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Rabbi Hillel and Global Antisemitism

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By David Matas

Rabbi Hillel asked three rhetorical questions: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?  If not now, when?

The implied answer to the first question is that, if I am not for myself, no one will be for me.  In the context of the combat against antisemitism, that means the Jewish community cannot expect others to combat antisemitism if the Jewish community does not do that itself.  The Government of Israel cannot expect others to combat the antisemitism that takes the form of anti-Zionism if the Government of Israel does not do that itself.

Last week, I attended the High Level Forum on Global Antisemitism, a partnership of NGOs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Government of Israel, which took place at the United Nations in New York last Wednesday. The forum was co-sponsored by the Governments of Canada, Israel, the United States and the European Union. Both the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, and the President of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, addressed those of us attending the forum.  

Many learned sources were quoted. And although Rabbi Hillel wasn’t one of them, he certainly deserves to be remembered.

Admittedly, antisemitism is not only a Jewish problem.  Admittedly, antisemitism is a global problem. But antisemitism is especially a problem for Jews worldwide. Antisemitism is especially a problem for Israel, particularly when it takes the form of demonization of the Jewish state.  If the Government of Israel does not combat antisemitism, especially when it takes the form of anti-Zionism, who will?

The State of Israel rightly takes pride in being concerned about and attempting to protect the safety of Jews not only in Israel, but worldwide.  Indeed, one justification for the existence of the State of Israel is the haven it provides to Jews fleeing persecution.

A signal achievement of the Government of Israel was the Entebbe rescue.  At Entebbe, Uganda, in July, 1976, Jewish passengers, Israeli or not, were separated from non-Jewish passengers in a plane hijacked from Athens to Entebbe to Uganda. Israel forces rescued the Jewish hostages. In the rescue, the Israeli Defence Force unit leader, Yonatan Netanyahu, was killed.

Our modern day Entebbe is global antisemitism. Today, all Jews everywhere are being held hostage to antisemitic hatred.  Our modern day rescuer should be our neighbours, the global community, the United Nations. But if the Government of Israel does not combat global antisemitism, who will?

There is no question that Israelis and the Government of Israel oppose antisemitism. The existence of the Government of Israel supported Global Forum is testimony to that. The question that needs to be asked is, what priority do Israelis and the Government of Israel give to this opposition?

For Israelis, antisemitism may not seem that obvious a threat. Within Israel itself, antisemitism does not have the prevalence it does elsewhere, where Jews are a minority. The danger from rockets and suicide bombers seems more immediate and real than the danger from global antisemitism.

Yet, and this was a common theme of the Global Forum session in New York, there is a direct link between incitement to hatred and violence.   Yesterday, Auschwitz was not built with bricks; it was built with words.  Today, suicide vests and rockets directed against Israel are not built with explosives; they too are built with words.

To the Jewish diaspora, antisemitism is an existential threat not just to Jews outside Israel, but also to the Jewish state.  The Government of Israel and the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, like his brother before him, need to come to rescue of Jewish hostages outside and inside of Israel, hostages this time to global antisemitism.  That means giving to the global combat against antisemitism the priority it deserves.

The implied answer to the second question of Hillel, "If I am only for myself, what am I?", taken in isolation from any context, is that we are selfish.  Put into the context of the struggle against antisemitism, the answer is more dramatic than that.  If the Jewish community is concerned about antisemitism and no other form of bigotry, if the non-Jewish community is indifferent to antisemitism, we, both the Jewish and non-Jewish community alike, court self-destruction.

This second question of Hillel can be approached from two perspectives, from outside and inside the Jewish community.  A theme which ran through the Forum was that antisemitism is not just a Jewish problem; it is everybody's problem. Antisemitism is a racist virus which spreads to other victims.  Antisemitism is a precursor of harm which threatens us all.  A global community that ignores antisemitism courts disaster not just for the Jews, but for everyone.

