“Without power you are dead in the world,” said Dan Meridor, former deputy prime minister and minister of intelligence and atomic energy of the State of Israel, to a worldwide assembly at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center recently. “Nobody learned this more than the Jews.”
The history of Jewish power and powerlessness can be glimpsed above and below ground at the convention center, site of the 6th Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism. The bathrooms are in a below-grade hallway next to the kilns of the 10th Roman Legion, the waist-high remains of which were discovered during the complex’s construction in the 1950s. Standing before these last pathetic fragments of the Roman army that burned the Judean capital and cast the Jewish people into 1,950-odd years of exile, attendees could be reminded of the long history of the matter at hand, along with one possible remedy to the problem—or maybe the only remedy. One of the better articulations of what more than 2,000 people were doing in Jerusalem instead of, say, Ottawa, came from Israeli TV presenter Tamar Ish-Shalom, who hosted the opening night festivities on March 19: “The defeat of anti-Semitism is one of the top foreign-policy priorities of Israel,” she read from a teleprompter.
As the only Jewish country in the world, Israel is in the unique position, and believes it has a unique responsibility, to help cure humankind of one of its oldest and deadliest hatreds. “Anti-Semitism has played an integral role in the development of western civilization,” Charles Small, the executive director of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, accurately pointed out to me. An animating if largely unspoken premise of the Forum is that Israel must therefore fight anti-Semitism as a matter of national purpose, not just for the protection of the world’s Jews but for the benefit of all humankind.
The Forum covered three days of speeches and panels, and featured everyone from the Roman nuncio in Jerusalem to Mayim Bialik. “Hatikva” was never played, and the messaging was admirably chaotic by the standards of any state-sponsored confab—but it was still unavoidably an Israeli government event. “Israel functions in the international environment as a state actor. And that means that we’re bumping into these issues all the time,” Akiva Tur, the head of Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions pointed out. “I think we understand that it’s our job to be concerned.”
Yet the existence of a Jewish state only provides the means to hold such a conference without explaining why that country would think it has an obligation to hold one. A Jewish state could take the following attitude toward anti-Semitism: It is the Diaspora’s problem, and if Jews want safety from the world’s ineradicable hatred, they should just come here, to the sole Jewish country on earth. Conversely, a Jewish state could make anti-Semitism the bottom line of its international relations, navigating each dilemma on the basis of whether a given outcome is ultimately good for far-flung Jewish communities. It could decide that assuring the safety of Israeli communities near the Gaza border, for example, was less important than the safety of Jews abroad, who might be targeted by rioters and terrorists who are purposefully bent on exacting a price for Israeli government actions against Palestinians. It could, but it won’t.
The question of Israel’s proper place in the fight against anti-Semitism might also seem pointlessly abstract in light of present dangers in the Diaspora: From the streets of Berlin to the fortress-like synagogues of France to Poland’s Holocaust law to the chanting and carnage in Charlottesville, Virginia, anti-Semitism is a live issue, more present in the psyches and experiences of more Jews in more places than it has been in decades. Israel has to do something, right?
“We are the Jewish state. We are the only Jewish state,” Ran Yaakoby, the director of the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Department for Combating Antisemitism, told me. He suggested that Israel’s historical experience, so different from that of any other Jewish community that’s ever existed, was part of what made the fight against anti-Semitism an Israeli responsibility. “We see it as a raison d’être of the State of Israel to bring any Jew in distress to this country—this is how we came to be. And there are still Jews in distress.”
Israel has to do something, surely. But do something about what? The Forum’s panels and plenaries were an almost-encyclopedic exploration of what Jews are freaking out about nearly everywhere on the planet. Going by the three days of the Forum, the causes—many of them debatable, and some not—include Austria’s Freedom Party, Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s National Front, Donald Trump, Mahmoud Abbas, Jeremy Corbyn, the alt-right, the far left, the BDS movement, ISIS, Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah, college students, various Protestant denominations, Muslim immigrants to Europe, intersectionality, Islamophobia, Louis Farrakhan, the Women’s March, Linda Sarsour, and animal rights activists who oppose kosher slaughter. More than once, I was reminded of a classic Mr. Show sketch where characters in a horror film bicker over whether it’s a curse or a monster or a ghost that’s menacing them. “Please everyone,” a fedora-clad Bob Odenkirk pleads amid screams and thunderclaps, “we must know what it is we’re supposed to be afraid of.”
