“The fight against anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem but one for governments and civil society.”
That was the central message of a day-long, historic conference on anti-Semitism, held at the United Nations on September 7 and sponsored by the US, Canada, Israel and the EU.
Making it clear that the conference had the imprimateur of the UN were the introductory presentations by Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and the current president of the General Assembly.
In the context of the body’s founding, after World War II and the Holocaust, and its foundational resolutions on human rights and genocide, the UN should have been the natural home to counter anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, too often, it has been not a force to diminish hatred of Jews, but a catalyst for a resurgence of anti-Semitism. This was most notably, but hardly solely, evidenced in the infamous 1975 UN resolution equation Zionism with racism, which the first major rationale for anti-Semitism in the post-Holocaust era.
So, when the UN hosts a conference solely devoted to anti-Semitism, as it has now done for a second time, it is an important occasion. And when strong presentations are made by representatives of four governments on why the fight against anti-Semitism needs to be everyone’s business, that too is significant.
The program itself reflected the major theme: it’s everyone’s problem. Official government representatives, including American Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers and Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon, stressed that the struggle against anti-Semitism is a struggle for democratic values and that all minorities are at risk if we don’t stand together against Jew-hatred.
Similarly, government involvement with civil society on this issue was deemed vital because the battle could not be won without the partnership of the public and the private.
Some of the issues addressed dealt with the most blatant forms of anti-Semitism as, for example, when Deborah Lipstadt, professor at Emory University,spoke eloquently on the subject of Holocaust denial and its meaning in the 21st century.
Others, such as Samantha Power, spoke to the conundrum that bedevils serious students of anti-Semitism: when is criticism of Israel legitimate and when does it cross the line into anti-Semitism? While that line is not always agreed on, what was consistent throughout the day was the understanding that attacks on Israel’s good name are an integral part of modern-day anti-Semitism and one cannot be serious about addressing anti-Semitism if one does not take into account anti-Israel activity as either personifying or legitimizing anti-Semitism.
Still others, like Roger Cuikerman, head of the French Jewish community and Chris Wolf, chair of ADL’s Task Force on Cyberhate,spoke to the challenge of confronting one of the great modern manifestations of anti-Semitism: Cyberhate and, particularly, cyber anti-Semitism.
There was agreement that cyberhate is more and more of a problem and is linked to terrorist acts and violence against Jews. How to address this serious problem, however, was not agreed upon, partly reflecting different traditions — European and American — on the nature of free speech and how hate speech must be addressed.
For Americans and American Jews, free speech interpreted broadly is not only constitutionally protected, but is seen as a vital element in the vibrancy of American democracy and the flourishing of Jewish life. The focus then becomes how to work with Internet companies and social media platforms to see that company standards on hate are lived up to rather than turning to the law for remedies.
In Europe, because of a different history, because of the current wave of anti-Semitism and terrorism, and because there is no equivalent of our First Amendment, there is much more of a tendency to look to banning certain speech. All agreed, however, that hate online will be this generation’s main new challenge in the battle against anti-Semitism.
The involvement of society at large in the struggle against anti-Semitism manifested itself in another panel in which non-governmental organization representatives spoke on how Jewish groups encourage and receive support from groups outside the Jewish community. Three themes predominated here: the recognition that working together on such issues benefits all minorities; the added value in the struggle against anti-Semitism when non-Jewish groups speak out; and the need for Jews to be involved in struggles for civil and human rights for African-Americans, Muslim, gays and other minorities.
What was also heartening from this conference was the recognition, alongside the many anxieties surrounding anti-Semitism, that there was much to be thankful for: the State of Israel is a hallmark of Jewish life and security; the Catholic Church has a completely different relationship with the Jewish people than existed for centuries; the international community has accepted a working definition of anti-Semitism, one that includes hatred of Jews connected to hatred of Israel; And that maybe the UN itself will start paying more attention to critical issues of anti-Semitism.
Once again, the most important fact about this all-day conference is that it took place under the auspices of the UN. The ambivalence that haunts American Jews about the world body is its original prospect of helping to ensure a more peaceful and humane world, and its vital role in the founding of Israel juxtaposed with the reality of assaults on the good name of the Jewish state has not disappeared.
None of this should take away from the fact that this was a good day, for democracy, for Israel, for Jews and, for the UN itself.
Jonathan Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League