December 4, 2023
Following Hamas’ October 7 massacre of Israelis, Jews around the world have experienced a surge of antisemitism. We checked in with some of AJC’s global experts to learn what they’ve been seeing and hearing on the ground and to understand what efforts are underway to protect Jews and counter this hate. In the first of two installments, we hear from AJC Europe Managing Director Simone Rodan Benzaquen, AJC Africa Director Wayne Sussman, and Dina Siegel Vann, Director of AJC’s Belfer Institute on Latin American Affairs.
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*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC.
- (0:40) Simone Rodan Benzaquen
- (7:09) Wayne Sussman
- (14:54) Dina Siegel Vann
Listen – People of the Pod on the Israel-Hamas War:
- Global Antisemitism Report Part 2: The Impact of the Hamas-Israel War in Germany, Asia, and the Arab Gulf
- What Happens Next: AJC’s Avital Leibovich on the Hostage Deal and Challenges Ahead
- What Would You Do If Your Son Was Kidnapped by Hamas?
- The Good, the Bad, and the Death Threats: What It’s Like to Be a Jewish College Student Right Now
- Mai Gutman Was Supposed to Be at the Music Festival: IDF Lone Soldier Recounts Harrowing Week
- Responding to Hamas Terror: IsraAID CEO on How You Can Help Israelis Right Now
- Debunking the False Equivalency Between Israeli Hostages and Palestinian Prisoners
- How much do you know about Hamas? Try to ace our quiz and expose the truth about the terror group today.
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Transcript of Interview with Simone Rodan Benzaquen, Wayne Sussman, and Dina Siegel Vann:
Manya Brachear Pashman: American Jewish Committee has 14 international offices around the world. For today’s episode, we checked in with some of those offices to learn what they're seeing and hearing on the ground since the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel. Today, we take you to Europe, Africa and Latin America. We start in Paris, where years of work to combat rising antisemitism has seen a serious setback.
For more than two decades, since the Second Intifada, antisemitism has been on the rise on the European continent. In fact, it was that ripple effect that prompted AJC to ramp up its advocacy there. AJC Managing Director of Europe Simone Rodan Benzaquen joined us from Paris.
Simone Rodan Benzaquen: What we have seen, I think, in Europe is more or less what we've seen, everywhere, what can only be described as an explosion of antisemitism across the European continent, I would say, mostly in Western Europe, here in France in particular, but also in the United Kingdom, we have seen the same. In Germany, we have seen similar things going on in Sweden and Denmark. But of course, here in France, where antisemitism has existed for at least two decades, or at least this contemporary form of antisemitism, for the past two decades with high numbers of antisemitic hate crimes. The situation is very, very serious. We've had basically three times the number of antisemitic hate crimes, since October 7 of what we had during the entire year, last year.
We have desecration of cemeteries, we have antisemitic tags. We have intimidation, we have spitting on people. It is as if the sheer horror, the violence that happened on October 7, unleashed an antisemitic passion, an antisemitic violence across the world. As if the horrible images that were filmed by the Hamas terrorists on October 7 sort of was a legitimization.
Manya Brachear Pashman: So what does that mean for the Jewish community and daily life?
Simone Rodan Benzaquen: We’ve reached a point where people are hiding every single aspect of their Jewish identity. People are changing their names on their delivery apps, people are changing their names on their doorbells, if they believe that they sound Jewish. People are hiding every single aspect of their Jewish identity. On Uber apps, on taxi apps, myself, you know, I go on TV and do interviews quite a bit and so I give a different name to the taxi, and I give a different address a few blocks down the street is to be sure that you know, just in case, the taxi driver doesn't know where I actually live. So everybody takes precautions. It’s gotten to a point where we just don't live the same life as everybody else.
Manya Brachear Pashman: Has the work you’ve done over the past two decades made a difference? For example, since the Second Intifada, there have been a number of conflicts between Israel and terrorist groups in Gaza. Do you see progress?
Simone Rodan Benzaquen: We in Europe have felt like we've been doing a little bit of the work of Sisyphus over the past two decades, where we have moments of hope and things are getting better. And we say to ourselves, oh, maybe this is a wakeup call. And sort of, then we go back to, you know, before. And I hope that this this time around, given the level of violence, given the level of antisemitic hate crimes, given the number of sheer antisemitic attacks.
