Spray-painted swastika (illustrative).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the annual assembly of the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem on Wednesday, the elephant ran rampage in the room. Not a mention was made of the wave of antisemitic incidents that has swept the United States over the past couple of months.
Netanyahu alluded to the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and bomb threats against Jewish institutions when he told his audience via video link: “World leaders need to unequivocally condemn antisemitism wherever it is found. And I appreciate the fact that in the last few weeks and days, President Trump and Vice President Pence have taken a strong stance in condemning antisemitism.”
Yet Trump waited until Tuesday when he spoke before Congress for the first time to call out antisemitism by name. Until then, since taking office he had remained conspicuously silent, choosing to answer questions about the rise of antisemitism by pointing out that he had won a sweeping Electoral College victory, that his son-in- law and daughter are Jewish, and that he is not antisemitic. Instead of issuing a strongly worded, unequivocal condemnation of the incidents in his own voice, he left that job to Pence.
The debate is still on as to what is behind the uptick in antisemitism. Has it been enabled by the polarization of American society, by the sense of empowerment felt by far-right groups as a result of Trump’s election, or is it an offshoot of the president’s comments and actions against migrants and Muslims? Antisemitism in the US is hardly a new phenomenon – a total of 941 incidents were recorded in 2015 and the previous year a neo-Nazi gunman shot and killed two people at a Jewish community center and a third at a Jewish retirement home. However, the rash of attacks in the last couple of months has, according to Anti-Defamation League CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt, reached a level unseen since the 1930s.
Jewish leaders in Jerusalem for the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations last week called explicitly for the Israeli government to make its voice heard on the issue.
“Anything Israel can do to convince our new president to address the issue head-on, that antisemitism is a problem, to acknowledge it, I think would go a long way,” said JCC Association of North America chairman Stephen Seiden, while Margo Gold, the international director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, called on the Israeli government to send a “strong message to the president.”
So why has that message not been delivered, or at least not in public? After all, Israel has in the past been much more forceful in its reaction to antisemitism in other countries. While Jews in the US may not be facing corporal danger, as we have seen in Europe, threats and desecration of Jewish property can materialize into physical attacks.
Obviously, Netanyahu faces a dilemma.
It would not be realistic for him to stand up and issue a criticism of the US president and making a statement along the lines of that made by opposition leader Isaac Herzog – who said Israel should prepare for the mass aliya of American Jews – would only serve to antagonize. In fact, Netanyahu has gone out of his way to defend Trump as a friend of Israel and the Jews.
Trump has indeed so far shown himself to be strongly pro-Israel, but at the same time he has not been outspoken or taken resolute action on antisemitism. Israel has faced similar dilemmas in Eastern Europe, where right-wing nationalist governments have adopted a strong pro-Israel line, but have often engaged in revisionism of their roles in the Holocaust or failed to check rising antisemitism.
Faced with such dilemmas, Israel needs to find a balance between its foreign policy objectives and protecting the welfare of Jews overseas.