Richard Friedman
Jewish Federation director, Journalist

Convinced McGovern Would Beat Nixon: Lessons For Today’s Anti-Semitism

It was Election Day, November of 1972. I was absolutely convinced that George McGovern, a hero then to many of us 20-somethings, was going to defeat incumbent Richard Nixon and win the Presidency.  After all, everyone of my friends, small suburban DC newspaper co-workers, and family members were voting for McGovern. I didn’t know a single person who wasn’t. So how could he lose?

But he did, in one of the most lopsided Presidential defeats in American history, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. With that came an early “aha moment” for me: Don’t form broad generalizations or conclusions just based on your circle of family and friends.

I was thinking about my McGovern lesson recently in the wake of several conversations and email exchanges I’ve been involved in regarding the growing anti-Semitism in Europe, particularly in France, and more recently, though not yet as severe and violent, in the UK.

I still keep thinking about a meeting that a small group from our Jewish Federation, of which I am the executive director, had in early December in Birmingham with the Atlanta-based French Consul General for the Southeastern US. Our delegation left the meeting shaking our heads, feeling that he was in denial when it came to the anti-Semitic problems in France which had been intensifying for years.

He pretty much scoffed at me when I told him that a worldwide study of anti-Semitism by the Anti-Defamation League released in May of 2014 showed that 37 percent of the adult French population hold negative attitudes toward Jews. “This cannot be true,” he insisted. My hunch is that he, like I did on Election Day in 1972, was reacting based on people he associated with personally, 37 percent of whom may not be anti-Semitic.

The McGovern phenomenon popped up again in an email exchange I was privy to between a relative in the Northeast and a friend of his in the UK. My relative had forwarded to his friend a  story I had written for our daily Federation newsletter on 35% of the British people ranking Israel only behind North Korea as the country they viewed most unfavorably.

My piece noted that this study found that Israel’s standing had plummeted among the British people since a similar survey two years earlier. Analysts attributed it to the civilian casualties that resulted from Israel’s operation against Hamas last summer in the Gaza Strip, despite Israel’s efforts to minimize such casualties.

The British friend responded by challenging the results of the survey and calling my article “nonsense.” He wrote, “The vast majority of people in the UK support the fight that Israel is having with the terrorists on its borders. I, and all my family, friends, and business associates are supportive of the right of the Jewish people to protect their homeland and their faith.”

The study and my story did not claim that all British people viewed Israel so unfavorably, just 35 percent. What is of particular concern, however, is the trending. A new study has just come out showing that anti-Semitic incidents in Britain have increased dramatically. Reported Reuters, “The number of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain rose to a record level in 2014, more than double the previous year.”

And, just a few days ago, according to the UK Guardian, 100 artists have announced they are joining more than 600 others in a cultural boycott of the Jewish state. The 100 issued this statement: “We will accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to its government.” At the heart of the boycott is the way in which Israel defends itself from Palestinian terror and manages a hostile population.

What makes these trending developments unnerving is that in the ADL study, released 10 months ago, the number of UK adults holding anti-Semitic attitudes was only eight percent, one percent less than the US.

I also have been told by some who read our Federation’s daily newsletter that they started forwarding our stories about anti-Semitism to friends and relatives in Europe over the past year. At first, these Europeans denied that the problem was as severe as it was being portrayed. A few months later, however, as things continued to worsen, most of these Europeans confirmed that our reporting was providing an accurate depiction of the situation.

The key point is that we — Jews as well as friends who care about Jews and Israel — must look the problem of growing hostility and hatred toward Jews and the Jewish state squarely in the eye, and then resolve, through organizations such as The Birmingham Jewish Federation, to do something about it.

Recognition of the problem, even if some don’t grasp it at first, is not enough, contends Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency. “This recognition is an important step in the struggle against all manifestations of anti-Semitism — in the streets, on the Internet, in the media, on university campuses, and in schools,” Sharansky said recently. “But it is not enough to deploy armed policemen and soldiers around synagogues and Jewish schools. The problem must be addressed at its very roots, through education, legal steps, and social action.”

“The new anti-Semitism, which fuels many of the violent attacks against Jews, feeds on the delegitimizing, demonizing and double-standards against Israel. It becomes even more pronounced and vicious when Israel is forced to defend itself and protect its citizens,” he added. “The hotbeds of incitement and the root causes of anti-Israel hatred must be dealt with in order to quell all forms of anti-Semitism and ensure that Jewish life may thrive in safety across Europe.”

It is so easy — and natural — to be deluded by the thoughts and views of family and friends who so often reinforce our own views, as I learned as a disillusioned young idealist in 1972. Today, I still value what friends, family and colleagues have to say, but the difference is, 43 years later, I am a realist, and the reality we Jews and Israel are facing today is not very comforting.

About the Author
Richard Friedman is Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama. He also is a well-known Alabama journalist.