When you actually take it down, you come to on average about 40 antisemitic acts a day. I mean, that's huge for a population that represents far less than 1% of the entire French population. I hope this will serve as a wakeup call. But there is the question of what does it mean, how do you translate it politically? How do you translate it into government action? I mean, Europe has come up with different plans, action plans against antisemitism, but it's not enough and more needs to be done.
I think one of the things that we as Jewish communities were very wary about was the fact that over the past sort of two decades, there was sort of a lack of how can I say, solidarity from other French people. Again, we've had antisemitic hate crimes for the last 20 years, people have been murdered. But every single time, when you look at the demonstrations, at the marches after something horrible happened, you would mostly have a few hundred, or maybe a few thousand Jews in the streets.
And so there was sort of a feeling that within the French Jewish community that they were a little bit abandoned by the rest of society. And so we know from our surveys, AJC does a survey every two years where we know that, for example, French people, and Germans as well, are convinced about the fact that antisemitism is not the problem of Jews alone, but that of the entire society.
So both in Germany and in France, 73% of the population say that it is not the problem of Jews alone. But despite that number, it has never sort of translated into something concrete. So we would never have marches. We would never have like sort of big shows of solidarity with the Jewish community. And I think, since, if there's one good news, and there's not a lot of good news these days, if there's one good news is that last Sunday there were massive demonstrations across France, against antisemitism with basically the entire political class were present, with 20 government ministers who were present, with a prime minister who was present, with three former prime ministers who were present, two former presidents, plus a lot of people on the streets. We had over 180,000 people in the streets of France, basically expressing solidarity with the Jewish community and saying that they want to fight against antisemitism. So I think that was a sort of a very important sign of hope for many French Jews.
Manya Brachear Pashman: Now we go to the continent of Africa, where AJC Africa Director Wayne Sussman joins us from the South African city of Johannesburg to explain how the war that began on October 7 affects Israel’s relations with African countries.
Wayne Sussman: I would say the tensest of the relationships right now is between Israel and South Africa. The Ambassador of Israel to South Africa received a démarche.
So when the first two countries to recall their ambassadors were South Africa and Chad. When it comes to Chad, that was more unexpected than South Africa. Because relations were recently increasing between Chad and Israel. Sadly–and one's got to remember that the largest Jewish community in Africa by a country mile is in South Africa. But sadly, the government of South Africa has had a very adversarial relationship with the State of Israel over the last few years. And this has manifested in the last few weeks.
Manya Brachear Pashman: Because of this antagonistic relationship with Israel, has the South African Jewish community faced quite a bit of antisemitism?
Wayne Sussman: Even though the current government of South Africa has had an adversarial relationship with the State of Israel, levels of antisemitism are extremely low–far lower than Europe, far lower than Latin America, far lower than the United States of America, far lower than Canada, far lower than Australia.
So we are working off a very low base here in South Africa. But over the last few weeks, antisemitic incidents have increased. For the time being, levels of violent incidents have been low. A turning point was on Sunday afternoon in Cape Town on the Sea Point Promenade, just to zone in on Sea Point, where the majority of Jews in Cape Town live. And the promenade is a beautiful public space, which all residents of the city use.
And what we saw the day before was a pro-Palestinian demonstration through the streets of the City of Cape Town. It was a largely peaceful protest. There were pockets of the protests, which had hateful slogans and made concerning threats against the main Jewish Day School in Cape Town.
And then the next day, a group of Christians at the Sea Point Promenade, which I referred to earlier, which is in the Jewish neighborhood of Sea Point, were going to have a prayer vigil for the State of Israel. They had a stage set up, microphones, etc. And a group of 200 to 300 pro-Palestinian, pro-Hamas supporters sympathizers came and disrupted it. And the police had to get involved and use water cannons. It's very rare for us to see sights like this in South Africa, particularly in Sea Point.
Manya Brachear Pashman: So what I’m hearing you say is the antagonism toward Israel doesn’t normally translate into antagonism that targets the Jewish community there?
Wayne Sussman: One of the worrying sides we see is our threats against, first of all, multinational corporations. I think these threats will not be impactful. But what is more concerning are privately owned Jewish businesses. And we have seen specific targets in this regard. Because of the CEOs of these businesses purporting to support and stand with Israel. But I think we need to see how successful these are going to be.
But I think the community is incredibly united right now. They are standing strong. And it's vital because this is a very important Jewish community in South Africa. A rich history, this community has made a remarkable contribution to the fight against apartheid, to building this economy, to creating jobs in the field of medicine and law, to arts and culture, and even some in sport.
