Published in The Jerusalem Post on November 16, 1997
Is the struggle against anti-Semitism around the world Israel’s fight? For close to thirty years the official answer to this question was a resounding no. Now that’s changed, and there are policy implications.
In Israel’s early years, the unspoken attitude was “if Jews abroad have a problem with anti-Semites they can always migrate to Israel”. Indeed, the founding labor-socialist fathers of Israel were of the opinion that with the establishment of the Jewish state, anti-Semitism would eventually shrink to insignificance. Immersed in the business of building and defending the new Jewish nation, Israel’s leaders had no time for ‘troubles of the past’.
Attitudes began to change in the seventies. The campaign of political delegitimization against Israel launched by the Arabs after the Yom Kippur war often was tinged with anti-Semitism. To many Israelis, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism seemed indistinguishable. After the Rue Copernic synagogue bombing in Paris in June 1982 and other terror attacks Prime Minister Begin took the decision to have Israeli officials begin advising Jewish communities abroad in security measures. Those in Israel who always had believed that “the whole world is against us”, like Begin, made potent political use of this theme, and response to anti-Semitism rapidly found its place on the national agenda.
With the disintegration of the Communist bloc, an enhanced role for Israeli diplomacy regarding anti-Semitism became more necessary and possible. Jerusalem intervened and pressed for government crackdowns on official and street manifestations of anti-Semitism in the emerging states of the former USSR. The wave of neo-Nazi violence that swept Germany in 1993 brought to a climax public clamor for Israeli government action on anti-Semitism. The Knesset held a special debate on the matter, and one former Mossad chief even suggested publicly that Israeli agents act against neo-Nazi leaders.
Anti-Semitism in Arab media and government is now on the government’s agenda too. It was no coincidence that congressmen directly confronted Hosni Mubarak with the issue of anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press, during the President’s March visit to the US.
Then-Cabinet Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein established a Inter-Ministerial Forum for Monitoring Anti-Semitism in 1988, which today involves Diaspora Jewish representatives and academic experts too. The Forum and the ADL founded the Tel Aviv University Project on Anti-Semitism in 1992, a documentation and research center. The Project compiles a report on anti-Semitism around the world which is debated yearly by the full cabinet. Subsequently, the World Jewish Congress joined the consortium, and the Project now convenes an annual conclave of researchers and monitorers of anti-Semitism from around the world. Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh, who chairs the Forum, led–off the most recent such meeting, in October.
Naveh is now pushing the Forum in controversial directions. Firstly, he wants the government and the Jewish groups associated with the Forum to agitate for legislation abroad that will limit access to sources of hate literature, such as neo-Nazi web sites on the Internet. The ADL opposes this approach. They have documented and exposed racist Internet networks and fought for hate crimes legislation which mandates increased penalties for racially-motivated offenses. But Naveh’s proposals involve limits on free speech.
More politically, Naveh wants the Forum to take up Palestinian anti-Semitism, and more specifically, the ‘anti-Semitism’ inherent in the Palestinian Authority-declared death sentence for Palestinians who sell lands to Israelis. Tel Aviv University and the major Jewish organizations fear politicization of the Forum. “Our ability to combat anti-Semitism abroad could be undermined if the Forum is perceived to be pursuing a political agenda’, one of the Forum members told me. “The death sentence for land dealers is definitely a violation of human rights, but is it anti-Semitism? This is, after all, a political conflict over land”, he avers.
Perhaps. But it would be unfortunate if the anti-Semitism of Arafat or that of his colleagues were to be glossed over, by the Project or Jewish organizations, because of any degree of discomfort with the Netanyahu government’s diplomatic posture. Imagery and language that fits nicely with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is becoming commonplace in the Gaza and Ramallah press.
And what do you do when national interest conflicts with principled opposition to anti-Semitism? Take, for example, our decision to sell arms to Croatian leader Franjo Turjdman, a man with undisguised anti-Semitic proclivities.
These are some of the dilemmas posed by our new-found and belated diplomatic agenda in fighting anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, the fact that voice of Jerusalem is now appropriately being heard reflects a maturity in Israeli thinking. It’s not just that anti-Semitism is a global growth industry that threatens Jewish brethren. Racism and anti-Semitism threaten the very fabric of western, liberal-democratic societies, even when Jews are not the first target of extremists. And ultimately, that’s the greatest danger of all.