Should Israel lead the fight against anti-Semitism?

It is preferable for Israel to remain what it has always been—a beacon of hope and a refuge for those who need one, but absolutely not a substitute government for Jews in the Diaspora.

A demonstration against the BDS anti-Israel movement at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London on April 27, 2017. Credit: Philafrenzy via Wikimeda Commons.
A demonstration against the BDS anti-Israel movement at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London on April 27, 2017. Credit: Philafrenzy via Wikimeda Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

The just-published Annual Assessment of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) makes for sobering reading when it comes to the section of anti-Semitism.

It’s not that the report contains any new information or fresh insights. Largely culled from the reporting of other institutions, the analysis in the JPPI publication notes that during the last two years, two events—the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas in May 2021 as well as the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic—have profoundly shaped antisemitic discourse and our perception of it. Further, it observes that the “fight against anti-Semitism has attained increasing awareness and support. It is the focus of more conferences and seminars than ever before, and legislative initiatives against anti-Semitism have multiplied.” Yet despite “the proliferation of initiatives, some reports have declared the effort to eradicate anti-Semitism a ‘failure,’” it adds.

Given that there is a question mark over whether anti-Semitism can ever be entirely eradicated, as opposed to controlled and marginalized, such judgements on existing efforts are perhaps unfair. Nevertheless, it is certainly true that in recent years, an unprecedented infrastructure for countering antisemitism has crystallized in place at just the same time that the problem has worsened on a scale not witnessed since World War II.

Many democratic countries have appointed government officials to deal with fight against anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish life more broadly. This global infrastructure is almost 20 years old, with the first steps towards its creation emerging in 2003 in the wake of a major inter-governmental conference on anti-Semitism hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). During that time, these officials have stressed similar themes to counter anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean: more Holocaust education in schools, more training for police officers, emergency responders and other frontline personnel in recognizing and responding to anti-Semitism, and the active promotion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, which includes instances of anti-Zionism among its examples.

A particularly grim account of what the resurgence of antisemitism has meant for Jewish communities was provided last week by Eddo Verdoner, the government-appointed national coordinator to counter anti-Semitism in the Netherlands. In an extensive interview with the Dutch newspaper Trouw, Verdoner revealed that his office is inundated with reports from Jewish students and Jewish employees that complain of anti-Semitic harassment—for example, Jews being told they have to first criticize Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians before they are permitted to participate in a campus debate.

“The result is that Jews hide their identity or apologize for it,” Verdoner remarked. “Children say: ‘Why am I even here?’ Or they don’t even want to be a Jew at all… A child should be able to express his identity at school, a student should feel safe at university, and in the workplace people should be able to say that they are Jewish to colleagues without any worries.”

This disarmingly simple statement is more revealing than the dry statistics that document the rise of anti-Semitic agitation in both Europe and North America. Essentially, Verdoner is saying that the climate of fear among Jews in the Netherlands—where the size of the community is estimated between 30,000 and 50,000—has become so great that it is a factor in their day-to-day routines. Will my Jewish identity, many Dutch Jews are evidently asking themselves, create a fresh problem for me today?

As the JPPI report makes clear, these issues are not confined to the Netherlands. In France too, it notes, Jewish students are equally prone to hiding their identities in the face of hostility, while the discernible movement of Jews from neighborhoods that are less Jewish into those that are more so—dubbed by some an “internal Aliyah”—continues apace. And hiding Jewish identity is even a factor in the U.S. The JPPI report cited an American Jewish Committee study which discovered that “four out of ten American Jews say they have avoided posting content online that would reveal their Jewishness or their views on Jewish issues, and 22 percent refrained from publicly displaying Jewish items.”

While the JPPI report doesn’t really tell us anything about anti-Semitism that we didn’t already know, it is nevertheless a useful overview of its global dimensions. Striking, too, is its conclusion.

“The return of anti-Semitism could become a long-term fixture of global discourse, while the ability of Jewish communities and Israel to influence it is limited,” it states. “Under these circumstances, Israel, as the world’s strongest Jewish organizing force, cannot confine itself to attempts to ‘fight anti-Semitism.’ Israelis must understand what it will mean to live in an era when anti-Semitism is a persistent factor in Jewish life, and prepare for that era accordingly, while formulating plans for appropriate explanatory, diplomatic, and security activity.”

Hence, the report went on to say, the response to anti-Semitism should be entrusted “a single integrative body with powers and implementation capabilities” created by the Israeli government. For anyone familiar with the troughs and peaks of anti-Semitism over the last 20 years, such a proposal should give pause.

The Israeli government has been an important partner in the fight against anti-Semitism, for example running a vocal social media campaign to counter the anti-Zionist Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement through its Ministry of Strategic Affairs. But it doesn’t follow logically that the Israeli government should be the main address for those who want to step up the fight against anti-Semitism.

There are several reasons for this. To begin with, anti-Semitism impacts Jews who are citizens of other countries, not Israel; it is their governments that need to be mobilized and it is local Jewish organizations, not Israeli diplomats, that are best placed to secure that response. Additionally, Israel is not just a Jewish state but an active member of the international community; in recent years and months, Israel has encountered diplomatic tensions with Poland, France and Russia among other countries over domestic anti-Semitism. Will making anti-Semitism a confirmed priority lead to more or less clear thinking when it comes to formulating Israeli foreign policy? The jury is out on that question.

Finally, and depressingly, Israel taking the reins in this particular fight will simply reinforce the anti-Semitic meme that all Jews are closet Israelis who are more loyal to Israel than their countries of citizenship. Better, then, for Israel to remain what it has always been—a beacon of hope and a refuge for those who need one, but absolutely not a substitute government for Jews in the Diaspora.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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