Manya Brachear Pashman: There was a United Nations resolution calling for a truce. I believe 35 African states voted in favor of that resolution but Cameroon and Ethiopia abstained. Can you shed a little light on where other African countries stand?
Wayne Sussman: I would say the overwhelming amount of countries have adopted a neutral position that might change when we come to the United Nations and a multinational forum on the African continent like the African Union. But countries like Kenya, who under the new president have stood firmly and strongly with Israel. Countries, like Zambia have shown a lot of empathy towards Israel. That's a version relationship. And then we look at countries in the west of Africa, Togo and Cameroon. They've historically had very strong ties with Israel, those ties remain. And then you have countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, those countries have stood firmly with Israel at this time.
An interesting development. And again, this is a very fluid situation. But Indian Ocean islands like Mauritius, and Seychelles, where I was, I've been surprised at their even-handedness on this particular situation.
Ethiopia is a fascinating country. It’s a country which for many years had remarkable levels of economic growth, a very young population, one of the largest populations in Africa, also the center of the African Union, and also the hub of African air travel. And, of course, a country where many of Israel’s citizens hail from and still maintain deep personal ties to. So I think that Ethiopia abstaining was very, very interesting in that regard. And that ties will be stronger between the two countries after this.
Manya Brachear Pashman: I should note that Sudan and Morocco, two signatories of the Abraham Accords, did vote in favor of a truce. Do you see those ties weakened by all of this?
Wayne Sussman: I think universally, it's going to be a challenging time for Israel. But I think once the dust settles, that you will see countries like Morocco return to embracing normalization. You'll see countries like Zambia, who are not part of the Abraham Accords, but are deepening ties, I think they will continue to do that. So I think the next few days and weeks will be very difficult. But again, back to what I was saying earlier, from a bilateral level, I think African countries are pragmatic.
Those which were considering the Abraham Accords will see the benefit with regards to Israel, agritech Israel in fintech, Israel in rural health care, Israel in rural development. I think countries have seen a great benefit in deepening those ties. So it is going to be tested, certainly in places like the United Nations, certainly in forums like the African Union.
What's very interesting, there was an interview in a Saudi Arabian newspaper recently with the president of Somalia. And he was very bullish, saying that if Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a two-state solution, that it would be right for Somalia to engage in peaceful relations with Israel.
So even though we're in a very difficult and dark time, and it's unclear what's going to happen, we’re seeing signs from Somalia, which is obviously in Africa, and also signs in Saudi Arabia, that even once the dust settles over here, that diplomatic doors will still remain open.
Manya Brachear Pashman: In July 1994, terrorists bombed the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injuring more than 300 others. From that point on, the Argentine capital became known as the site of the worst and most fatal antisemitic attack since the Holocaust. That distinction changed on October 7 when terrorists breached the border between Israel and Gaza and murdered more than 1,200 people. As the Director of AJC’s Belfer Institute for Latin American Affairs Dina Siegel Vann explains, it has not been an easy time for Jews on the South American continent or other Spanish-speaking regions.
Dina Siegel Vann: Some of the countries that have really concerned us the most, are countries like Colombia, which in the past used to be the most steadfast ally of the United States and of Israel. But since the arrival of President Petro, who is a leftist ideologue, I would say, this has changed. And since October 7, we have seen really the country go in a totally different direction, which is really endangering the relationship not only with Israel, but with the United States.
Colombia, President Petro has tweeted on October 8, he was already tweeting, where he was comparing Gaza to Auschwitz, where he was talking about international bankers, and he was talking about, the media, international media being on the side of those who commit genocide.
So, you know, that has already made for a very rarefied environment, in terms of relations, as I said, both with the United States and what Israel. He also threatened through his foreign minister, the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador who was responding to his attacks, and now he has recalled his ambassador to Israel.
Manya Brachear Pashman: Chile also has been unfriendly, but that’s been the case for a while. It is home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Middle East, and leaders of that community have expressed support for Hamas. But AJC will hold its annual strategic forum for Latin American and Iberian leaders in Santiago this month. Can you give us the lay of the land there?
Dina Siegel Vann: So what has happened since is that President Boric, who, you know, who identifies with those positions of the Palestinian community has also had very hostile attitudes towards Israel. Number one, you know, he has not met with the Jewish community, he has not expressed his condolences, he hasn't expressed his condolences to Israel, and to the families of the victims. And he has also spoken, you know, mostly about what is going on in Gaza, and has characterized Israel's efforts to defend itself as genocidal as crimes against humanity, etc.
