Trevor Norwitz

Sound of the Siren: New Forms of Antisemitism

[In light of yet another international institution – the International Criminal Court – falling prey to the malignant effects of anti-Israel bias and hate, I felt it appropriate to post the remarks I delivered at the recent New York City Bar Association Holocaust Remembrance Day event.]

I am very honored to be included on this esteemed panel. I wish I could also say I am pleased to be here, but I am not at all pleased that this conference is necessary.

I had never imagined that a repeat of the Holocaust would be possible in my lifetime, especially not in the United States of America.

But given what we have witnessed since October 7, we know that it is. It could happen in France, in England, or even right here in America. It could be just one bad leader away. And that leader could come from the left or from the right (because, as has been true throughout history, the only thing that extremists on each side seem to agree on is that, whatever their complaint, it’s the Jews’ fault.)

The hatred is already there.[1]

The lies have already taken hold.[2]  “Genocide!” “Apartheid!” “Ethnic cleansing!”

The demonization is already there.[3]  Holocaust reversal: “Zionism is Terrorism.”

The dehumanization was always there in the Arab press but now it is here too.[4]

The incitement to violence is already there[5] – “By Any Means Necessary” (Including mass murder? Mass rape? Mass kidnapping?) … “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Shall be Free” (of Jews?) …“Globalize the Intifada!” (Kill Jews Everywhere?) – not to mention a touch of bizarre irrationality[6] .. “Gays for Gaza” when you can’t have gays in Gaza?

Is it really inconceivable that we could go from the mass hate, horrific lies and incitement we are seeing today, including vandalizing and desecration of Jewish businesses and synagogues, to what happened in Germany in the 1930s? [7]

I don’t think it is likely, but it is possible and that is scary enough.

It is alarming that the Overton Window has shifted so dramatically in the last decade. This construct refers to the range of positions on any issue that is within the realm of acceptable public discourse.[8]  While in relation to the Middle East conflict, there have always been extreme positions on both sides, in recent years all serious conversation seeking a mutually acceptable resolution has been centered around the two-state solution. There were many difficult issues to resolve concerning borders, security, the status of Jerusalem, and the right of return (whether to Palestine or Israel), but only the lunatic fringe (characterized by folks like Hamas and Iran) were actually at the extreme end of the spectrum on the Palestinian side, still seeking to “drive the Jews into the sea.” Today, however, on college campuses around the US and even among some misguided adults, that – the elimination of Israel and the return of the Jewish people to their historical status as a vulnerable minority wherever they exist in the world – has come to be seen as a legitimate position to express publicly, if not even a preferred position for many.

Today when students scream “Free Palestine!” they are not calling for a Palestinian state but for the elimination of Israel. And their call to “End the Occupation” does not refer to the “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza, captured from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War, but to a return to before 1948, before the establishment of the State of Israel.

A few years ago that was a radical position. Today it is mainstream.

And it is very problematic. How do you engage with someone who can only be satisfied by your ceasing to exist?

How did Israel’s enemies achieve this dramatic shift in 20 years (while Israel was focused on building the “start-up nation” behind what it thought were secure walls)? How was the Jewish dream of security and self-determination turned into this Orwellian nightmare?

That is a very important question but it is beyond the scope of these remarks.  Suffice it to say that there are many factors involved, many parts to the long game that those seeking to reverse the results of 1948 have been playing, including massive investment in education (or rather mis-education) creating the entire colonial settler narrative, which is absolute rubbish and yet is believed by so many who have studied at our “elite” universities or been influenced by those who have, as well as huge investment in professional activism preparing for October 7 and its aftermath. Israel and its supporters were overconfident and did not take these absurd theories and the related threats seriously enough.

To be sure, Israel’s enemies do have certain natural advantages in their quest to foment hatred for the Jewish state, not least of which is immense numeric superiority – the number of Jews in the world is a mere rounding error compared to the number of those who, shall we say, dislike Jews – and this numeric dominance benefits exponentially from modern technology and social media, the most powerful platforms ever created to spread misinformation. In the bizarre “post-truth” world in which we live, every lie tweeted or TikTok’ed out is instantly bounced to a thousand “friends” who each send it to a thousand more and so on.  Even when something is later shown to be an exaggeration or outright fabrication, the truth can never catch up with the lies.  Many of these recipients live in countries where there is no free press in any case. In addition, Israel being a wedge issue or proxy battleground in the power struggle between the West and the “rest” ensures that her enemies receive copious financial, material and diplomatic support from, for example, the BRICS countries (with the “evil I” – Iran – substituting for India).  And Israel’s enemies are aware of another unique asset they possess: the ability to tap into centuries of deep antisemitic conditioning.

But more relevant for us as a gathering of lawyers is that Israel’s opponents have been very successful in deploying a vigorous strategy of “lawfare” in the international arena.

“Lawfare” is the abuse and manipulation of law, legal principles and legal institutions for political gain. With the largest voting block in the UN system – there are 56 members of the OIC (the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) – and the support of many other anti-Western and also some Western countries, Israel’s opponents have been able to manipulate and weaponize (and sadly thereby also undermine and corrupt) a wide range of international institutions.

