Fighting antisemitism should be above one’s political agenda - opinion

This three-pillar view of Jewish life constitutes a considerable upgrade to our level of knowledge about Europe’s Jews.

 SHLOMO KOVES. (photo credit: YONI RYKNER)
SHLOMO KOVES.
(photo credit: YONI RYKNER)

In an opinion piece on July 21, Ira Forman negates the value of a study released in Budapest in June by the European Jewish Association (EJA) on the safety and well-being of the European Jewish community. The survey created a comprehensive index of various parameters that define daily life within Europe’s Jewish communities.

Putting the study’s finding into question, Forman writes, “Damn the lies; here are the real facts,” misleading the reader with citations that are half-truths and lies, concluding that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government is antisemitic. He goes on to say that Orbán and his government use collaborators to echo their alternative facts to hide their true antisemitism. By doing so, Forman implies that EJA and the Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities (EMIH), led by me, are at fault.

What are Forman’s credentials for writing the piece? From 2013 to 2017, he served as the US State Department’s envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. Yet, he somehow failed to mention his earlier position between 1996 and 2010 as CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), a political lobby that advocated for the Democratic Party.

Forman, a Democrat and a political lobbyist with a Jewish background, appeared to the best candidate for a respectable appointment by the president for a political agenda within the State Department.

European Jews have a hard time forgetting those four years between 2013 and 2017, due to a number of horrific antisemitic attacks unprecedented in Europe’s recent past. In 2014, a terrorist opened fire on Belgium’s Jewish Museum in Brussels, killing three. The Hyper Cacher attack, targeted because it was a Jewish market, resulted in the death of four people. And in 2017, France was again the scene of the brutal murder of Sarah Halimi. Sadly, the list goes on and on.

  Rabbi Menachem Margolin, chairman of European Jewish Association (EJA). (credit: YOSSI ZELIGER) Rabbi Menachem Margolin, chairman of European Jewish Association (EJA). (credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)

What did Forman do as special envoy about these attacks? Not much, apparently. In his 2016 Holocaust Remembrance Day speech in Washington, then-president Barack Obama’s listed the grand achievements of the past years in the fight against antisemitism. At the peak of his report was a single crowning achievement: the US government managed to prevent the small Hungarian town of Szekesfehervar (with 100,000 residents), from erecting a statue of Balint Homan. Hóman was, a third-tier politician who served as Hungarian Minister of Education in the 1930’s, and became a member of the Hungarian Fascist Parliament, in 1944. Putting a stop to honoring Bálint Hóman by the town council is undoubtedly a significant achievement for the State Department.

However, we cannot contain our bewilderment at why the same pressure exerted by the US was not used successfully against the daily physical danger facing the Jews of France or Belgium. Why couldn’t Obama tell us about Belgium, where hundreds of antisemitic hate crimes are committed every year, and where, for example, just a year earlier, an Islamic terrorist killed four innocent people in a Jewish Museum. Belgian law forbids private security firms to carry guns and national law enforcement agencies do not provide round-the-clock armed protection for Jewish institutions. This apparently makes Jewish facilities easy targets for antisemitic attacks.

The question remains as to why this issue was not dealt with. Presumably, with Ira Forman as special antisemitism envoy, the fight against antisemitism became a tool to promote a political agenda – and not the other way around. For the Obama administration, known for its skeptical attitude towards Hungary, it was important to use their political pressure against a small Hungarian town’s municipality to stop a relatively unknown Hungarian Nazi from getting a statue, and seemingly less important to ensure the safety of Belgian Jews.

The study

THE STUDY Forman so bluntly accuses of being biased is authored by senior research fellow for the UK-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), Dr. Daniel Staetsky. It attempted to resolve the following contradiction and create a comprehensive European antisemitism index:

Between 2017 and 2019, at my initiative, the European Action and Protection League carried out the most extensive and comprehensive public opinion survey on antisemitism. The professional leading the research was András Kovács, a Central European University (CEU) professor, the doyen researcher in the field of European antisemitism research. The study was based on a 72-question personal interview with 16,000 people in 16 countries.

The survey turned out to be a veritable goldmine and repository of information. There are numerous interesting findings and among them, one very noticeable contradiction: There is no correlation between antisemitic attitudes and the frequency of antisemitic hate incidents. For example, in countries with a lower proportion of people with antisemitic views such as France (15%) or Germany (17%), there is a significant number of antisemitic hate incidents. In 2020, there were 339 cases in France and 1,909 in Germany. And yet, in Hungary (42%) or Romania (38%), where a higher proportion of people hold antisemitic views, there were significantly fewer hate incidents. For 2020, there were 30 cases reported in Hungary; 14 in Romania.

Seeing the above inconsistency, we concluded that it was essential to create a comprehensive index that does not exclusively measure social attitudes or is not restricted to antisemitic incidents or linked to the overall sense of well-being of the Jewish community, but attempts to present a comprehensive picture based on all available information.

The Index of Respect and Tolerance commissioned by the EJA is an early first attempt towards this goal. The research represents an attempt to capture the condition of Jewish communities in Europe in a maximally objective and multifaceted way. It relies on a wide range of quantitative indices; each relating to a different aspect of Jewish communal life and is based on three major pillars:

  1. The 2020 survey of antisemitic prejudices in Europe, by Andras Kovacs and Gyorgy Fischer, mentioned above;
  2. Government measures concerning Jewish life and Jewish perceptions and experiences, based on data from the performance of government agencies on tolerance and co-existence;
  3. Information on the level of exposure to antisemitism among Jews and Jewish perceptions of antisemitism as a danger in their countries (from the 2018 survey of European Jewish communities, conducted by FRA.)

This three-pillar view of Jewish life constitutes a considerable upgrade to our level of knowledge about Europe’s Jews. It is simultaneously more comprehensive and more refined than ever. And why was this necessary? To avoid either the left or the right using the issue of antisemitism as a tool to guide their own political agenda. Just like Forman and his friends are doing for so many years.

The writer is chief rabbi of EMIH – the Association of Hungarian Jewish Communities, and founder of the Action and Protection League.