Last week I was privileged to speak to two very different audiences about the Middle East and Israel.
Though the talks had the same title, “Understanding the Middle East: Iran, the Sunni-Shi’ite War, the Israeli- Palestinian Conflict, Anti-Semitism and the Delegitimization of Israel,” the reasons I was invited, and the questions I received were profoundly different.
The first talk was at Purchase College in Westchester County, New York. I had been invited as part of my college speaking tour on the Middle East which brought me to many universities in the Northeast, i.e. Harvard, Cornell, Brown, SUNY Oneonta SUNY Binghamton and more. The first scheduled speaking date was postponed because of a snowstorm. Coincidentally, a week before the rescheduled talk, the campus was defaced with anti-Semitic and racist graffiti including swastikas and a noose.
There is a rash of anti-Semitism now sweeping college campuses. I know this because my organization, Middle East Political and Information Network (MEPIN), is continually being asked to sign letters to college presidents throughout the country responding to the growing number of anti-Semitic incidents, insisting that universities maintain a safe environment for Jewish students.
I was told that even before this anti-Semitic incident, the topic of my speech had created a controversy on campus, especially among a growing anti-Israel movement, and that I should be prepared to receive a hostile reception. The anti-Israel group did ask some provocative questions during my talk, but to their credit they choose not to interrupt the talk or intimidate Jewish students as other anti-Israel groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine have done. Perhaps the police presence had something to do with it.
Hillel of Westchester, and the Westchester pro-Israel community, responded to the display of anti-Semitism by publicizing my talk to the local Jewish community and rallying support for the students by coming out in large numbers. Purchase College is not known as a hotbed of political activism, but nowadays anti-Israel activists of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement are targeting almost every college, and the anti-Israel activity often turns into simple, ugly anti-Semitism.
The State Department’s working definition of anti-Semitism says that if you deny the Jewish State of Israel the right to exist, or hold it to a standard not asked of any other nations, that is anti-Semitism. Advocates of BDS against Israel fit that definition when they have nothing to say about the current major violators of human rights around the world, denying basic rights to women, committing mass genocides, and abrogating the rule of law to punish their political opponents.
Later in the week I was invited to speak at a non-denominational Protestant Church of primarily African American New Yorkers. I cannot remember a more engaged audience, eager to learn what is really going on in the Middle East. What impressed me most was that they were totally aware of the way many mainstream media outlets editorialize the news, as they report it in their supposedly non-editorial pages, fitted to their own opinions. I only wish the Progressive readers of The New York Times were as astute as this audience. They were passionate about Israel, frustrated with the administration’s pressure on Israel and its readiness to capitulate to the Iranians. Members of the audience asked me how they could become active in advocating for Israel.
Both groups, college kids under attack for their pro-Israel activism and church groups willing to advocate for Israel, present challenges and opportunities for the pro-Israel American Jewish community.
America is a Christian majority nation. There are many Christians in America, both Protestant and Catholic, who would like to support Israel based not only on religious teachings but because they see in Israel a liberal humane nation and a strategic asset to America. But pro-Israel groups, both Jewish and Gentile, liberal and conservative, need to work to coordinate their resources to educate religious communities. If pro-Israel advocates fail to connect with America’s churches of all denominations, the vacuum will be filled by anti-Israel groups who have already hoodwinked some denominations into joining forces with those groups pushing for BDS, convincing them that Israel is the schoolyard bully, picking on an innocent underdog.
On the college campus, our kids are besieged by a growing plague of anti-Zionism in the name of political correctness and anti-colonialism.
As Phyllis Chesler, a leading voice of the feminist movement, says, the “new anti-Semitism” is nearly inseparable from anti-Zionism. According to a recent survey by Trinity College, the majority of secular and religious Jewish students on American college have experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism during their college careers.
We must support our college students and provide them with an environment that isn’t poisoned by anti-Semitism. That means fighting the BDS movement, not rationalizing it, legitimizing it, and providing Jewish forums to demonize the Jewish state. Are you listening, New Israel Fund and J Street? As Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations said, “It is the BDS movement that is the 21st century form of 20th century anti-Semitism...
it is attacking the collective Jew, Israel, rather than the individual Jew that we saw 70 years ago.”
Which brings me to the third speech. I will be speaking to a Shoah commemoration in New York, where there will be many young Jewish adults in attendance. They are our future, and the following is what I will say to them.
Anti-Semitism in the 21st century has changed its face from the racial and religious anti-Semitism directed at the individual Jew in the 20th century, to focusing on the Jew among nations, Israel. You may hear someone claim that they are not anti-Semitic, just anti-Zionist. Don’t believe it.
Israel is our ultimate victory over the Nazis, with its ground-breaking medical and scientific discoveries, a vibrant free society, the only liberal democracy in a region filled with unstable, brutal, repressive, corrupt regimes. As American Jews, we should be honored and proud to support Israel as the miracle that rose out of the ashes of humanity’s darkest hour.
Today, Holocaust deniers proliferate, and challenge the very fact of the unspeakable horrors of the Shoah.
In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani reinstated an annual conference of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. In the Palestinian Authority, President Mahmoud Abbas wrote his PhD thesis supporting Holocaust denial. Yet the most anti-Semitic nations in the world sit in the leading bodies of the United Nations, even controlling the human rights council.
While we look back and try to honor the memories of those six million who were slaughtered, we must also look forward, and use all of our strength to defend endangered Jewish communities, whether in Europe, South America or Israel.
We need to be less reactive and more on the offense in our response. This includes empowering non-Jewish pro-Israel Americans with the information and knowledge to effectively advocate for the Jewish state. Over 70 percent of Americans are sympathetic to Israel, but their knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep. It makes them vulnerable to the distortions, lies and anti-Semitism of anti-Israel movements.
Supporting Israel is not a political act; it is our moral obligation to those who cherish life and the continuity of Jewish civilization.
May Holocaust Remembrance Day and its heroes be a day that our children and grandchildren honor and embrace as a new voice of conscious.
Honoring the survivors of the Shoah still with us and the memory of those who are not, requires that we give of ourselves whatever it takes, to never be ashamed to be a Jew and to be justly proud of the Jewish homeland.The author is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political and Information Network), a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders. He regularly briefs members of Congress on issues related to the Middle East.