The General Assembly is an unsupervised schoolyard patrolled by bullies and gangs where any resolution is a mere popularity contest (or the result of quid pro quo deals) rather than having any serious moral basis. The great Israeli statesman Abba Eban once noted that “if Algeria introduced a resolution that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions.” We need not even mention UNRWA which has been proven to be not just an aider and abettor of Hamas but actually complicit in their terrorism. The most tragic of the UN bodies that has been despoiled by anti-Israel hate is of course the so-called UN Human Rights Council, which in its single-minded obsession with Israel has utterly undermined human rights, disappointing actual victims of abuses while protecting the world’s worst regimes. Bias against Israel pervades and corrupts other UN institutions like UNESCO. More recently we unfortunately have seen the ICJ, the International Court of Justice, reveal itself to be more of a political than legal institution, and tragically it seems the same may soon happen at the International Criminal Court.

Add to all the UN rot the anti-Israel fanaticism that has perverted the “human rights” community and it is not surprising that Israel has been branded as a colonial, racist, genocidal, ethnically cleansing apartheid entity. It is all absolute nonsense of course – far more dangerous even than the blood libels of medieval Europe – but the demonization of the nation state of the Jewish people has in this way been given the appearance of a veneer of legal validity.

Hopefully it is already clear and obvious to this audience that these accusations are nonsensical and I do not have to spend any time explaining that. In the materials I have provided are short articles I have written explaining why the ICJ “genocide” opinion is a travesty of justice, and why any comparison to apartheid is a shameful slander. They and other pieces are also available on a little blog I have kept since October 7 on the Times of Israel.

The more interesting question is: why? Why are Israel’s critics pushing these outrageous lies? If they have good arguments – and they do have good arguments for Palestinian self-determination – then why not use those?

The answer is that the people spreading these lies do not want to find a solution to this tragic, painful and long-running conflict. All they want is a dissolution – the dissolution of the State of Israel.

Accusations of this sort – genocide, apartheid – do not just register disagreement with a government or its policies or actions, they argue that Israel itself is, like apartheid South Africa, a moral abomination, its very existence being the problem, and it must be branded a pariah and cast out from the community of nations.

This is the culmination of the strategy embarked on at the infamously antisemitic Orwellian “World Conference Against Racism” in Durban in 2001.

Is anti-Zionism the new manifestation of antisemitism?

Defining Antisemitism is complicated.

What is not complicated? The fact that spreading lies to demonize Jews (whether as individuals or as a people) is antisemitic is not complicated.

Fortunately Israel and the Jewish people do have one thing going for us: the Truth.  There is no genocide. There is no apartheid. There is no ethnic cleansing.[9]  Eventually the truth will matter.

Another truth – and this is the heart of the problem – is that Palestinian leaders (and maybe their people too) have never ever accepted the idea of a Jewish homeland in any part of the land between “the river and the sea,” even though at times they have pretended to. The big anti-Israel tent was built on those lies.

Maybe it is good that they are finally admitting the truth (although many who were drawn in by these lies have by now been so poisoned that it may not matter to them). This does however bring us back to that tricky question: How do you engage with someone who can only be satisfied by your ceasing to exist?

I do not want to end on such a negative note. Not everyone protesting against Israel at the moment is a supporter of Hamas. It is tempting at a time like this – a time of surging antisemitism fueled by hateful lies – to “circle the wagons” and only engage with people around whom we feel safe.  But I would encourage you not to do that.

This time will pass, and while we cannot un-see what we have seen, we will all need the ability to build bridges back to relationships that came under strain.

We have to seek out people of goodwill, even if they seem to have a very different perspective right now. One indicator of their having goodwill is if they are in fact willing to engage. So many of those raging against Israel refuse to speak to anyone who does not already agree with them, and this does appear to be the policy of some of the organizations leading these protests.

But if you do find people of goodwill who hope to actually understand the situation, I urge you to engage with them.  Megan Phelps-Roper, who was a child-spokesperson for a hate group before she saw the light, offers these four “pointers” for such engagement: (1) Don’t assume they have bad motives – they may just not understand or be misinformed; (2) stay calm, even if they are not; (3) ask questions (to see how much they know and where they are coming from) and (4) make the case. You will never convince someone if you don’t make the case.

[1] Many of these points were illustrated with an illustrative slide deck.  The first slide shows photographs of crowds with anti-Semitic posters, including showing a Star of David being put in a garbage bin, and many with swastikas

[2] Slide shows photographs of crowds with posters accusing Israel of “genocide,” “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” and making Holocaust comparisons.

[3] Slide shows crowds with more genocide/ethnic cleaning/etc. posters, and others such as “Zionism is Terrorism.”

[4] Slide shows anti-Semitic cartoons from the Arab press showing Jews as rats, wolves, devils, alligators, etcetera, and a poster placed around Columbia showing a skunk with a Star of David and one from Cornell with a “Jewish” snake strangling the Earth.

[5] Slide shows posters with “Globalize the Intifada,” “By Any Means Necessary,” and “From the River to the Sea.”

[6] Slide shows posters with “Queers for Palestine,” “Transgender for Palestine” and “Palestine is a Feminist Issue.”

[7] Illustrated with slides showing photographs from today and from Kristallnacht.

[8] Also illustrated with slides.

[9] Slide shows how Jews have been ethnically cleansed from Arab countries since the 1940’s, but how the Arab populations of both Israel and Gaza have increased manifold over that time period.

About the Author
Trevor Norwitz is a practicing lawyer in New York, who also teaches at Columbia Law School.
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