The responsibility of institutions in the tsunami of contemporary anti-Semitism

Though a seeming paradox, the origins of renewed unabashed expressions of Jew-hatred—which were taboo in the West for about three decades after World War II—can be traced to decisions taken by international bodies.

An anti-Zionist rally in Melbourne, Australia, Jan, 4, 2009. Credit: Wikipedia.
An anti-Zionist rally in Melbourne, Australia, Jan, 4, 2009. Credit: Wikipedia.
Fiamma Nirenstein
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies.

The “Working Definition of Anti-Semitism,” formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2015, has been adopted by most European countries. Those who signed on to it recognize that countering anti-Semitism requires fighting prejudice against the State of Israel.

They have even have used IHRA’s definition as the basis for nominating anti-Semitism and for forging policy. Unfortunately, however, they have not implemented it where Zionism and Israel are concerned.

The text of the “Working Definition” reads as follows: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

This political bias against Israel easily metastasizes into hatred of the Jewish people, using the Jewish state as the latest excuse. It is a phenomenon that I have dubbed “Israelophobia,” the title of a book and diplomatic project, based on a year-long study guided by my colleague, Dan Diker, at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA).

Ninety-eight percent of Jewish respondents to a CNN poll last year cited this phenomenon as key to a new stream of anti-Semitism—one that condemns Israel and accuses it of behaving like the Nazi regime.

In the most extreme, but no longer rare cases, this attitude towards Israel is translated into terrorist acts against Jews in the Diaspora. Mohammed Merah—who opened fire on the Ozar Hatorah Jewish Day School in Toulouse, France on March 19, 2012, killing a rabbi and three children—declared that he had done so in revenge for the children killed in Gaza by Israel.

Merah is not alone. Anti-Semites often claim that their acts of violence against Jews are in the name of justice and resistance. Recently, such justifications have become part and parcel of various mass movements, such as Black lives Matter and the Yellow Vests.

Though a seeming paradox, the origins of or support for a renewal of unabashed expressions of Jew-hatred—which were taboo in the West for about three decades after World War II—can be traced to decisions taken by international institutions. These include, but are not restricted to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379, adopted in 1975, which determined that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination,” and the “United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict” in 2009, also known as the “Goldstone Report.”

The latter, issued by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, ultimately recanted his biased anti-Israel conclusions. Sadly, the international anger and vitriol against the Jewish state aroused by the report did not do a similar about-face.

The discussion on how international institutions can combat anti-Semitism is ongoing and by now no longer novel.

Today, it is important to add a new dimension to the issue and focus on what the great historian, Bernard Lewis, called “political anti-Semitism masked as political criticism.”

This type of camouflage is rife within many world bodies, which on the one hand claim to be battling anti-Semitism, while actually promoting it by pretending that their criticism of the Israeli government’s behavior is merely political.

Of course, not all critiques of Israeli policies constitute anti-Semitism. But it is not difficult to distinguish criticism from prejudice. The key difference is evident when the Jewish state is held to a different standard that other countries.

Indeed, criticizing a country’s so-called “occupation” of another people cannot be lodged exclusively at Israel, without speaking about China, Morocco and Turkey, to give but three examples among many.

This brings us back to the IHRA definition, which includes the three “D” principles defining anti-Semitism: demonization, delegitimization and double standard, as outlined by former Soviet dissident and Israeli minister Natan Sharansky.

Though many international institutions have reacted to the upsurge of anti-Semitism—sparked by the coronavirus pandemic—and have been careful to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive while fighting its denial, much more has to be done to refute the multi-faceted and overwhelming delegitimization of Israel.

This involves destroying prejudices that often emanate from the institutions themselves. The consequences of such bias is sometimes clear and sometimes less so.

On June 28, the slogan “massacre the Jews” was chanted in Brussels, home of the European Union Parliament, just as the E.U. and the U.N. were threatening sanctions against Israel if it dared to proceed with the “annexation” of the Jordan Valley and Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria—in accordance with U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan.

Media outlets in Europe were overflowing with pieces against Israel’s plan to extend sovereignty to those areas. Hundreds of parliamentarians and academics were signing documents demanding that the move be prohibited.

More than 30 percent of Area C of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria)—the area under Israeli control, according to the Oslo Accords—was being referred to as “illegally occupied territory.” Claims that sovereignty in that area would guarantee Israel’s being an “apartheid state.”

As stated above, it is legitimate to disagree about whether Israel should extend sovereignty to Judea and Samaria. But the discussion in Europe has not been political; it has been ideological. Whatever one’s opinion on the issue or views on a solution, the fact is that the territory in question is “disputed,” not “occupied,” and that Israel is not—nor every will be—an apartheid state in any sense of the word. Nor is it colonialist, fascist or engaged in “ethnic cleansing,” as so many haters insist.

The political role of public institutions is to recognize and eradicate such distortions, especially when they pave the way to various forms Jew-hatred. The JCPA has put together a list of the “three pillars” of the defamation of Israel that must be addressed.

The first is what the late historian Robert Wistrich called “Nazification.”

This is the attempt to rebrand Israel’s defensive wars against terrorists as crimes against innocent civilians, particularly children. Such propaganda goes as far as to accuse the Israel Defense Forces of harvesting the organs of Palestinians.

The second pillar surrounds the false mantra, repeated without let-up, of “illegally occupied territories,” suggesting illegitimacy and aggressive expansionism. Again, as state above, the territories in question may be “disputed,” but they are not illegally occupied, as the three millennia of Jewish history in the land of Israel proves.

The third pillar rests on a lack of condemnation and containment of the stated intention of mass murder of Jews, spelled out most specifically by the Islamic Republic of Iran, often by Palestinian terrorist groups Fatah and Hamas and even by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Language is substantive. And it is terrible for public morality and the education of youth to allow such perverse rhetoric as that which Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spouts to go unpunished. When he says, for example that the “festering Zionist tumor has opened once again … and has littered the land with body parts of Palestinian children,” he should not be greeted, as he is, in so many institutional settings.

It is incredible to consider that Iranian diplomats and ministers have been hosted, welcomed, even saluted, in European parliaments. More shocking is the statement made in February 2019 by Spanish politician Josep Borrell, currently serving as High Representative of the European Union. In an interview with Politico, Borell said, “Iran wants to wipe out Israel; nothing new about that. You have to live with it.”

There is no question that things are getting worse. Growing populist dissent on the left and right has brought confused and violent masses into the streets, and the old habit blaming the Jews for everything has soared with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

It is more urgent than ever for international institutions to act. Though, of course, they must reaffirm the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, this will mean very little if they allow for the unfair and dangerous demonization of the Jewish state.

To reiterate, there are legitimate discussions to be had about Israeli policy. But it is totally illegitimate to ignore the institutional anti-Semitism that has become popular, violent and in many cases deadly.

Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

This article was adapted from the author’s opening remarks at the JCPA roundtable webinar on the challenges and critical role of institutions in countering international anti-Semitism, held on Oct. 20, 2020. 

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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