A metaphor that many speakers at the Forum used is that antisemitism is the canary in the coal mine.  A more modern metaphor might be that antisemitism is a blue screen on a computer; a sign that the whole human community is failing. Antisemitism is a warning of global community self-destruction.  To preserve the human community, we need to work against antisemitism.

Within the confines of the United Nations, this expression of the need for global solidarity was both understandable and welcome. A few speakers noted the contrast between the Forum and the typical United Nations activity, its typical disproportionate focus on Israel to the exclusion of real human rights violators, the platform it gives to antisemitism through explicit demonization of Israel and implicit demonization of the Jewish community worldwide for their existing and even presumed support for Israel.    

The converse is also true.  If the Jewish community concerns itself only with antisemitism, what are we?  Global solidarity must work in both directions, with the non-Jewish community's combating antisemitism and the Jewish community's combating other forms of racial and religious hatred.

Some speakers at the Forum addressed the prevalence of antisemitism within the global Islamic community and how to combat that.  The Pew Research Center Survey of Global Attitudes for 2008 and 2010 showed attitudes of Muslims in Middle Eastern Countries towards Jews almost unanimously negative, with figures as high as 99%. Now many of these same people, with these same attitudes, are coming to Western countries as refugees and experiencing Islamophobia.

Addressing nearly unanimous antisemitism, antisemitism rates as high as 99%, is a test for open-mindedness. Even with this prevalence, there will be some who are tolerant.  Saying all Muslims from certain countries are antisemitic, even when 99% are, is a form of prejudice.

The task of combating such widespread antisemitic intolerance is daunting. Yet, the arrival of elements of this Muslim Middle Eastern population in the West in large numbers as refugees is also an opportunity. Muslims are more likely to recognize prejudice when they see it coming towards them from the opposite direction.

One answer speakers at the Forum gave to combating antisemitism in the Islamic community was finding common cause in the struggle against bigotry which drives both antisemitism and Islamophobia. The Jewish community needs allies within the Islamic community; but we can not expect to find allies within that community unless they can find allies within ours.

The implied answer to Hillel's third question "If not now, when?" is that there is no time like the present. Do not put things off. Delay is procrastination.

Again, the question has a particular resonance in the combat against antisemitism.  The question suggests that there is no need to put off to later a solution to a problem which can be solved now.

With antisemitism, delay is more dramatic than that, because delay does not just continue the problem; it aggravates.  

Neglect in combating the earliest manifestations of anti-Zionism have allowed it to fester and spread.  The virus of hatred, like any virus, is best eradicated quickly to be eradicated effectively. Yet, we are far too late for that, indeed so late that the anti-Zionist virus has already overwhelmed and virtually destroyed substantial elements of the global multilateral and non-governmental system.

The speakers at the Forum proposed a variety of sensible recommendations.  Some of the recommendations were that the United Nations should:

a) at the level of the Secretary General appoint a Special Representative on antisemitism,

b) report annually on how to alleviate antisemitism, and,

c) avoid and cease all funding of activities that practice or promote antisemitism under cover of humanitarian programs.

Internet service providers and social media platforms should:

a) publish a jurisprudence, reporting on the substance of complaints of violation of their terms of service prohibiting hate speech, the decisions on the complaints, and the reasons for the decisions,

b) provide statistics by content category of complaints of violation of their terms of service prohibiting hate speech, and,

c) call on expertise within the community focused on combating antisemitism when deciding on complaints addressed to material claimed to be inciting antisemitic hatred.

The working definition of antisemitism adopted by the European Union Monitoring Centre, including its examples, should be:

a) adopted by other multilateral agencies including the United Nations,

b) used for training of police and prosecutors to assist them in  recognizing antisemitic hatred, and,

c) incorporated into educational materials teaching about antisemitism.

What needs to happen tomorrow is what should have happened yesterday, that the recommendations made at the Forum be implemented. It is never too late to appreciate the urgency of now.  

David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg and senior honorary counsel to B'nai Brith Canada.  He attended the Forum for the organization.

Published : Sep 12, 2016

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