Fighting anti-Semitism: It’s about leadership

Fighting anti-Semitism: It’s about leadership

Anti-Semitic slurs and other offensive graffiti found outside Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School in October last year. Photo via Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ
Anti-Semitic slurs and other offensive graffiti found outside Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School in October last year. Photo via Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ

Anti-Semitism is a virus, and, like its biological counterpart, it both spreads and mutates, taking different forms to suit different environments. Antibiotics do not kill viruses, but there are critical steps we take to limit their spread; the same is true for the disease of anti-Semitism, which history demonstrates can quickly turn deadly on a mass scale.

At a time when nationalism, xenophobia, and racism are on the rise across the globe, it is hardly surprising that anti-Semitism is again surging. The effort to limit its spread must be taken up by responsible leaders wherever the sickness takes hold and whatever their politics.

And the United States must maintain its traditional role as a forceful and steady voice against this scourge. But as this nation wrestles with its own demons, that role is in serious jeopardy. 

President Donald Trump, who saw “very fine people” among the white supremacists demonstrating in Charlottesville, Va., last year and whose political rallies seem intended to elicit the basest instincts in an angry electorate, has effectively removed himself from the fight, undermining American credibility in the effort to stem this latest outbreak.

As the Democratic far left shows early signs of a resurgence, party leaders have not done enough to combat an anti-Semitic fringe in their own party or to forthrightly reject a brand of toxic Israel criticism that too often spills over into anti-Semitic attitudes and acts.

It is ironic that while anti-Semitism grows across Europe, some leaders there — including top leaders in Germany, the nation with the grimmest history of unchecked Jew hatred — seem willing to take on the haters in ways their American counterparts have not. In Israel earlier this month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has appointed a special commissioner to lead the fight, said that “Germany has a perpetual responsibility to remember those crimes and to confront anti-Semitism, xenophobia, hate, and violence.”

Combating anti-Semitism is about education and hate-crime laws, museums, and inter-group programs, but it is also about leadership, and the powerful symbolism of top leaders taking unequivocal stands, even when that entails political cost. Sadly, an American president who has given unprecedented legitimacy to a far-right fringe that includes many overt anti-Semites seems to have missed that critical message. It’s the same message that England’s Labor Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, eager for the support of a faction that includes many vehement opponents of Israel who have generalized their animosity to encompass all Jews, has so far failed to heed.

The administration’s failure to appoint a special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism — a State Department post that has been vacant since Trump’s 2017 inauguration, despite the pleas of numerous Jewish groups — is one more blow to U.S. credibility as a leader in the fight, and an encouragement to our native-born haters, as well as neo-Nazis across Europe.

The good news is that the House of Representatives has a clearer understanding of the importance of leadership on the issue. Last month the House passed — by a huge and bipartisan margin — a measure making the anti-Semitism monitoring official an ambassador, not an envoy, a shift elevating the post’s diplomatic status, and requiring the president to fill the position within 90 days. The measure has been pending in the Senate since last year.

“By passing H.R. 1911 today, Congress is speaking with a loud, clear, bipartisan voice on the importance of this position and the message it sends to the world,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-Dist. 4), the lead sponsor.

Strong messages from responsible leaders, such as our aforementioned representative, are essential components in what must be a multi-front effort to combat this latest outbreak of anti-Semitism at home and abroad. Sadly, the messages from some leaders — starting with the one sitting today in the Oval Office — have been mixed, at best.

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