And that also has created a very very vulnerable sense in the Jewish community in Chile that feels, you know, totally alone when it comes to this development. So I would say that Chile and Colombia have been the most egregious cases. Particularly because we're not talking about insignificant countries in the region, we're talking about Colombia, which is the third largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel and Egypt. And we're talking about a country like Chile, who has always been or considers itself a paragon of human rights, not only in the region, but around the world. So their voices count, and that's why, you know, it concerns us a great deal.
Manya Brachear Pashman: As I mentioned at the beginning of this conversation, until October 7, the worst antisemitic attack since the Holocaust had taken place in Argentina in 1994, carried out by Iran’s terror proxy, Hezbollah. And just recently, Brazilian police detained a couple of Hezbollah operatives who were in the country with plans to attack Brazilian Jewish institutions, correct?
Dina Siegel Vann: It underscores the really, really dangerous role that Iran plays in the region. And we know firsthand about it, because of course, the attacks in 1992 and 1994. But we know about it also, because of the tri-border area, where we know that Hezbollah and Hamas are very active, undertaking all kinds of money laundering activities.
It's very important that we keep a focus on that. I think the U.S. is very, very keen on following very closely what's going on in that area, and in other areas in other areas of the region, including Venezuela, which has been the gateway to Iran in the region. Iran is very well positioned in that country and has ties to President Maduro. Started with President Chavez and it has continued with President Maduro.
So we need to keep in focus, when we talk about, you know, potentially dangerous scenarios, not only from lead for Latin America, but for the United States for the whole hemisphere., this, you know, Iran is quite active. And is really, you know, thinking about how to create mischief, you know, whether in Brazil or elsewhere.We don't remember that, you know, that we have really a dangerous situation very close in our own neighborhood.
Manya Brachear Pashman: You have told me that 30% of the hostages hail from Latin America: Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, 15 from Argentina.
Dina Siegel Vann: Yes. Well, I have to say that Argentina, for example, President Fernandez published in the New York Times a half a page with a letter an open letter demanding that the hostages be brought home and talking about their own hostages their own citizens. So yeah, absolutely. I mean, the hostages are traveling, there's some hostages from Latin American families that are traveling all around the region, meeting with members of Congress meeting with government officials and others and the media to raise more awareness about the issue and pressure the governments, their own governments to to speak up, you know, on on on, on behalf on to bring that these hostages home.
Manya Brachear Pashman:
Since recording this episode, many of those hostages with Latin American citizenship have been able to return home. Of course, there are still so many hostages– nearly 160. To push for their safe return, listeners can head to AJC.org/BringThemHome or follow the link in our show notes.
Dina, take us back to Europe–tell us about the situation in Spain.
Dina Siegel Vann: Spain has been a mixed bag, because you have President Sanchez and Foreign Minister Alvarez has come out from the very beginning with very strong signs of support towards Israel, recognizing Hamas as a terrorist organization recognizes Israel's right to defend itself. But they they were in the process of creating a government and they need some of the more radical parties, independent parties, and, you know, some other parties like Sumar, who are very anti-Israel, they needed them to form coalition's and this parties were speaking, you know, in very vile terms regarding Israel, and really indulging on some antisemitic themes, and President Sanchez, didn't come out publicly as well as, you know, Foreign Minister Robotis to denounce them. But at the same time, they made clear that everybody understood that in foreign policy, what counts is the voice of the President and the voice of the foreign minister.
They met with the Jewish community, they expressed their their their solidarity, they express their concern about antisemitism, they met with the families of the kidnapped. So they have really tried to, you know, to keep a very balanced and very difficult position, vis a vis, their current situation. They formed a government yesterday, the government was finally formed. And maybe at this point, they will be more, they'll have more leeway to come out to protest this type of discourse.
But at the same time, you know, in Spain, you have seen some vandalism, you have seen some intimidation in schools against Jews and Israelis. So as I said, it's a mixed bag. And we are still monitoring this very carefully. Spain wants to be a leader, wants to be a convener when it comes to negotiating some sort of peace deal, they did it in the Madrid Conference a while back, they see their role, once again, as you know, as as a liaison, as a bridge between both worlds and therefore, you know, they always try to keep a very careful stance when it comes to both communities.