There is something simultaneously awe-inspiring and humbling about being able to board a plane in Italy, fly to Germany and freely fly home to New York after attending a conference, as a Jew, on the topic of anti-Semitism in the world today.
Less than 80 years after the Jewish people were humiliated, degraded and murdered in some of this world’s most exquisite countries, representatives of those countries (and over 50 others) plus several NGOs, were invited to attend a fascinating meeting sponsored by the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe). It was called the “Rome International Conference on the Responsibility of States, Institutions, and Individuals in the Fight Against Anti-Semitism in the OSCE Area.” In one of the first acts of Italy’s new chairmanship of the OSCE, it was determined that this conference needed to happen immediately and should take place in conjunction with the annual recognition of the liberation of Auschwitz.
I was invited with Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis, and other board members, to bear witness to an important conversation where there was both an acknowledgment that anti-Semitism is a virus that is still infecting our world and a pledge to cooperate to do more to eradicate it from our midst.
Both Pope Francis, with whom I had the privilege of having an audience, and Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, spoke about this virus in our world today. The Pope said, “It is not merely a question of analyzing the causes of violence and refuting their perverse reasoning, but of being actively prepared to respond to them. Thus, the enemy against which we fight is not only hatred in all of its forms but indifference, for it is indifference that paralyzes and impedes us from doing what is right.”
He added that when we are faced with “the virus of indifference, we must administer a vaccine and that vaccine is memory.” Like my experience of flying freely into Europe, I appreciated that I was invited into the Vatican, as a rabbi. Given the Vatican’s troubling history regarding Jews over the millennia, seeing that the Pope is part of those leading the charge to fight anti-Semitism gives me hope. But sadly, just because the Pope identified the needed steps doesn’t make them happen.
“Anti-Semitism is an early warning sign of what a world can become,” Lord Sacks noted in his remarks. “If it isn’t safe to be Jewish in Europe, it isn’t safe to be a European in Europe. Anti-Semitism is a virus that mutates,” he said. “No longer is it the anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages, which was about faith, or of the 1930s, which was about race; now it is political.”
He asserted that “anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism,” noting that “legitimate criticism of Israel is fine, but denial of Israel’s right to exist or blaming Israel of all the ills in the Middle East is the newest form of how the virus is appearing in our world, the virus of anti Semitism.”
So should we be hopeful from this conference? Yes. As the meeting began, Italy’s minister of foreign affairs spoke about the great task at hand by saying “the wheel of fanaticism can start anywhere, and we must be alarmed when anti-Semitism grows without any reaction.” And with that a roll call began. A roll call of country after country —from Austria to Macedonia, to the Vatican to Poland — speaking about how anti-Semitism needs to be eradicated. To listen to the representatives of country after country share this sentiment was important but it of course raised the question: Is affirming a stance against anti-Semitism enough?
The answer is “no.” It is a start. This isn’t only about the past, it is about the present. We should be nervous when Holocaust imagery is used against the State of Israel. We should be nervous when Jewish children are attacked in France. We should worry when laws against shechita (kosher slaughter) and brit milah (ritual circumcision) are making their way through Europe. But there is a difference. It is not 1938, it is 2018, and we have a voice. We have a seat at the table. We must use it to defend the Jewish people, to defend Israel; and to defend against hate and discrimination of all religious and ethnic groups.
We do this by acknowledging when hate exists. Focus on digital platforms since there is increasing number of racist expressions on social media; in fact, every 83 seconds an anti-Semitic post is uploaded. Strengthen relationships between religions and governments. This conference was a start. And now we must hold the leaders accountable to make sure the dialogue and action steps continue.
Rabbi Rachel Ain is spiritual leader of Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan.