By LAURA KAM
Leading experts from around the world will gather in Jerusalem this week for the Foreign Ministry's Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism where there will be much sobering discussion.
This year witnessed an upsurge in violent anti-Semitic attacks unprecedented in recent times. Perceptions of the 22-day defensive war in the Gaza Strip in December 2008-January 2009 certainly triggered this most recent spasm of worldwide anti-Semitic activity, but that event in and of itself cannot explain the phenomenon away. It was the way certain media covered the event that was the key factor.
The US was practically the only global bright spot with respect to anti-Semitic attitudes and incidents in the past year, notwithstanding isolated yet serious and potentially deadly incidents of its own to contend with. This, at a time, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, when a plurality of Americans agree that the US "should mind its own business internationally, constituting a significant shift since 2002 when nearly two-in-three disagreed with this sentiment." It was therefore particularly heartening to note that a similarly timed The Israel Project (TIP) poll finds that the number of Americans that think the US should support Israel doubled over the same period of time to 60 percent.
CLEARLY, THE media plays a leading role in nurturing and solidifying such beliefs. While many in the US strenuously believe the American media is biased toward Israel, in fact the press in the US is quite tame and balanced in its depiction of Israel and its Jewish majority compared to its counterparts in Europe, Latin America and the Arab world.
In a landmark study of Europeans, Edward Kaplan and Charles Small of Yale University found unequivocally that individuals with extreme anti-Israel views were more likely to be anti-Semitic. As media outlets proliferate via satellite and 24/7 cable TV, the platform for spreading anti-Israel views and consequently anti-Semitism has increased exponentially.
It is for that reason that it is critical to recognize that the vast majority of Americans, Latin Americans, Europeans and Arabs form their opinions about international affairs largely by what they see on television. According to polls conducted for The Israel Project in the US, TV news is cited by 62% as the way their views on the Middle East are shaped, and to a lesser extent the Internet (mostly through mainstream news sites) and newspapers.
In the Arab world, a full 90% of people get their information about the Middle East from TV. Throughout the world today, wherever television watching is pervasive, family, universities and religious institutions all have a far lesser impact in forming opinions on the issues that so clearly impact on foreign policy views than in decades and centuries before.
Outside of the US much of the international media uses the language of "genocide," "Holocaust" and the names of concentration camps drawing a parallel between Nazi Germany and Israel on a regular basis. Such language and imagery serve to delegitimize any Israeli action, while fueling the image of the Jew as the new Nazi. Cartoons with anti-Semitic themes are rampant throughout the world where the juxtaposing of brutal Israelis in the guise of the stereotypical Jew or as a Nazi is the norm. Especially during times of war, Israeli soldiers are relentlessly depicted as war criminals, murderers of innocent civilians and children, militant beasts whose disappearance would obviously be a blessing.
It is therefore no surprise that the aftermath of the Gaza war, a war reported on tirelessly on TV news stations throughout the world, the number of anti-Semitic incidents exploded.
In France, home to the world's third largest Jewish community after Israel and the US, the first half of this year saw significantly more violent anti-Semitic acts and threats - 631 recorded incidents, more than in the entire previous year. As in other European capitals, these include arson attacks against schools and community centers and physical attacks on individuals. Richard Prasquier, the head of CRIF, France's main Jewish umbrella group, was quoted as saying earlier this year that "anti-Semitism is back" and that although France itself is not an anti-Semitic country, "there is a climate of hatred against Jews that manifests itself through insults and often physical attacks."
Almost identically in the UK, the Jewish Community Security Trust recorded double the amount of anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of 2009 as compared to the same period in the previous year. CST head Mark Gardner said, "British Jews are facing ever higher levels of racist attack and intimidation that threaten the well-being of our otherwise happy and successful Jewish community."
In Latin America, with 250,000 Jews in Argentina alone, the climate is becoming increasingly hostile. Anti-Semitic incidents, including swastikas drawn on Jewish schools and graffiti ordering Jews to leave the country have, according to Julio Schlosswer, secretary-general of Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, "created a climate of worry, a climate of terror." Particularly worrisome in Latin America is the atmosphere that has been created by regional leaders such as Hugo Chavez who consistently berate Israel in the Latin American press with vile comparisons of Israeli defensive actions to those of the Nazis, thus fostering an official imprimatur on hatred.
And in places where there are virtually no Jews, anti-Semitism abounds. In a recent poll done in the Arab world by The Israel Project, we found Jews are simply reviled, with 98% of Jordanians saying they have unfavorable opinions of Jews. Egypt was a veritable bright spot with only 69% saying they had an unfavorable view of Jews. The fact that Al Jazeera is the most watched news station throughout the Arab world can, to some extent though obviously not wholly, explain why Israelis/Jews - most Arabs do not recognize the difference - are so incredibly despised.
Clearly we are entering an era where increased vigilance with respect to the press as well as in the political and diplomatic arenas will necessarily take on a new urgent focus as Jews around the world are facing increasing threats to their safety and way of life.
It will take concerted and persistent action on the parts of governments, NGOs, law enforcement officials and individuals with international standing and gravitas to stem the tide of this new wave of anti-Semitism. But enhancing Israel's image in the media in today's non-stop news environment is crucial. The great progress that has been made in the US can be replicated. These and other issues will be strenuously dissected and debated during the meetings in Jerusalem.
The writer is the senior director for European affairs and special projects at The Israel Project and is the former co-director of ADL's Israel office.
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