Kenneth Jacobson joined the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) staff in 1972 as a member of the agency’s Research and Evaluation Department.
He graduated to become Director of Middle Eastern Affairs in 1979, and became Assistant National Director in 1994. His, is an important voice on the growth of antisemitism and anti-Zionism in both the United States and Europe.
“Global antisemitism today is a major challenge for a variety of reasons.
Whether it is the worst since WWII is subject to different readings.
For example, during the years of the cold war, the Soviet Union was the major purveyor of antisemitism in the world, including pushing through the infamous Zionism is racism UN resolution of 1975.”
Jacobson highlighted, however, that despite the fact there was no European government preaching or espousing antisemitism, the problem has not dissipated; far from it.
“What has changed and made antisemitism a greater challenge in other ways are several factors that didn’t exist earlier: The loss of shame about antisemitism; a perfect storm of social, political and economic anxiety; the rise of populism; and the emergence of the Internet. All have combined to make antisemitism a global problem.”
Jacobson is clear that this phenomenon (the loss of shame) “stems from two factors.” The first he says is that we are now decades removed from the Holocaust and that shame over Auschwitz which inhibited antisemitism is far weaker. He considers the second factor to be “daily bombardment against the good name of the State of Israel,” which has made antisemitism seem acceptable and less shameful. He added that traditional tropes of blaming Jews for a number of issues is back in fashion and these include, financial crises, immigration issues and identity conflict.
“Together with this is the rise of populism, which these days focuses on Muslims more than Jews, but is part of the climate in which antisemitism flourishes. [And] Finally, there is the phenomenon of the Internet which provides a unique platform for the haters to disseminate their messages, recruit new people, and generally encourage bias and intolerance.
The ADL also attempts to battle apathy and the perception that antisemitism is no longer a problem, belonging to a different age. Jacobson is proud of the progress that has been made, but sounded a not of caution that recent political history shows us nothing can be taken for granted.
“For younger people who are far removed from the Holocaust, it is important to educate and invigorate them with an understanding so that the dangers antisemitism can be fully understood. We do this on many levels – in the public schools, through the training of Catholic school teachers, and through other institutions in society such as the FBI and CIA.”
He reiterated that Holocaust denial, particularly after the last remaining Survivors are gone, will continue to be a major focus of the ADL.
When asked whether European leaders were doing enough, Jacobson responds that their performance has improved since the outbreak of widespread antisemitism at the beginning of the century. He adds that they have acknowledged the problem and organized conferences and programs to address the issue.
“Still, there is much to be done: Better use of bully pulpits; better data on antisemitism hate crimes; better education on the Holocaust; better ways of dealing with the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
He is particularly impressed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and former French Prime Minister, Emanuel Valls, and considers them models in standing up to antisemitism.
He says that it was notable that Merkel has repeatedly made clear in public statements and addresses that there is no place, especially in Germany, for antisemitism, as well as speaking at a rally against antisemitism during the last Gaza war.
“Valls gave a remarkable speech to the French National Assembly several years ago accusing the nation of not taking the resurgence of antisemitism seriously enough in a country whose record during the Holocaust was problematic,” he notes.
With regard to the prevalence of Internet antisemitism and physical attacks or threats to Jewish institutions and individuals, Jacobson is clear that both could be equally traumatic, and could affect the Jewish community as a whole. He emphasizes that combating and educating about hate crimes is an ADL priority.
“The Internet, as noted, is the new vehicle for old hate but it gives it a potency, a network, an immediacy that didn’t always exist. That is why we take the challenge of Internet hate as a major priority for ADL going forward,” he says. “At the same time,” he adds “what goes in the real world as opposed to the virtual, remains at the forefront of our concerns.”
Jacobson argues that Jews have traditionally felt very secure in America and the ADL wants to make sure it stays that way, principally through combating and educating the American people on the danger of antisemitism and hatred in general while also making sure that Jewish institutions are secure. In addition, it is important not to overstate the problem because the ADL wants American Jews to continue to lead the very normal lives they have led for years.
One of the ADL’s major challenges is tackling the increasing frequency of intersectionality – the belief that oppressive institutions such as racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia are intrinsically linked and cannot be separated from one another – particularly through the BDS movement on college campuses. This includes educating minority students about the fact that Israel has far more in common with minority interests than does the Arab world, as well analogies of racism to the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are false and counterproductive.
“We have a twofold approach. We reject and condemn bigoted statements against Israel such as we saw in the movement for Black Lives Matter platform, which offensively accused Israel of genocide against the Palestinians, and in the recent Women’s march in which Israel was denounced as ‘colonialist.’” Jacobson emphasizes that legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies does not axiomatically constitute antisemitism, and that the challenge is to identify when it crosses the line.
This includes clear transgressions, such as making statements calling Israel Nazis or referring to Israeli treatment of Palestinians as the latest murder of Christ. He adds that it was most significant when the Jewish people is denied the right to a homeland, such as done by the founder of the BDS movement.
“Where it gets stickier is when individuals or groups discriminate or are clearly biased against Israel without denying Israel the fundamental right to exist and without using openly antisemitic language. In other words, when it is more nuanced.
The best way to deal with that is not to accuse all those of antisemitism but to suggest that whether or not they are motivated by antisemitism, their distorted view of the Jewish state makes antisemitism much more likely and inevitable.”
He also has a clear message for this year’s March of the Living participants, in which he hopes that the experience will help them understand the two great lessons of the Holocaust: The moral lesson of the need to combat antisemitism and all forms of hatred early on.
Jacobson adds that one of the plainest lessons from the Holocaust is that Jews can never allow themselves to be powerless. The great tragedy was that Jews had no place to go, no army to call on and no political allies, being wrapped in the perfect storm of a party acceding to power that was committed to their destruction – which jeopardized the lives not only of 600,000 German Jews, but the millions through the continent.
“If March of the Living participants can walk away with these two values inculcated, it would be a great and lasting accomplishment.”