The gathering was arguably the largest-ever meeting of Jewish and non-Jewish experts, activists and government representatives single-mindedly dedicated to seeking ways to stem anti-Semitism. It took place in the foreboding shadow of growing anti-Jewish hatred and violence primarily in Europe, illustrated by three murderous, Islamist-motivated attacks in the past year against Jewish targets in Copenhagen, Paris and Brussels. The sheer magnitude of the gathering and the attention that it drew to the problem was the forum's initial success. A sense of urgency permeated the deliberations with the presentation of studies indicating that resurgent anti-Semitism is now at pre-Holocaust levels, with synagogues, schools, kosher markets, museums and other Jewishly-identifiable institutions coming under attack, along with individuals who are recognizably Jewish.
Two main themes—Confronting anti-Semitism and Hate Speech on the Internet and Social Media and The Rise of anti-Semitism in Europe’s Cities Today—helped to focus general discussion, but nearly a dozen other topics were tackled at the forum through a structure of regional and thematic working groups. Prior to the meeting, each working group submitted a well argued mission statement and they are now in the process of finalizing action plans based on intensive discussions held during the forum. As an example of the detail to which each of these groups delved, the working group on Internet and media, co-chaired by B'nai B'rith Canada Senior Honorary Counsel David Matas, formulated more than 65 recommendations for service providers, web hosting companies, social media platforms and search engines, governments and non-governmental organizations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened the conference with a powerful warning that while many believed that after the Holocaust history’s oldest hatred would be discarded, “today there is no doubt that we are living in an age of resurgent anti-Semitism.”
“Jews everywhere are once again being slandered and vilified. This is taking place in the intolerant parts of the Middle East but it's also taking place in what otherwise would be expected to be the tolerant parts of the West. It's taking place in Beirut, in Damascus, in Tehran. But it's also taking place, violently so, in Toulouse, in Paris, in Brussels,” Netanyahu told the forum.
He cautioned, “contemporary anti-Semitism doesn't just slander, vilify and target the Jewish people. It first and foremost today targets the Jewish state … The demonstrations, the boycotts, the resolutions are all reserved for the Middle East's one true democracy, in fact it's the most beleaguered democracy on Earth, Israel … The sad truth is that no rational examination can justify the obsession with the Jewish state, and this obsession with the Jewish state and the Jewish people has a name. It's called anti-Semitism.”
Besides serving as a platform for devising a common plan of action for combating anti-Semitism for the participants and others devoted to this goal, the forum also provided an important opportunity for foreign political leaders to commit their countries and cities to the struggle. Tim Uppal, the Canadian minister of state for multiculturalism, said, “The anti-Semitism of old is re-emerging as human rights in an attempt to delegitimize Israel. This new anti-Semitism targets Jews by targeting Israel and attempt to make the old hatred and bigotry acceptable to a new generation. Our mission to fight the rise of the old and new anti-Semitism begins with acknowledging exactly what it is: racist, hate-filled and completely unacceptable. We as leaders must take a clear and unambiguous stand in support of Israel. For the government of Canada, Israel has an absolute and non-negotiable right to exist as a Jewish state."
Uppal ended by quoting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's speech to the Knesset in which he vowed, "Through fire and water Canada will stand with Israel.”
Paris Mayor Anne Hidlago reaffirmed that French Jews are French citizens and enjoy an inexorable right to live in France and to feel at home.
She declared that “without Jews, France would not be the same country and Paris would not be the same city. We do not want that to happen, ever. We will not tolerate any action against the security and religious freedom of the Jewish community. We will not tolerate anti-Jewish speeches and conspiracy theories. This is absolutely unacceptable. Violence against Jews in France calls for a national reckoning.”
Hiko Mass, federal minister of justice and consumer protection in Germany declared, “Although Hitler was defeated 70 years ago, his ideas unfortunately live on. 1,500 anti-Semitic criminal offenses were committed in Germany in 2014. Given our history, the fact that this sort of thing happens in Germany is a disgrace for our country.”
