Vaccinating against the virus of antisemitism

Reaching out to others may help in fight against anti-Semitism, Wiesenthal Center official says

THOUSANDS OF New Yorkers gather in Foley Square last week at the No Hate. No Fear. solidarity march against the rise of antisemitism (photo credit: ERIK MCGREGOR/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES/JTA)
THOUSANDS OF New Yorkers gather in Foley Square last week at the No Hate. No Fear. solidarity march against the rise of antisemitism
Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as Black nationalist and a hate group, praises Adolf Hitler and compares Jews to termites. He has won accolades on social media from several high-profile celebrities for his rhetoric even though the Anti-Defamation League says that he is an antisemite.
Described as the world’s oldest disease, antisemitism is increasing along with COVID-19.
“We are at a critical moment in our history – rightfully fighting for racial justice – so it is extremely unfortunate, especially as antisemitism is rising in America, that celebrities are elevating the voices of those who, while fighting anti-Black racism, are also promoting antisemitism,” Holly Huffnagle, newly appointed US director for Combating antisemitism at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), told The Media Line.
Huffnagle stressed that all forms of antisemitism are dangerous and that hostility toward Jews can be found across the ideological spectrum, from the radical left to the far right.
Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust historian at Atlanta’s Emory University, agreed.
“We’re seeing a perfect storm of antisemitism right now,” Lipstadt told The Media Line. “We’re seeing it on the right and we’re seeing it on the left.
“We are seeing it because there is a certain nationalism that has arisen. We’re seeing it also because of views on the left, often disguised as views on Israel, that are antisemitic in their essence,” she said.
Types of antisemitic Incidents Vary
Social media is the latest battleground for antisemitism. The most recent examples include Madonna sharing a video of Farrakhan to her more than 15 million Instagram followers and Twitter locking the accounts of users displaying the Star of David, a symbol of Judaism, in their profile pictures.
There are also more traditional forms of antisemitism. Last Saturday, about 30 neo-Nazis held a protest at a park in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, while wearing armbands and carrying flags emblazed with the swastika. Police quickly broke up their demonstration, saying they didn’t have a permit.
During the protests against the killing in May of George Floyd, a synagogue in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles was vandalized with graffiti reading “F**k Israel” and “Free Palestine.”
What is the Definition of antisemitism?
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism is the most widely recognized definition of antisemitism and has been adopted by more than 30 countries so far.
The definition’s main clause defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.”
According to the IHRA definition, contemporary examples of antisemitism include Holocaust denial and the delegitimization of Israel. The definition also allows for criticism of Israel in the way that any other country might be criticized.
Fiamma Nirenstein, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told The Media Line that the IHRA definition is important because it incorporates the “3 d’s” of Soviet refusenik and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky – delegitimization of Israel, demonization of Israel and subjecting Israel to double standards.
“There is a difference between legitimate criticism and antisemitism. Legitimate criticism is not only admissible but necessary in a democracy,” Nirenstein said.
Antisemitism Is on The Rise in the US, Europe and Globally
The number of antisemitic incidents last year was the highest in the United States since tracking began in 1979, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s annual audit. More than 2,100 incidents were reported – a 12% increase over 2018. The number of assaults jumped 56% during the same period.
The polling aligns with the data. A landmark survey of US Jews in 2019 by the global Jewish advocacy group AJC found that 88% said that antisemitism is a problem in the US and 84% said that antisemitism has increased in the US.
antisemitism is also increasing worldwide. There was an 18% increase in violent antisemitic incidents globally in 2019 over the previous year, the highest rise since 2014, according to the annual report on hate crimes from Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry and the Moshe Kantor Database for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism. In a recent webinar, the Kantor Center’s Dina Porat said that antisemitism was increasing before the coronavirus crisis but that the pandemic has acted as an accelerant.
Research by the Vienna-based European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights shows an increase in antisemitism in the EU bloc. According to data compiled last year for 2008 to 2018, certain member states have experienced a rise in antisemitic incidents. For example, France saw antisemitic acts increase 74% in 2018 compared with 2017.
An AJC Paris survey conducted in 2019 found that 73% of the French public and 72% of French Jews consider antisemitism a problem in their country. The survey found that 70% of French Jews reported experiencing at least one antisemitic incident.
Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, a German historian and head of the Berlin-based Center for antisemitism Research, told The Media Line that the rise in ethno-nationalism in Europe over the past 30 years has opened the door to increased antisemitism.
She said that the data shows an increase in antisemitic attacks but surveys do not show a rise in antisemitic sentiment. But this has been misinterpreted, at least in Germany, she said, because surveys have shown that a small group of hardcore antisemites and another small group of “latent antisemites” are becoming more vocal.
“Even though there is no big change in the numbers [of those with] antisemitic attitudes, there is greater visibility and people will say things in public. If you go to one of the anti-corona demonstrations it is really amazing,” Schüler-Springorum said.
Eric Fusfield, director of legislative affairs and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy, told The Media Line that American Jews are experiencing violent antisemitic attacks that were previously a European phenomenon.
“American Jews are coming to expect more and more the physical threat to their security and the need for a police presence in synagogue. This is something that was commonplace in Europe but it’s becoming more and more normal in the United States now,” Fusfield said.
COVID-19 Is Driving antisemitism
A report last month from the Kantor Center at Tel Aviv University found that Jews and Israel are being blamed for the coronavirus outbreak and that centuries-old antisemitic themes are resurfacing.
“People are believing in all kinds of conspiracy theories as to how [the pandemic] happened and who is behind it,” Dr. Robert Rozett, senior historian at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, told The Media Line.
Rozett said that one of the major conspiracy theories circulating today is a return to a libel dating back to the Black Death of the 14th century when European Jewish communities were massacred after being accused of causing the outbreak by deliberately poisoning wells.
A Data-Driven Approach to Combating antisemitism
California-based AMCHA Initiative has been using a data-driven approach to fighting antisemitism on US college and university campuses since launching its online antisemitism tracker in 2018 that compiles antisemitic incidents from 2015 to the present.
The nonprofit organization monitors approximately 450 higher education institutions for antisemitic activity, logging more than 3,500 antisemitic incidents on its database since 2015.
The organization’s annual report, released this month, found a more than 300% increase in campus activity challenging the IHRA’s working definition identifying anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, AMCHA’s director, co-founded the organization in 2011 with fellow academic Leila Beckwith. Rossman-Benjamin was at UC Santa Cruz and Beckwith was at UCLA in the early 2000s when they became concerned about an increase in antisemitism on their campuses.
“We realized that we needed to start to keep track of what was happening. Not just what we heard but to do active research about it. To try to compile [incidents] to see sort of the nature and scope of the problem of campus antisemitism in the US,” Rossman-Benjamin told The Media Line.
Other Potential Solutions to antisemitism
The world marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp this past January where the Nazis murdered more than a million Jews and others. And yet, today, the world is experiencing a resurgence of antisemitism not seen since the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Is there a vaccine for the virus of antisemitism?
For Nirenstein, the answer is in politics. The problem, in her view, is the language criminalizing the state of Israel, what she describes as “Israelophobia,” a combination of antisemitism and anti-Zionism.
“Institutions [such as the UN and EU] are very responsible for the growth of antisemitism because they build a backing to it,” Nirenstein said.
Lipstadt said that antisemitism should not be used as a political weapon to shield against legitimate criticism of certain Israeli policies.
“Be careful. Be strategic. Be tactical. This is a major moral problem, and we must fight it with all our strength. But we also must fight it smart. We have to fight it tactically with a scalpel, not with a bludgeon,” Lipstadt said.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of Global Social Action Agenda for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, told The Media Line that reaching out to other communities is important for countering antisemitism.
“We need to be able to find and work with allies who are going to help to defeat antisemitism,” Cooper said. “Jews can’t defeat antisemitism on their own. We need allies. And in the ever-changing world we live in, it is a huge challenge. But that is the challenge that stands before us.”
Cooper recalled Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal saying that when there is a strong democracy, it is good for the Jews, and when there is not, it is bad for the Jews.
Huffnagle said that AJC is working to strengthen democratic institutions in the effort to counter the rise in antisemitism.
“We are also focusing on ways to rebuild our democracy and democratic institutions,” Huffnagle said. “American Jews are safer and more secure in a stable America, and we must continue promoting democratic values for all Americans if we want to lower levels of antisemitism.”
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