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Anti-Semitism in 2016: global challenge lacks a global strategy

A wreath of flowers stands outside the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris on Jan. 16, 2015, a week after the Islamist terror attack there that killed four Jewish shoppers. Credit: U.S. Department of State.
A wreath of flowers stands outside the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris on Jan. 16, 2015, a week after the Islamist terror attack there that killed four Jewish shoppers. Credit: U.S. Department of State.

Another week, another litany of ugly incidents targeting Jews, along with expressions of concern about rising anti-Semitism around the globe, and even the odd solution offered up. But as we’ve been slowly learning since the turn of this century, not much really changes.

Let’s start with France, where in the last four years Islamist terrorists have executed two massacres at Jewish sites—first at a school in Toulouse in 2012, which resulted in the murders of a teacher and three children, and then at the Hyper Cacher market in Paris in January 2015, where four people lost their lives.

On Jan. 11, 2016, a Jewish studies teacher in Marseille was brutally attacked with a machete. What identified him as a Jew to his Muslim assailant was his yarmulke. Consequently, French Jewish leaders have been passionately debating the wisdom of Jewish men covering their heads in public.

They have good reason to feel insecure; a poll conducted by the magazine Paris Match revealed that 71 percent of French citizens believe that anti-Semitism is rising. Perhaps encouragingly, 70 percent feel that Jews should not refrain from donning yarmulkes if they wish. But that does not allay the community’s fear that wearing a yarmulke has become an invitation to assault.

Then there is Germany. It was only a year ago that Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed genuine shock at the notion that Jews were, yet again, doubting their future in the land that served as the Holocaust’s cauldron. Her reassurance that she was “glad and grateful” to have a Jewish community was duly noted and appreciated, but the nerves have only increased with the mass influx of refugees from Syria and other Muslim-majority countries over the last few months. Recently, Jewish leaders in Hamburg and Wuppertal have underlined the insecurity prevailing in those two communities.

Across the English Channel, Jews in the United Kingdom continue to grapple with anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism. The latest manifestation of this phenomenon was on display at London University’s venerable King’s College, where a Jewish society meeting featuring Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service and presently a peace activist, was obstructed by rioting pro-Palestinian demonstrators. Windows were smashed and fire alarms were set off as a baying mob of overprivileged students rampaged through what their own university deems a “safe space.”

In America, too, there has been a graphic reminder of the overlap between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Julio Pino, a Kent State University academic known principally for screaming “Death to Israel” at a 2011 meeting featuring Ishmael Khaldi, an Israeli diplomat who is also a Muslim and a Bedouin, is reportedly under investigation by the FBI over possible links to the Islamic State terror group. If that sounds far-fetched, it shouldn’t. The hatred of Jews and Jewish empowerment that lies at the heart of Islamic State’s ideology is also what animates the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, of which Pino, a convert to Islam, is a part.

As I’ve written before, anti-Semitism expresses itself these days less as a sudden cataclysm and more as an accumulation of offenses that slowly chip away at the confidence of Jewish communities. A beating here, a stabbing there, and an occasional gun attack or bombing is what accompanies the drumbeat of anti-Zionist agitation on social media and in the corridors of academia. Each community, moreover, has its own strategy of dealing with the problem, and its own set of relationships with national authorities. What is very much a global challenge lacks a global strategy.

When renewed anti-Semitism became a public concern after the 9/11 atrocities, Western politicians organized conferences, appointed envoys, and confirmed at every opportunity that there was no place in the new century for this oldest of hatreds. But as the years have passed, anti-Semitism has become, to a worrying degree, a presence that is expected. The slow yet reliable repetition of anti-Semitic incidents, along with a discernible uptick in European Jewish immigration to Israel, suggests that anti-Semitism will percolate at this same pace for some time to come, thereby dampening any sense of urgency on the part of governments. Indeed, the idea that there is something normal about anti-Semitism may explain why U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry didn’t bother to mention the Hyper Cacher massacre in his message commemorating the first anniversary of the January 2015 week of Islamist terror in Paris.

It may also explain why Russian dictator President Vladimir Putin, ever the opportunist, issued a bizarre invitation to Jews to escape anti-Semitism by moving to Russia. According to Russian media reports, Putin made the offer at a meeting with European Jewish Congress (EJC) leaders in Moscow, for good measure wiggling his forefinger in a “come hither” gesture. As reported by Tabletmagazine’s Vladislav Davidzon, EJC head Moshe Kantor “showed signs of experiencing visible difficulties in containing his laughter…All six fellow Jewish delegates sitting around Kantor likewise giggled.”

That was certainly a brave thing to do in Putin’s presence, but the fact remains that the Russian president’s invite sounds like the opening gambit of a Jewish joke. (If anyone can think of a punchline, drop me an email.) So why not just enjoy the humor and then forget about it?

Here’s why. The debate should not be about which countries Jews can safely emigrate to. It should be about what is causing anti-Semitism in the societies where they live now—and that means explicitly identifying Islamism, Islamists and their fellow travelers on the left and right as the root of the problem. In Europe, ironically, they are more willing to do that than in America, where the Obama administration is still selling the nonsense that using the word “Islamist” is an insult to all Muslims, but there is still a lack of coherence about why anti-Semitism persists and what to do about it.

In my view, the two most robust answers to anti-Semitism are sovereignty and democracy. Sovereignty takes the form of the State of Israel, which has always been and will continue to be a haven for Jews experiencing harassment and persecution. As for democracy, the argument here is a little more complicated, but it boils down to this: a polity like Russia can never be a true haven for Jews as long as it remains an authoritarian state that cracks down on dissent. Fighting anti-Semitism effectively requires a broader commitment to democratic rights, and an explicit acknowledgement that a culture of liberty is a necessary condition for a flourishing Jewish community.

Vladimir Putin will never understand that. The current crop of Western leaders don’t seem too bothered by it. That’s why, like I said, nothing really changes.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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