe, the level was always relatively low. Thus, these new manifestations have taken many Jews by surprise and begun to raise questions about what the future might look like.
During the pandemic, some compared the restriction measures and mandatory vaccinations with the Holocaust and the way Jews were treated by the Nazis. Why have these associations become so common?
The attempted comparison between the Holocaust and pandemic-related restrictions, frankly speaking, is nothing short of outrageous. It betrays a total lack of understanding of what the Holocaust was and what the victims endured. How can there be any comparison between Jewish men, women, and children, forced to wear an identifying yellow badge, rounded up by the millions, deported to unimaginably brutal concentration camps, and murdered in gas chambers, with those today who have been asked to stay at home for the sake of their own health and who have been encouraged to receive potentially lifesaving vaccines. Whatever inconveniences all of us may have experienced since 2020 are nothing remotely compared to what happened during World War II.
What could national governments and the international community do to curb antisemitism?
Governments have a central role, I have always believed, to combat antisemitism. They must make crystal clear a policy of zero tolerance and a willingness, when necessary, to take decisive action. Anything less, whether it be hesitation, ambiguity, or weakness, can only serve to empower the antisemites, not their intended targets. And it’s not just about official statements or press releases, but also about mobilizing the educational authorities, law enforcement, the judiciary, and, importantly, civil society to react swiftly and clearly. One tangible action is the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism, and it is our hope that Brazil will follow Argentina, Guatemala, and Uruguay in adopting it. In broader terms, an attack on a Jew, or a synagogue, or a Jewish cemetery, should be seen as an attack on the nation as a whole and a violation of a nation’s spirit, ethos, and commitment to protect all of its citizens, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro stands as a defender of Israel, seeking to attract evangelical support. How do you see this type of electoral use of Israel's image?
As a lifelong friend of Israel, I appreciate other friends, including Brazil today. At the same time, it would be inappropriate for me to comment from afar on the domestic political situation in a country that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several times, however in which I don’t live or necessarily understand its many realities and complexities.
In a recent conversation with the São Paulo Jewish Congregation, you mentioned that both the far right and the far left pose a threat to Jews. Could you elaborate on this?
In both cases, there is a long, painful history. In a way, it’s captured in my own family. My late mother was born in a communist country, the Soviet Union. Together with her parents and brother, she fled because of the combination of political tyranny and targeted antisemitism. The Kremlin needed a scapegoat and, not for the first time in history, the Jews were chosen to fill that role at such great cost in human lives. My family moved to France where, 11 years later, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied the nation. The Jews were among the very first targets, seen as “sub-human” or “vermin.” By dehumanizing the Jews, it made it far easier for the Nazis to enlist support to commit genocide against an entire people. Today, the far right again evokes the image of the Jews as the “other” or, even more graphically, as a kind of human virus that needs to be extinguished. Meanwhile, the far left has focused most of its hatred against the only Jewish-majority nation on earth, Israel, and mobilizes an entire global industry in an effort to eradicate the Jewish state and its nine million citizens. This is why, at American Jewish Committee, we have always urged those who wish to fight antisemitism to be swivel-headed, meaning to understand that the risks to Jews can and do come from many directions. In French, there’s a relevant expression, “Les extrêmes se touchent,” which means “The extremes abut one another.” In other words, when it comes to antisemitism, the far right and the far left have more in common than they themselves might wish to acknowledge.