by Aislinn McNiece
The Center for Jewish Civilization (CJC) hosted Ira N. Forman, former U.S. State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism (SEAS), to give a talk called “Rising Anti-Semitism: Are We Back to the 1930s?” discussing increasing anti-Semitism in the world.
“No,” said Forman — we are not back to the 1930s. However, in the past nine months, “we’ve witnessed a shocking resurgence of anti-Semitism,” noted Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the CJC, at the opening of the event. Since 2017 has begun, over 140 bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers have been made, Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and St. Louis have been desecrated, and the New York Police Department cites a 110% increase in hate incidents in January and February alone, said Berlinerblau.
Berlinerblau welcomed Ira Forman as the “perfect scholar” to speak on these issues thanks to his efforts in the State Department from 2013-2016 advocating on behalf of Jewish communities and articulating U.S. policy on monitoring and combating global anti-Semitism.
Forman cited a Quinnipiac University National Poll that showed 70 percent of Americans believe anti-Semitism is a “very” or “somewhat” serious problem as of March 9, up from 49% on February 8. So, although 2017 is not 1930, Forman said it is critical to use the ideas and lessons from the 20th century to deal with the current uptick of anti-Semitism that “we haven’t seen for 70 years.”
History works in cycles; Forman sees the current trend as the most recent iteration of historical anti-Semitism. The modern economic-political landscape bears critical resemblance to that of the 1930s: population movement, of ethnic minorities then and of refugees and migrants now; economic dislocation of local communities, in large part due to these population transfers; and the related rise of populism and xenophobia. These similarities are compounded by a generational shift, as the Holocaust fades from the recent memory of the general population.
Yet Forman insists that policy-makers should not use these parallels as a way to simplify the problem of modern anti-Semitism. He compared anti-Semitism to a particularly difficult to target cancer, complex in its spread and in the methods with which it must be fought.
For example, Forman cited studies that say 28% of Jewish residents of the European Union have considered leaving their home country as a response to anti-Semitism. The picture is slightly magnified in Hungary, where 48% of the Jewish population has considered leaving, and in France, where 46% of the Jewish population has considered the same. However, Hungarian non-violent anti-Semitism is largely linked to xenophobic right-wing nationalism, whereas violent French anti-Semitism comes from both the left and the right.
And, while these many forms of anti-Semitism have been on the rise for the past 10 years in many European countries, anti-Semitism that is similarly difficult to expunge has only recently emerged in the United States. However, Forman called American anti-Semitism “qualitatively different” from that of the rest of the world, as it is tied to larger issues of human rights and democratic values.
“Anti-Semitism cannot be totally divorced from other violations of human rights. It is absolutely essential this issue of anti-Semitism and these human rights violations do not become partisan issues. That’s a difficult thing in a society like ours, where everything is used for partisan purposes,” said Forman.
Forman argued that although vulnerable communities need security and government protection, words are more important than actions on these issues. From the President down to Congress and the SEAS office at the State Department, government attitudes are critical in shaping a culture against anti-Semitism. However, the most important line of defense, Forman believes, is civil society, from groups as influential as the Catholic Church to cultural mores like political correctness.
Ultimately, there is no perfect solution for anti-Semitism. As Forman explained, anti-Semitism, with a transforming nature, has been a feature of western civilization throughout the majority of Jewish history.
“We are not ending anti-Semitism. It’s been around for millenia, and it’s likely to be around for centuries more. But if we can’t end it, we can shut it down a bit. The metaphor I use is a faucet: we’re not turning the faucet off; we’re turning the faucet down,” said Forman.
The Georgetown community will have the opportunity to hear more from Forman, as he will be joining the Center for Jewish Civilization as Distinguished Visiting Professor in Anti-Semitism in the fall of 2017.