An ingathering of nearly an entire Jewish world’s worth of alarm, the Forum provided a similar wealth of options, along with an equally poignant absence of answers. It managed to both encapsulate and somehow evade every current Jewish anxiety, and in the process showed how the pressures of the moment are atomizing a Jewish world that can’t agree on the contours of the very real crisis that now confronts it.
During the opening reception for the Forum, robed sheikhs from Nazareth glad-handed with representatives from Israel’s chief rabbinate. In one corner of the hall, Alkas Cakmak, whose beard was twisted into a single tuft and who revealed himself to be a proud disciple of the Turkish cult leader Adnan Oktar, boasted to me that his teacher had “over one million Muslim youth viewers,” along with “over three million book downloads. … We openly advocate that the Temple should be rebuilt on the Temple Mount … he reads the Torah on-air.” I then found myself sitting in one of the convention center’s main halls alongside a Catholic priest, who gave me an impromptu lesson in confession. One should never prod people to confess, he explained; confession must be their choice alone. “Only prod when they confess other people’s sins.” Onstage, a weird interpretive dance ensued, with four performers entangled in a single long sheet, which was either blue or white or maybe an Israeli flag depending on how the light hit it. The words “the dance of connection” appears in my notes, for reasons I cannot exactly recall.
This vision of comity was thrillingly broken as soon as the forum kicked off. Akiva Tor read a 30-second statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was originally scheduled to attend but was too sick to make it or maybe just didn’t want to be there. Instead, there was Ron Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, who had warned of “the possible demise of a two-state solution” and related possible demise of Israeli democracy in a recent New York Times op-ed. Before Lauder the crowd heard from Naftali Bennett, Israel’s charismatic minister of Diaspora affairs and a global boogeyman for people who feign concern over the country’s rightward shift. “Ron, I read your column in the New York Times. Not a great piece,” Bennett began. Lauder, who spoke directly after Bennet, did not respond in kind. “Before I start, Naftali, we may disagree on many things but when it comes to Jewish life and fighting anti-Semitism and what it means to be a Jew, we are 100 percent there and the Jews of the Diaspora are with you 100 percent, thank you.” Anti-Semitism, Lauder continued, “is as old as the Torah and as modern as the internet.”
But back to Bennett’s speech, which was memorable and frighteningly substantive. In contrast to Lauder, Bennett articulated a dazzlingly simple theory of Jewish history, communicated with a directness that made his theory sound like an unquestionable law of existence. “The Jews came to fight with us, to fly our planes when we didn’t know how to, to procure equipment,” Bennet said, describing Israel’s violent and lonely early years. “Now, it’s our turn to give back.” Israel “has taken upon itself a mission to strengthen the Jews of the world.”
While Jews in Israel are powerful and secure, Bennett explained, the Jews of the Diaspora are weak. “What keeps me up at night is not the enemies on our borders,” he said. “What keeps me up at night is the future of the Jews abroad.” Even a worldwide menace like the BDS movement wasn’t dangerous because of how it might threaten Israel, Bennett explained. It had to be fought primarily for the benefit of Jews abroad. “The BDS movement to injure and harm Israel’s economic interests is losing. Israel is winning,” Bennett pointed out. But the BDS-ers are “looking for the weakest link,” i.e., Diaspora Jews on college campuses or other mono-culturally liberal settings who, out of apathy, fear, or active sympathy, are more than happy to shrug off the boycott movement’s “anti-Zionist” hectoring. The real reason you’re here, Bennett seemed to say to Diaspora Jews in the audience, is because we’ve eclipsed you, and because we are succeeding where you are beginning to fail. You have helped us, but now we are going to help you—and if we disagree on what “help” means, then the best we can offer is that we’ll listen to you. If we don’t like what you have to say, we can also sneer at you, even if you’re Ron Lauder.
The Israeli minister of Diaspora affairs and the head of the World Jewish Congress are strange mirror images of one another: They each claim to work in the general interest of all the world’s Jews, but from opposite ends of one of the defining fault lines in Jewish life.The next day, in the most dramatic moment of the Forum, you could once again see the two blocs, Israelis and Diaspora Jews, eyeing each other across an uneasy and growing chasm.
Day two featured panels about “Countering Antisemitism Through E-Learning,” and “The Persistence of Christian Theological Antisemitism.” At various sessions, I learned that there is, in fact, an entire anti-Semitism bureaucracy, a kind of miniature Jewish version of the misogyny bureaucracy celebrated during the annual Commission on the Status of Women, or the arms-control bureaucracy that lauds its own dizzying accomplishments during the twice-a-decade review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Both of those events are held at the United Nations’ New York headquarters, which is like a secular Rome, or maybe the airport outside Rome.
