(photo credit: REUTERS)
lmost 800 people will be participating in the Global Forum on anti-Semitism which opens this evening in Jerusalem. Sponsored by the Prime Minister’s Office, this is by far the largest such gathering which has taken place in recent years. There is almost no Jewish community or institution which will not have a representative at the event. The government, along with some private Jewish sponsors has poured substantial resources into making the conference happen as the concern with growing anti-Semitism around the world has been pushed to the top of the global Jewish agenda.
Today’s anti-Semitism is more complex than that of 30 years ago. In the past it was fairly easy to identify most of the world’s anti-Semitic groups as right-wing, racist organizations with quasi-fascist and anti-immigrant beliefs. Anti-Semitism was characterized by racial slurs, attacks on Jews making their way to and from synagogue and the desecration of graveyards. But in the decades immediately following the Holocaust, the protection afforded to Jewish communities by Western governments and police forces on the one hand, and on the other the escape hatch to Israel for those who desired to leave behind any form of discrimination, caused the problem to diminish significantly.
It never went away altogether, but there was an obvious global guilt at what had been perpetrated upon the Jews during World War II, coupled with a greater international awareness of human rights and the dignity of the individual, regardless of his or her ethnic or religious affiliations.
The past two decades have seen a growth of renewed anti-Semitic activity among groups which previously had not, at least openly, been involved in anti-Jewish polemic. This includes two contrasting groups – parts of the intellectual Left who often fail to differentiate between criticism of Israel and criticism of Jews, and some Islamic groups, whose hatred and delegitimization of Israel has directly resulted in attacks on Jewish organizations, synagogues and students on university campuses.
But this does not mean that all criticism of Israel can be immediately understood as raw anti-Semitism in its broadest sense. There is no doubt that the borders between criticism of Israel and criticism of Jews have become harder to delineate, as the two merge into each other. Many groups critical of Israel have, by not enabling a proper debate to take place about Israel’s policies, opened the back door for the world’s anti-Semites to walk in, despite their arguments to the contrary that they themselves are not anti-Semitic and that they stand up for the rights of all minorities. They only have themselves to blame if they have not done enough to ensure a balanced debate about Israel and its automatic association with Jews everywhere.
THERE IS nothing like the cry of anti-Semitism to bring so many community machers together. For many, It has always been easier to identify with each other through the lowest common denominator, namely threat and persecution, than it has been to bring such a diverse and large group of Jews together around positive values of culture and education.
The last time there was such a collective Jewish effort focused on a single cause was the struggle for Soviet Jewry during the 1970s and 1980s. This was a cause ostensibly led by the Diaspora communities, especially in Europe, although Israel and the Jewish Agency were very active behind the scenes. But they did not want the struggle to be seen as an Israeli campaign, as that would be (and in some cases was) interpreted by the Soviets as being akin to espionage on the part of the refuseniks, enabling the authorities to take even stronger measures than they already were.
The struggle on behalf of Soviet Jewry became a global Jewish industry, much in the same way that the contemporary fight against anti-Semitism has become a “must” for anyone, especially community leaders, who desires to prove their worth and loyalty. But the Soviet Jewry campaign was not manipulated in the same way that the present anti-Semitism campaign is used, on some occasions, to blur the lines between legitimate criticism of Israel by many groups who do not see themselves as being anti-Jewish, and outright anti-Semitism. The use of the anti-Semitism argument has become a sort of knee-jerk reaction whenever any criticism of Israel is heard and can be self-defeating when it then totally alienates those groups with whom it is possible to engage and dialogue.
This week’s impressive conference has defined the enemy in advance. There will not be any serious internal debate about the fine line to be drawn between crude anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel. Statistics which document the worrying rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents throughout the world, especially in Western Europe and North America, will be presented, groups critical of Israel (including left-wing groups who will be labeled as “self hating Jews” in an effort to delegitimize and exclude them from the debate altogether) will be castigated, BDS and boycott activities will be defined as anti-Semitic, and no doubt here will be calls from some high-level Israeli participants who have little or no understanding of the Diaspora for Jews everywhere to immediately get up and leave their homes and come to the only safe haven for the Jewish people – the State of Israel – before the onset of the next Holocaust.
Fundraising to combat anti-Semitic activities will be made a priority and there will be the opportunity to create new organizations and networks of Jewish leaders, supported by the Jewish Agency and partly funded by the Israeli government, to undertake a combination of security and “hasbarah,” or public diplomacy, activities.
There will be some who will be rubbing their hands in anticipation of a new career as a professional anti-Semitism fighter.
The role of Israel in taking the lead in the global campaign is understandable but equally problematic. The lead should have been taken by the Jewish communities of the Diaspora with much more active participation by their respective governments. The latter are notably absent from this global gathering.
For a true global anti-anti-Semitism coalition to emerge, it is essential that other organizations and other governments are involved and that it is not limited to the Jewish community alone. It is precisely these groups which have to make it clear that they will not tolerate racism, ethnic discrimination and crude anti-Semitism, that they are prepared to take strong action against anti-Semitism wherever and whenever it occurs. But upholding and defending the rights of their Jewish minorities, they do not have to swear blind allegiance or support of everything that is done in the name of the State of Israel.
We should welcome the coming together of so many community activists to discuss the ways of countering anti-Semitism as part of a united and well-thought-out strategy. Israel clearly has a role to play but it should not be allowed to forcefully take control and dictate policy, especially where its own positions differ from those of the communities themselves. Israel should not be allowed to manipulate the fight against anti-Semitism as a means of avoiding dealing with issues, notably the Israel-Palestine arena, which cause much global criticism and resentment and which, in turn, enable the anti-Semites of the world to cash in on their evil ideology.
And yes, coming to live in this amazing country of Israel is a serious option for all of the participants at the meeting. Not because of their desire to flee anti-Semitism when it gets too hot for them, but because of their desire to be part of a vibrant and dynamic Jewish society which is still in its embryonic stages of development and for which anti-Semitism should not have to be part of its daily discourse.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.