As I waited to register for Global Anti-Semitism: A Crisis in Modernity, the Aug. 23-25 conference at Yale University, the first person I spoke with was Rabbi James Ponet, who officiated at Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky’s wedding in July. We made small talk and agreed it was az och un vey that a conference of this kind was necessary and that so many people would take the time — three days and two nights — to attend. Later, Rabbi Ponet, director of the university’s Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life, opened the conference and ended his brief welcome with the conclusion to the Amida prayer: “He who makes peace in his heavens, may He make peace for us and for all Israel.”
The conference was convened by Charles A. Small, director of the Yale University Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. I was there to deliver a paper on “The Effect of the Resurgence of Anti-Semitism on Holocaust Survivors” but mostly I went to listen and learn from distinguished scholars and professors. Many people, particularly Holocaust survivors and their families, had hoped that the longest hatred would have expired with the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. Sad to say, anti-Semitism has mutated and increased to a level that hurts not only Israelis, but Jews everywhere.
That there should be a need to study ongoing and ever-growing anti-Semitism is both amazing and disheartening. Anti-Semitism is rampant and rabid; not only contagious, it threatens to destroy civilization. And the only cure is education. The church teaching of contempt eventually unleashed the Holocaust. The new anti-Semitism is a blend of those old teachings combined with 14 centuries of dhimmitude — Islamic contempt teachings — which have escalated enormously since the creation of the State of Israel. The results of this movement are virulently fatal when combined with nuclear capability.
The Hon. Irwin Cotler, Canada’s former attorney general and a member of Canada’s Parliament, spoke of the necessity to “criminalize speech, curtail debate, and censor scholars” because to allow leaders — whether religious, academic, political, or popular — to spew hatred and threats is a real and present danger. Tantamount to yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, it should be considered, he said, an illegal act that can lead to genocide.
The general consensus among the scholars at the Yale conference was that the only area the United Nations excels in is heaping blame on Israel in an escalating effort to delegitimize the state. Built on the premise that it could avert war by serving as a civil forum for discussion, the UN has failed miserably to respect Israel for the democratic and ethnically and religiously diverse nation it is. Professor Dina Porat of Tel Aviv University said that those who paint Israel as a rogue nation and criminalize it are laying the groundwork for its destruction. She includes in this group Jews who consider Israel a failed utopian experiment and thus unworthy of continued existence.
Only Rabbi David Nesenoff provided some levity at the rather glum proceedings. It was he who interviewed White House reporter Helen Thomas and videotaped her infamous rant stating that Israelis should get the hell out of Palestine and go back home to Poland, Germany, the United States, wherever. Nesenoff and his family have been the target of hate mail and threats. But the rabbi, a Chabadnik, believes he was called to his work, which he takes seriously, yet with a sense of humor.
The conference revealed the many nuances of anti-Semitism, including a fascinating survey on the current state of anti-Semitism in Poland conducted by Marek Kucia, a sociologist and professor at Jagiellonian University in Cracow. Kudos to Small for assembling such a splendid gathering of minds from the United States, Europe, South and Central America, Africa and South Africa, Israel, Turkey, and Asia. If he had done this simply as an intellectual endeavor it would have been dayenu, sufficient. But what Small attempted was huge: to inform, inspire, and empower the hundreds of attendees who view anti-Semitism as a major concern and warning.
Harvard University Professor Ruth Wisse titled her presentation, “How Do We Put an End to Anti-Semitism: No, Really, How Do We?” She said, “There was never a time when so many good minds were devoted to the issue.” Certainly, Charles Small has formed the foundation of an organization that can band together to eradicate this pernicious plague.