Jerusalem is not the United Nations. It is not a place for napping. The weight of each and every occasion is undeniable, down to the fine print.
There is apparently a working definition of anti-Semitism formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance that a handful of governments have officially adopted. Jew-hatred can be mapped and plotted, and the social science of anti-Semitism has yielded some intriguing insights. As Charles Small told me, a recent poll of 10,000 people from 10 European countries showed that “levels of anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing are relatively low. But Israel-bashers were 13 times more likely to be anti-Semites.”
In theory, hate should be simple to recognize, and it should be easy for a religious or ethnic or racial group to figure out who its enemies are. But reality isn’t always so obliging—at least not to the Jews. According to opinion surveys using standard political science methodologies, it turns out that most people are not anti-Semitic and pay little actual attention to Jews, even in countries that we’ve become accustomed to thinking of as trouble spots. “The majority of Brits are not anti-Semitic,” Michael Whine, the head of international relations for Britain’s Community Security Trust told me, and added that studies showed only 2 to 5 percent of his countrymen held hardcore anti-Semitic views. “They don’t care very much about Jews and they don’t think very much about Jews. It’s not on their horizon.” Jewish life was thriving in the land of Corbyn and Brexit, Whine argued. “We’re a community that’s increasing in size after years of diminution. We educate 60 percent of our kids in Jewish day schools.”
Hungary is another country where things look ominous from the outside. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s populist leader, is a right-wing demagogue of the kind that usually turns his attentions to the Jews sooner or later. In the run-up to Hungary’s election, which took place a few weeks after the Forum, Orbán had overseen the construction of 4,500 billboards across the country attacking the financier and Orbán critic George Soros, thereby turning a Jew—also an international financier—into his government’s top public enemy. Yet from the inside, things really aren’t so bad, according to András Heisler, the president of the Hungarian Jewish community. “The government is very positive to Israel,” he told me, describing Hungary, like Britain, as a “vibrant community,” which had recently gotten critical government assistance in constructing a new $12 million medical facility in Budapest. “I think that Orbán is not anti-Semitic and the Hungarian government is not anti-Semitic. This is very important. But the fact of this campaign [against Soros], this is perhaps anti-Semitic,” Heisler conceded. “We brought a letter to the prime minister and we asked to stop this campaign. But the campaign is going.”
The ambiguous state of things in Britain and Hungary, and the equally fraught question of how and whether Jews from the outside should try to help seemingly imperiled communities, points to the uncertainties of what is commonly agreed to be an upswing in anti-Semitism—in other people’s countries, at least. Yet the discourse around racism and anti-Semitism also often underrates how fluid hatred can be in practice. Hate can be defined and tracked, but before it becomes operative in the real world—before it metastasizes into a political or historical force—bigotry and conspiratorial thinking is locked within individual minds, a set of inchoate impulses and hazy mental sets waiting to be stoked into a public contagion. “Red lines are really being pushed into the middle of society,” Felix Klein, the special representative for relations with Jewish organizations for the government of Germany, where the nationalist Alternative für Deutschland went from having no seats to being the third-largest party in parliament during last year’s federal election, fretted to me. “When politicians say, ‘We should be proud of all the successes of German soldiers in World War II,’ that’s something no one would have dared to say 10 years ago.”
The second plenary session on day two, titled “Antisemitism and the Rise of Far-Right Parties in Europe: Defining the Threat and Means of Response,” focused on dangers from radical nationalists and neo-fascists. Jewish Agency chairman and refusenik icon Natan Sharansky warned of “rising parties in Europe, and in America by the way—forces that say they like Israel but have problems with Jewish communities.” In Sharansky’s view, “we must be absolutely, clearly against these forces.” Shlomo Avineri, a Hebrew University professor and former director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, characterized the dilemma facing Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities even more starkly. “Not everybody who likes Israel likes Israel because of Israel or because of Jews,” he said. “Many people support Israel because they think that we are fighting Islam.”
