Exposing anti-Semitism

IN the aftermath of 9/11, commentators proffered the view that finally the world would understand what Israel had endured since its establishment in 1948. So shocking was the assault on the iconic heart of the United States that people would comprehend what it was like to live with terrorism as a reality.

Within minutes, conspiracy theories claimed that 4,000 Jews stayed away from the World Trade Center that Tuesday because they knew of the impending attack. In his recent book “Europe’s Angry Muslims: The Revolt of The Second Generation,” Robert Leiken cites a poll that found that 56 percent of British Muslims and 46 percent of French Muslims believe the Mossad, CIA or an agency other than Arab terrorists was responsible. Recently, Australian students asked a Jewish speaker why no Jews were killed on 9/11 (in fact, the number is estimated at 400 – 13 percent of the total number of casualties).

One might be forgiven for assuming French Jewry would have experienced a wave of empathy after the murder of a rabbi and three children in Toulouse in March. After all, they were 8, 6 and 3, and one child shot after the killer caught her by the hair and fired at point-blank range. Mohammed Merah, who also killed three paratroopers, told police he regretted not having killed more people. He was “seeking revenge for Palestinian children and French military postings overseas,” and resented restrictions on Muslim girls wearing veils.

Incredibly, instead of incurring sympathy, let alone solidarity, French Jews were targeted by an upsurge of aggression and hostility not experienced since the Gaza war. While the initial response from civil society — including some Muslim organizations — was horror, Merah became a role model. He had held France’s elite police at bay, brought its presidential election to a standstill, and was killed in combat. While his actions were sickening to most, to some they were heroic.

Toulouse, and the issues associated with it, was on the agenda of the American Jewish Committee’s recent global forum in Washington DC. Its lessons have resonance for Jewish communities everywhere.

The reality in Europe is that what used to be whispered on the margins of society has moved to the center. Forty percent of Europeans told a survey that Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians.

It begins – if such attitudes ever begin, as opposed to being revived – at the United Nations, which, as Israel’s Ambassador Ron Prosor put it, has triple standards: one for democracies, one for dictatorships, one for Israel. With the UN’s consistently jaundiced message the norm, the distortion flows to member-countries, where those so inclined pick up the perceived wisdom and run with it.

As leader of the anti-Israel movement in Europe, Britain is home to global media and world-class universities, while political leaders pass through daily. The far left opposes Israel as a successor to apartheid South Africa and seeks to argue it out of existence. When a contract for Israel to sell medical products came before the European Parliament to be ratified, discussion dwelt not on whether it would benefit Europe medically, but whether it would benefit Israel politically. Two years on, the contract is still not ratified.

Yet the problem runs more deeply. In old Europe public figures attacked Israel, but never expressed anti-Semitism in public. Today the attacks on Israel are colored by untruths, anti-Semitism is expressed in public, and it is all considered legitimate debate. The result is an environment that allows Toulouse to take place. And when it does, they rush to explain it every which way but what it really is.

So it was that the murder of a rabbi and three children elicited an outpouring of analysis of the killer as victim, harshly treated by society. The consensus: generic racism. One journalist suggested it represented “an attack against diversity” spurred by “the racist climate in France,” citing the burka ban, while EU Foreign Minister Lady Catherine Ashton pointed to the death of children in Gaza.

And so, criticism of Israel blurs into hatred of Jews. Israel is demonized. Jews are demonized. And the real issue — the specific hatred and racism called anti-Semitism — is conveniently, or willfully, sidelined.

The task of Diaspora Jewish communities is to reach out and persuade through the power of reason. No doctrine holds all the truths. But there are facts beyond dispute, there are untruths that demand to be corrected, and there is anti-Semitism, which we are obliged to expose as a distinct form of racism. It abounds in social media, it flourishes in the ubiquitous “apartheid Israel” slur, and when such language becomes part of public discourse, it creates a climate that is conducive to a Toulouse.

The Commentator summarized it thus:

No-one will ever know whether the tragedy in Toulouse would not have taken place if the atmosphere were different. But history teaches that mass demonisation can all too easily lead to the dehumanisation of the group or people or nation being demonised. From there it is one single step to the belief that murder itself can be justified.

If we don’t identify a problem, we cannot hope to deal with it.

About the Author
Chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies in Sydney, Australia. Former editor of the Australian Jewish News. Author of two books on South African history. Former chair of the NSW Community Relations Commission. Former chief sub-editor of The Cape Times in South Africa. Have run 25 marathons, including the Sea of Galilee Marathon.