What is the best way to combat the rise in antisemitic attacks throughout the world, including in the United States?
I have sat through many Knesset committees and meetings with members of parliament from throughout the world in which we were presented with the statistics, and we all bemoaned them and declared that we must do “everything in our power” to stem the tide.
But do those actually make a difference? Not really.
Last week, I attended a Knesset hearing about the alarming rise in antisemitism throughout Europe and in the United States organized by the chairman of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee MK Avraham Neguise, former CEO of Hillel Israel David Ya’ari, and StandWithUs.
What differentiated this hearing from most other committees and meetings I have attended was the audience, and the nature of the testimony.
This hearing included students from the Diaspora as well as European ambassadors from Germany, the European Union and Austria, and senior representatives from the United Kingdom and France. As MK Nachman Shai correctly pointed out, it was disturbing that the US Embassy, despite being invited, did not bother to even send a representative. This is particularly of concern given the rise of antisemitic incidents reported in the United States over the past year. But the ambassadors and government representatives who were there heard first-hand testimony from students, and had to respond to what they heard.
Zachary Zimmer, a high school senior from New Jersey, shared a startling new prism from which to evaluate his coming university selection. “When I toured prospective colleges last year, I considered each through the filter of my own interests, location, size, academic strengths and, unfortunately, the rising tide of antisemitism faced by Jewish students on campus. I had my first encounter with anti-Jewish sentiment at UCLA in 2015, while attending a pre-college program. Taunting me for keeping kosher, a fellow participant slapped me in the face with a piece of bacon. About a week later, I was jostled to the back of our bus because ‘that’s where the Jews sit’.”
Becky Sebo, a former Ohio University student, shared a moving video which showed how she was arrested at a debate in the Student Senate for trying to speak about Israel.
It was refreshing to see ambassadors and Knesset members listening attentively to these first-hand testimonies. These weren’t facts, figures, and graphs in a PowerPoint presentation. They were real, human stories.
The testimony from the students was followed up by a few words from Yosef Kleinman – a Holocaust survivor who testified at Eichman’s trial – who delivered emotional words about the dangers of not responding to the warning signs of increased antisemitism. Michael Dickson, executive director of StandWithUs Israel uncovered using clear examples of anti-Israel sentiment disguising antisemitism.
David Ya’ari then specified four concrete proposals in response to this testimony: 1) calling for a more pro-active follow-up hearing with representatives from more governments to be scheduled in March, and a permanent hearing be entered on the Knesset calendar on each anniversary of Kristallnacht; 2) that ambassadors who were present and their colleagues reach out to their respective governments to ban all expressions of antisemitism including on social media; 3) that United Nations Secretary General Gutteres follow-up on his commitment to combat antisemitism by appointing a special envoy to work with member states on the issue; and 4) the Knesset, Ministry of Strategic Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and relevant NGO’s commit to share knowledge and resources with the Diaspora to strengthen security and provide training for Jewish communities to defend themselves.
The ambassadors were visibly moved by all that they heard, and all committed to concrete actions in order to combat antisemitism in their countries including legislation related to social media.
The Knesset must learn from this hearing which focused on the human side of antisemitism and suggested real action plans and expand it to other areas to give voice to Diaspora concerns, including the Kotel controversy, the long-standing issue of conversions to Judaism, the Chief Rabbinate, and other Diaspora-related issues. Israeli leaders must hear directly from Jewish youth around the world as they describe how they feel disconnected and disenfranchised from Israel. They must hear the horror stories of converts being rejected despite their passion and commitment for Judaism and Israel – from the converts themselves and not from rabbinic or federation leaders.
The Knesset is a phenomenal platform to address issues of concern to Israelis and to the Jewish Diaspora, and can be a useful bridge to the broader community, if we are willing to listen to the people instead of leaving it in the usual realm of meaningless declarations from leaders. Last week’s effective hearing on antisemitism demonstrated that it should not be a one-way conversation with the Diaspora but rather a dialogue and I do believe that there will be tangible results from that hearing. We need to listen more in Israel, understand the human side of the decisions which we make, and commit ourselves to concrete action items and not simple declarations in response.