Ariel Muzicant, a vice president of the European Jewish Congress and a prominent figure in the Austrian Jewish community, then joined Avineri and Dan Meridor onstage. Muzicant reviewed the extensive ties between the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which is now the third-largest in Austria’s parliament, and various Nazi-adjacent fraternal organizations. At the end of the presentation, a viewer was left with little doubt that the FPO’s leaders have alarming fascist sympathies and that their success is highly concerning. The Israeli government currently boycotts the FPO—“We’re the only country in the world that’s not talking to the Freedom Party,” Tur pointed out to me. “The only one.”
But there are voices in Israel, Muzicant explained, who believe in engaging them. “Some of the members of Israeli politics are pulling the carpet from under our feet,” he said, to a smattering of applause. “The prime minister of Israel has talked about changing the pattern of not to have contacts with these ministers from the party.”
Muzicant then delivered his real message, which was related to the horribleness of the FPO but had implications beyond one particular group of Nazi enthusiasts. “I’m asking, who are we? What is happening in Israel? Don’t we see what’s going on? These ministers need the hechsher [approval] of the Jews. And if they can’t get the hechsher of the Jews in Europe, they need the hechsher of the Jews in Israel.” He pleaded with the Israeli officials present “not to be bought by simple realpolitik.”
As Muzicant implied, the debate about the FPO was one manifestation of a broader problem. The Austrian far-rightists occupy the extreme side of a spectrum that includes Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, and, inevitably, Donald Trump. In each instance, Israel and the Jews have to contend with political forces hostile to local communities (or at least widely perceived as such) but too powerful or politically useful for a small and embattled country like Israel to ignore.
Because it’s especially hateful, the FPO is a crucial test for whether Israel stands for the Jews or only for narrow national interests, the panelists agreed. “It’s not only a matter of cynical cheshbon, calculation, whether it’s good for me or bad for me,” Meridor said of the FPO and related dilemmas. “If we don’t stand for these basic values, what are we? It’s not about European Jews. It’s about Israel. What country are we?”
Amazingly, they opened the floor for questions. An extraordinary outpouring of anxieties followed.
“Why aren’t we talking about Nazis in Ukraine?” a vehement middle-aged man bellowed in broken English—he would interrupt a number of other sessions, and his borderline derangement always had me wondering at the source and meaning of his pain.
“Why aren’t we talking about anti-Semitism in South Africa?” another questioner asked.
“What about the Muslims, who are the real drivers of anti-Semitism in Europe?” another alleged.
“How about the Arab parties in Israel, or Abu Mazen?”
“What about Donald Trump?” an audience member wondered. During our interviews, none of the Israeli government organizers of the conference would breathe a word to me about the U.S. president, although onstage Avineri acknowledged that “the Trump presidency is not an easy challenge for Jews and Israelis.”
The audience members had a point, sort of. I had a few “what about” questions of my own. Over the course of the three-day conference, I had heard almost nothing about the Gulf states’ long-standing promotion of anti-Semitism. “I hear you,” Yaakoby told me when I raised the issue of Gulf-funded anti-Semitism with him. “But now I ask to turn around and look and see who’s standing behind you. There’s a rabbi, and there’s an imam, and this is my answer.” I turned around. There was indeed an imam and a rabbi conversing nearby. “If you choose to be on the dark side, to hate, gezundheit, what can I tell you?” Yaakoby continued. “But if you choose to dialogue and to look for ways and paths, you have them here, in Jerusalem.” Evading the Islamist character of some non-insignificant part of modern-day anti-Semitism is a matter of political decorum and basic decency for a country with a large Muslim minority and key allies throughout the Islamic world. Yet just as obviously, it is a diplomatic untruth.
More irritating was the total absence of any discussion, from what I could tell, of the anti-Haredi bigotry that constitutes some of the most frequent and worrying yet completely ignored anti-Semitism in the democratic world. During a single week in April, three Jewish men were assaulted in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, the home of the Chabad Hasidic movement; in 2017, the village of Bloomingburg in New York state paid $2.9 million in damages after it became clear that local government was conspiring to keep out a Haredi residential development. Because the Haredim are the most obviously Jewish people on earth, they are frequent victims of anti-Semitism and a warning signal about the presence of submerged bigotries. Anti-Haredi incidents expose the limits of even a very tolerant society’s philo-Semitism. And yet the specific problem received no special treatment, or even a single mention at the Forum.
Is it even possible for the Jewish world, and the Jewish state, to reach any kind of consensus on anti-Semitism? The same forces that made the Forum possible also make these questions impossible to resolve. Israeli state power can put anti-Semitism on the global agenda. But the moral and political imperatives of a state will always be different from those of Jewish communities that are often powerless, precarious, or dying.
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