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Groups seek strategy against anti-Semitism

Jews from across Europe gather for a May 29 rally that was the first action of a group formed to fight anti-Semitism in Europe. (Joel Rubinfeld)

Jews from across Europe gather for a May 29 rally that was the first action of a group formed to fight anti-Semitism in Europe. (Joel Rubinfeld)

NEW YORK, July 1 (JTA) — The new strain of anti-Semitism that has broken out around the world, couching itself in anti-Israel rhetoric, requires a global strategy in response, Jewish and Israeli leaders agree. Yet six months after the strategy’s creation, the most high profile of several different initiatives launched to combat this “new anti-Semitism” is still in the organizing stage. That raises several questions for those leading the effort to beat back the new anti-Semitism: How will Jewish groups translate their tough talk into action? Will such action be unified and synchronized, or will different groups duplicate efforts? And should Israel direct such efforts, or be just one among several actors? In January, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Rabbi Michael Melchior, announced the creation of the “International Commission for Combating Anti-Semitism.” It would differ from other Jewish efforts because it would be comprised primarily of prominent non-Jews and would be global in scope, while angling to establish local commissions in as many countries as possible, Melchior said. The “demonization” of Israel had crossed the line of fair criticism, Melchior said, and the test for the commission would be “how successfully we can get the right people involved and turn this organization into an international movement.” The commission would raise public awareness of anti-Semitism and take an active role in lobbying, advocacy and education, Melchior said. Then, the Anti-Defamation League, which for 90 years has dedicated itself to fighting anti-Semitism, announced it would team up with the World Jewish Congress in a new global effort. Utilizing the WJC’s access to nearly every Jewish community in the Diaspora, the groups would create a task force aimed at keeping anti-Semitism “latent, dormant, immoral and unacceptable,” Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, told JTA. At the same time, the WJC, through its European affiliate, the European Jewish Congress, has established a separate “European Coordination Center” to shape public opinion and lobby European governments and parliaments on issues of anti-Semitism, said Avi Beker, WJC’s secretary-general. The European Center’s first action was a rally that brought Jews from across Europe to Brussels on May 29. As for potential overlap between Melchior’s International Commission and the joint ADL-WJC task force, Beker said, “We have quite good lines of communication and consultation” with the commission. Besides, Beker said, “the more you do, the more people you can reach out to, and the more you can achieve.” As for the Melchior commission, it so far has little to show beyond its lofty vision statement – and the headlines its creation garnered. Melchior set an Oct. 1 target date to have the commission up and running. But his spokesman, Moni Mordechai, said no full-time employee has yet been hired, and Melchior and his staff are only working part time on the commission. Moreover, Mordechai said, they have raised only a few hundred thousand dollars – partly from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs budget, the rest from Jewish philanthropists – of the several million he said is needed to jump-start the commission. “The raison d’etre is already there, but the capacity to do it is in the organizational stage,” said Irwin Cotler, a Canadian lawmaker and human rights expert who co-founded the commission with Melchior and Swedish official Per Ahlmark. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel also is expected to play a prominent role. “We haven’t had a sustained involvement in a manner that would allow this to be established in a quicker manner,” Cotler said. That raison d’etre actually snuck up on many Jewish leaders and activists, revealing itself in its full ferocity only during the past year. Israel long has been isolated within the United Nations, the U.N. Commission for Human Rights and other international bodies. Indeed, the U.N.’s notorious 1975 “Zionism is Racism” resolution completely dismissed Israel’s guiding ideology. Meanwhile, Holocaust denial long has pervaded the Arab world, as have medieval blood libels and wild conspiracy theories about Jews. But it was only with the eruption of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000 that all these forces converged, opening a crucial second front: the battle for world opinion. Things came to a head late last summer in Durban, South Africa, at the U.N. World Conference Against Racism. While Arab and Muslim activists and diplomats attacked Israel as an “apartheid state” guilty of war crimes and genocide, thousands of nongovernmental activists from around the world, as well as local black South Africans, climbed aboard the anti-Israel bandwagon with wildly racist attacks on Jews and Israel. Aside from Israel, Jewish groups and the United States, which reacted with indignation, only a small clutch of non-Jewish activists and diplomats