Speaking on behalf of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Nickolay Mladenov, recently appointed special U.N. coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said that the secretary-general wants to shine a torch on the problems of anti-Semitism, discrimination, xenophobia, Islamophobia and other challenges faced in today’s world.
Mladenov utilized his speech to announce that the United Nations will convene later this year a meeting of civil society leaders to confront anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. “We all share the responsibility to eradicate anti-Semitism and fight it at its roots …The U.N. believes that we must speak out against all forms of intolerance and stand firmly against those who deny the Holocaust. The denial of Israel’s right to exist is often a manifestation of exactly the same ugly bias. The pursuit of justice for all, including for the Palestinian people and the pursuit of peace in the Middle East must not be used to justify violence or hatred against Jews in their communities.”
He concluded by calling on communities to “close the empathy gap” between them and find common understanding.
Ambassador Szabolcs Takacs, Hungarian chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, warned that many forms of radicalism are on the rise in many European countries and societies. Takacs also called on every country to adopt rules and regulations that penalize anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Additionally, he stressed the need to adopt Holocaust education and to establish centers and museums that follow the internationally accepted narrative of Holocaust remembrance: "to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
And U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro pledged "You can count on the United States not to let up. You can count on the United State to be unequivocal wherever legitimate criticism of Israel degenerates into an excuse for anti-Semitism or incitement to violence. You can count on the United States to rally others to that cause and to pursue justice and accountability at home and abroad ant to speak truth in the face of anti-Semitic rhetoric, innuendo and conspiracy theories, no matter the source."
Notwithstanding the importance of these commitments by senior government officials, their significance was put into question by the doyen of the study of anti-Semitism, professor Robert Wistrich, head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of anti-Semitism and author of the most comprehensive book on the subject: A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad.
Wistrich asked: If things are so good and the Jews have so many strong supporters around the world, why are they so bad? He said that while traditional anti-Semitism in its various forms is still present, and in some places even resurgent, it is not the core issue today. Rather, since the beginning of this century, the focus of anti-Semitic attacks has been primarily directed against the State of Israel as the embodiment of collective Jewish existence and symbol of the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland. This is the primary vector through which anti-Semitic ideas are expressed. And, Wistrich argued, it is radical Islam that spearheads this latest brand of Israel and Jew hatred around the world today. Professor Wistrich--who suddenly died of a heart attack while in Rome to address the Italian Senate less than a week after he spoke to the forum--stressed that his intention was not to attack Islam, but rather Islamism which constitutes the abuse or exploitation of one of the world’s great universal faiths for Jihad, with excesses the world can see.
“We cannot ignore the nexus that exists in recent decades between the most murderous, lethal forms of anti-Semitism and hostility toward other minorities that has spilled over into Europe,” Wistrich said.
Wistrich noted an axiom posited by many of the earlier speakers, that Holocaust education is an antidote to anti-Semitism. But he stated that Holocaust imagery and vocabulary are systematically abused today to brand Jews and Israelis as Nazis and Palestinians as victims of this new form of Nazism (“Holocaust inversion”).
Wistrich’s final point was that along with anti-Zionism and Israel-hatred as the central vector of contemporary anti-Semitism, a parallel phenomenon has emerged of Palestine as a kind of redemptive religion that can be realized only if it is fully liberated, completely supplanting Israel. Palestinian anti-Semitism can never be justified. Palestinian anti-Semitism becomes especially challenging as it takes the form of conspiracy theories of the most extreme and brazen kinds that are adopted to the needs of this political struggle. Wistrich urged the participants to confront this challenge, not ignore it.
The success of these deliberations on tamping down the rising tide of anti-Semitism will be tried in the coming weeks and months as each of the working groups submit their action plan to the forum. While no panacea for sure, the 5th Global Forum has the potential of serving as a major milestone in the fight against anti-Semitism, although the task remains daunting.