If trends continue, warned Ira Forman at Kean University’s day-long Conference on Global Anti-Semitism, “it is highly likely we will see Jews being killed — like at the kosher grocery store in Paris, like in Copenhagen, like in Toulouse.”
His references, at the March 13 gathering’s opening keynote address, were to the January 2015 attack at the market in Paris two days after the Charlie Hebdo murders, the killing of a Jewish man outside a synagogue in Denmark’s capital a few weeks later, and the 2012 shooting that left four dead, including three children, at a Jewish school in France.
Forman, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, offered a bleak picture of rising anti-Semitism in Europe. “If it’s not the 1930s, it’s still a very dire situation, and we don’t know what the long term will be,” he said.
His view of Europe is of a continent increasingly hostile to Jews as well as other minority groups, with violence on the rise, coming from far right nationalist groups like Hungary’s anti-Semitic Jobbik Party, which won an election in 2015, and Greece’s extremist Golden Dawn party. Forman also pointed to France’s anti-Semitic, left-leaning comedian and political activist Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, who was jailed for his hate speech.
Forman offered cold comfort when he said the situation for Jews is perhaps not as bad as for other minorities, like the Yazidis, the Kurdish religious and cultural minority facing terror attacks from ISIS. He labelled their current lives “Holocaust-like stories.”
But Forman also suggested that successful intervention could result in an outcome more akin to the struggle for Soviet Jewry than the Holocaust — notwithstanding the far greater complexity of the current issues, involving many countries with different organizations as opposed to the centralized, autocratic leadership of the Soviet Union.
Through education, learning how to push back on hate speech in social media, and the development of a civil society in Europe that makes hate speech not just illegal but socially intolerable, Forman said, he believes the climate can shift. “When you say something odious [in the United States], clergy — and not just Jewish clergy — nonprofit organizations and business leaders will all condemn you and you will be seen as a crank and not serious…. there is a huge social cost.” But, he said, ironically, because anti-Semitic speech is illegal in Europe, people in general do nothing. “By and large, this does not happen in Europe.”
Forman’s talk was followed by a panel that focused on anti-Semitism at home, where, all agreed, the everyday situation for most Jews is far better than in Europe. The one exception is of those on college campuses and in academia, where the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement “has started to establish a beachhead,” according to Jonathan Tobin, senior on-line editor and chief political blogger at Commentary. “The movement to demonize Israel, to delegitimize Israel, to wage war on it — that is our real problem in our country,” he said.
It was a current that ran through the day — Forman also brought up this phenomenon as a definition for contemporary Zionism, and there was agreement across the panel, which included Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University; Mark Weitzman, director of government affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center; and Dan Guadalupe, a partner at the law firm Morris McLaughlin & Marcus and former president of the NJ Hispanic Bar Association. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the NY Board of Rabbis and cohost of Religion on the Line on WABC radio, served as moderator.
Addressing BDS, Tobin said it often “masquerades as mere criticism” of Israel, which, he claimed, is not anti-Semitism, but a stance that almost always morphs into something else. “So many incidents, at Vassar, at UCLA…when they delegitimize Israel, when they say Jews don’t have a right to a state, they have no right to self-defense, the next step is inevitably demonizing the Jews who step up for the State of Israel — delegitimizing them, making them feel afraid, making them feel as if they are unsafe whether on campus or anywhere else.” Therefore, Tobin said, “I believe BDS is anti-Semitism.”
He added, “The dividing line is whether we believe there should be a State of Israel — does it have a right to exist? Does it have a right of self-defense? — and that is the clear line which we must draw.”
He suggested that Jewish students on liberal campuses are uncomfortable with sectarianism and are reluctant to stand up for Israel because “pro-Zionism is unfashionable.” But, he said, the answer, then, is to “fight fashion” by ensuring that today’s students understand the historic threat of anti-Semitism.
Lipstadt considered Tobin’s approach to BDS overly simplified and took issue with his focus on teaching kids to speak out for Israel.
She said, “Many people who are involved in the BDS movement are not themselves anti-Semitic nor think it’s anti-Semitic, although the founders clearly are against the existence of the State of Israel. I think a lot of people have been duped by that, and it makes the fight against BDS harder and much trickier.”
Without diminishing the challenges on some campuses or denying the need to fight anti-Semitism, she argued for the critical task of creating positive reasons to be Jewish.
“We face a serious situation” on some campuses, Lipstadt said. “But we have to be very careful about letting the fight against anti-Semitism becoming the raison d’etre of our Jewish identity.” She added, “We fight this, but we don’t send our kids off to campus saying, ‘You’re going to a hotbed, be on guard, be on guard.’”
That, she said, may well lead to “a very skewed vision of who we are, and the question is: Who would want to be a part of that?” Instead, rejecting the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history” — articulated in the 1930s by Salo Wittmayer Baron, a Jewish history professor at Columbia University, who said that such a vision focuses chiefly on expulsions and pogroms — she insisted, “We must celebrate Jewish learning, we must celebrate Jewish accomplishments, we must celebrate Jewish culture, and we must celebrate Jewish economic activity.”
No one disagreed with her. In fact, in response to a question from the audience about where all the other Deborah Lipstadts are on campuses around the country, panelist Mark Weitzman reminded them that in December academics and university presidents opposing BDS formed their own alliance — the Academic Engagement Network — and that two of them, Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm, had published The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel in November 2014.
The conference was sponsored by NJ American Jewish Committee; Anti-Defamation League, NJ Region; Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest; Kean University’s Holocaust Resource Center; Kean’s Jewish faculty and staff; Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ; Kean’s Jewish Studies Program; Kean University Hillel; National Council of Jewish Women/Union County; New York Board of Rabbis; Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights; and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Afternoon sessions focused on anti-Semitism and Israel, and anti-Semitism as an assault on human rights; the conference concluded with a keynote address characterizing anti-Semitism as “the devil that never dies” by Dr. Daniel Goldhagen, former Harvard University associate professor of government and social studies and author of several books on anti-Semitism, most recently, The Devil that Never Dies.
For a report on a panel discussion on thoughtful investing in the age of BDS, see related story.