protested the onslaught. Cotler said his experience at Durban enabled him to connect the dots. His description of “the new anti-Jewishness” likely will provide much of the ideological underpinning for Melchior’s International Commission. “What we are witnessing today — and which has been developing incrementally, almost imperceptibly, for some 30 years now — is a new, virulent, globalizing and even lethal anti-Jewishness without parallel or precedent since the end of the Second World War,” Cotler, a law professor at McGill University in Montreal, wrote recently. “This new anti-Jewishness is grounded in classical anti-Semitism but distinguishable from it. “In a word, classical anti-Semitism is the discrimination against, or denial of, the right of Jews to live as equal members of a free society; the new anti-Semitism — sometimes characterized as ‘anti-Zionism’ — involves the discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon, the right of the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the family of nations,” he wrote. “What is intrinsic to each form of anti-Semitism — and common to both — is discrimination.” Whereas classical anti-Semitism had tangible indices — discrimination in education, housing or employment, for example, or attacks on synagogues, cemeteries, or Jews themselves — this “new anti-Jewishness” requires entirely new markers, Cotler said. Cotler has proposed 13 indices to identify the new anti-Semitism, from “existential or genocidal anti-Semitism” — that is, public calls for the destruction of Israel or killing of Jews – to “Substantive Anti-Jewishness in the International Arena: The Denial to Israel of Equality Before the Law.” The latter category includes political, ideological, theological, cultural, European, “legalized,” economic and state-sanctioned anti-Semitism, he wrote. These various forms of anti-Semitism now are manifest worldwide, including in some nations with no Jewish populations. They also permeate the Internet, which means a strategy to combat anti-Semitism country-by-country is insufficient, Jewish leaders say. “With the globalization of economics has also come the globalization of politics, and we see how the ‘Big Lie’ can be spread quickly and effectively through new technology,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We see that virtually no country is untouched by this new anti-Semitism, so an international approach is certainly warranted for dealing with it,” he said. The key to enlightening what Jewish activists call “decent people of conscience everywhere” to the burgeoning anti-Semitism — and how it fuels violence in the Middle East and against Jewish communities in Western Europe — is to utilize non-Jewish spokespeople, activists say. “Anti-Semitism always starts with the Jews; it never stops with the Jews,” Ahlmark said in an e-mail interview from Stockholm. Ahlmark, a former deputy prime minister of Sweden, said he founded the Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism two decades ago “because it had become obvious that the anti-Zionist propaganda war contained a lot of anti-Jewish stereotypes, the consequences of which we have seen in both old and new history.” “Jew-hatred, if not contained, almost always develops into assaults on other groups and minorities and finally undermines democratic institutions and the rule of law,” he said. “Thus, the struggle against anti-Semitism is a task for Jews and non-Jews together. Anti-Semitism is a prejudice among non-Jews — therefore it is a duty for us non-Jews to resist it.” Just as it is essential to include non-Jews on the International Commission – so that anti-Semitism is not dismissed as just a “Jewish” issue — some say Israel must not be at the forefront of the campaign. “Israel would be an important ingredient in the strategy, but I don’t think it’s healthy for Israel to head up this effort,” Foxman said. “It would be counterproductive because Israel is a state that has bilateral relations with many of these countries, and it shouldn’t put itself in a position that jeopardizes those relations,” especially when there are Jewish groups willing to do the dirty work, he added. For example, Foxman chastised Melchior for implying that France reacted with nonchalance to a wave of anti-Semitism over the past year — not because Melchior was wrong, Foxman said, but because the comments were taken in France as the official position of Israel’s government. As for the International Commission, Foxman said, “If a lot of its strategy and implementation is coming from Israel, I won’t be supportive of it.” However, Mordechai emphasized that the commission’s headquarters will be in Geneva, home to international institutions like the U.N. Commission for Human Rights. Secondary offices are planned for Jerusalem and either New York or Washington. “Israel has to take part in the international fight against anti-Semitism. We’re the state of the Jewish people and we’re the target of much of this hatred,” Melchior said in a phone interview from Jerusalem. “But the commission isn’t going to be an Israel thing and won’t be only a Jewish thing,” he continued. “It has to be seen as a concern of all those concerned with decency, democracy and civilization itself. And not only Jews are concerned with decency and democracy.”

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