Amid growing concerns over global anti-Semitism, a panel of experts convened at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on New York’s Upper East Side to discuss the “weaponization of anti-Semitism” and ways to combat it.
At the event, which was hosted by the Bnai Zion Foundation, panelists began by discussed the sources of anti-Semitism: the Israel-hating radical left, the far-right as exhibited by white supremacist and Islamic extremists.
“As bad as this is, it isn’t the 1930s because we have friends and allies in powerful places around the world who are incredibly good partners,” said Elan Carr, U.S. Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism.
Carr, who served as the international president of Alpha Epsilon Pi—the Jewish fraternity that he led in fighting anti-Semitism on college campuses in North America and Europe—also called the “24/7 indoctrination” against Jewish people and Israel taking place on North American college campuses “absolutely disgraceful.” He said the Trump administration is working on an “interagency process on anti-Semitism” that will unite the State Department, the Department of Education, the Treasury Department and the Justice Department to deal with an issue that has become graver and more prevalent.
Holocaust historian, author and professor Deborah Lipstadt kicked off the event by talking about the current increase of anti-Semitic attacks around the world, saying, “I’m not sure if there are more anti-Semites today or the anti-Semites feel more embolden and freer to say and do what they want. It’s a little bit of both.”
She noted that some people too quickly and too often brand someone an anti-Semite, “sometimes thoughtlessly,” which can cheapen the charge. She added, “I’m very concerned about not what the anti-Semites do to us, but what we will do to ourselves because of the anti-Semitism.”
From left: Stephen Savitsky, Elan Carr, Rabbi Elie Abadie of Bnai Zion, Deborah Lipstadt and Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz on stage at a panel discussion on anti-Semitism in New York City, Sept. 10, 2019. Photo by Shiryn Ghermezian.
Lipstadt said people often focus on anti-Semitism to the “exclusion of the positive, with focus on the ‘oy’ as opposed to the joy, and by doing that, we turn Jew into object—what is done to Jews as opposed to what Jews do. We have such a great heritage and to let the hatred become the defining factor would be really to give in to the anti-Semites.”
“We have to be careful of letting [the anti-Semitism] become the defining factor of our Jewish existence and who we are as Jews,” she told JNS.
More than half of the hate crimes reported in New York City so far this year are deemed anti-Semitic, New York Police Department officials said last week. Anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City are up 63 percent this year as compared with last year, and in 2019 there have already been 152 reports of anti-Semitic hate crimes, while over the same period last year there were 93. The last week of August alone saw three separate attacks on Chassidic Jews in the borough of Brooklyn.
Both Lipstadt and Carr agreed that labeling someone an “anti-Semite,” including supporters of the BDS movement and those involved with such organizations as J Street, is “counter-productive.”
‘We need other groups beside us’
Carr, who began his position in February, never calls anyone an anti-Semite. Instead, he explained, “I label what they do and what they say as anti-Semitic. Not who they are. That I don’t know. I think it’s very helpful to say I’m not tagging you, but you should know what you’re saying is anti-Semitic and here’s why.”
He believes that the Arab world is more receptive to discussing ways to confront anti-Semitism now more than ever before because of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal aimed to curb its drive for nuclear weapons and “geopolitical realignments in the region,” and revealed his upcoming travel to the Persian Gulf to engage with leaders on the topic.
“What happens in the Middle East affects the European streets, and the U.S. college campuses, and so if we go to the source and move the needle on anti-Semitism … if these countries can actually change how they speak about Jews and re-educate the population, you’ll see a dramatic change when these populations arrive in the countries to which they immigrate,” he said.
“When you have countries aligned with us whose textbooks [resemble those] out of Germany in the 1930s, that’s unacceptable,” he said. “It becomes so difficult to undo the damage, so investing in that—in preventing the inculcation of children—is one of my top priorities, even in non-radical Islamic Arab and Muslim populations in Europe. It’s a source of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews because when they’re raised and fed with a constant diet of Jew-hatred from the moment they can walk, it becomes very difficult to change that.”
He additionally called for a focused campaign aimed at Arab and Muslim populations in the United States that educates about anti-Semitism, its dangers, how that relates to other minority populations and how to fight it.
Weaponizing anti-Semitism for political gain was also discussed, with Lipstadt saying that using anti-Semitism “as a political cudgel to beat up the opposite side means you don’t really care about it as an issue. We need other groups beside us as we make this fight.”
Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun head rabbi Chaim Steinmetz added, “It’s a great concern that when we’re coming under threat, instead of coming together, we’re fighting with each other. We are saying, ‘I’m allowing my political identity to take primacy over my Jewish identity,’ and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.”
Bnai Zion Foundation president Stephen Savitsky said his biggest concern in stopping anti-Semitism is complacency: “When people start to say it can’t happen, it could never happen, that’s when we run into a problem because it can happen and it will happen unless we do something about it.”
Following the panel discussion, Carr told JNS that eliminating “the world’s oldest hatred” is a very challenging, though he thinks it can be reduced. He noted, “Containment is insufficient. Eliminating it would be nice, but rolling it back is what we’re looking to do in the short run.”
“I think every country and community is different. The triggers [of anti-Semitism] are different but … there are realities that make this one global phenomenon, and I believe the solution has to be fighting it everywhere,” he said. “We need to unify around this important battle of our time. It’s a battle that not only affects the Jewish future, but really affects the future of the United States and all the countries in the world that are contending with this ancient and relentless human sickness.”