The Year the Jews Stood Up to Netanyahu - and Other Enablers of Racism

In the U.S., Europe and Israel, it was a dismal year of national leaders propelling and appeasing nationalism, anti-Semitism and racism. But also moments of intense Jewish pride: Jews calling out, openly, racism that targets them – and calling out the Jews who perpetrate racism as well

Anshel Pfeffer
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Clockwise from top left: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and Jeremy Corbyn.
Clockwise from top left: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Jeremy Corbyn.
Anshel Pfeffer

On the face of it, 5778 has been a pretty dismal year for Jews around the world.

The largest Jewish community in the world continues to face a resurgence of racist supremacism, energized by a president who is happy to have neo-Nazis and Klansmen as his natural supporters.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan rally in support of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. July 8, 2017.

On the other side of the Atlantic, British Jews are facing an outbreak of nativism on the Brexit right and anti-Semitism, coupled with anti-Semitism denialism, on the Corbynist left.

Across the European continent, nationalist populism is on the rise, impacting upon Jews in various countries in different ways. 

A rise in violent hate-crimes in France, a return of Nazism to Germany - unprecedented in scale since the end of WWII, Holocaust revisionism in Poland, a blatantly anti-Semitic campaign in Hungary against Holocaust survivor George Soros, notorious Jew-baiters as regular columnists on the Kremlin’s propaganda channels in Russia, a resurgent far right in Sweden. And that’s a just a partial list.

To make things much worse, many of these racist presidents and racism-enabler prime ministers are routinely embraced by Israel’s prime minister, when Benjamin Netanyahu judges it to be in his political interest.

If we thought Netanyahu could stoop no lower than he had last year, when he betrayed Hungarian Jews by rescinding the Israeli ambassador’s condemnation of Viktor Orban’s anti-Semitic campaign against Soros, he plumbed new depths this year. Netanyahu’s joint declaration with Mateusz Morawiecki, officially whitewashing the Polish people of their well-documented persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, was so egregious that Yad Vashem’s own historians were compelled to protest his distortion of history.

All of this was also what made this year special.

Yes, racism is on the rise, directed at many ethnic groups and minorities as well as Jews. And sadly, directed by Jews towards others, and tolerated by Jews. But we saw this year also an invigorated attempt by Jews everywhere to stand up to this.

Take the statement by the Yad Vashem historians, for example, in which they comprehensively demolished the Netanyahu-Morawiecki declaration. It’s no simple thing for employees in a national institute funded largely by the Israeli government, an institute whose largest donor is Netanyahu’s patron and benefactor, Sheldon Adelson, and for research purposes is reliant on its ties with Polish institutions, to openly defy both prime ministers of Israel and Poland on such a sensitive matter.

>> With Nationalists in Power, Can Jews Ever Feel at Home in Poland? | Opinion >> Jewish Nation-state Law Makes Discrimination in Israel Constitutional | Opinion

Many Jewish institutes and individuals found their voices this year.

Take for example two of the most staid establishment bodies in the Diaspora – the Jewish Federations of North America and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Both this year issued official statements against the Knesset’s racist nation-state law. Sure, the criticism was measured, neither group actually used the R-word, but just by taking sides in a bitter internal political debate in Israel, JFNA and BoD had crossed a hitherto red-line.

It wasn’t just the nation-state law. There was much Jewish racism to be ashamed of this 5778, a year that ended fittingly in the state visit of the Hitler-admiring Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Jewish racism that in no circumstances justifies any anti-Semitism thinly veiled as "anti-Zionism," but certainly made it that much more difficult for Jews to confront racists in their own countries.

>> Heard the Joke About Bibi Welcoming Duterte to Israel? It's a Killer | Opinion 

But there were also many moments of intense Jewish pride.

If you want to relive one of them, go online and watch April's anti-Semitism debate in Britain’s parliament. Watch Jewish Labour MPs Margaret Hodge, Ruth Smeeth and Luciana Berger, among others, speak out on the racist and misogynist abuse they have suffered as Jewish women from supporters of their own party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, sitting a few meters away, stony-faced and silent on the front bench.

Their political careers are now at risk, as an influx of hard-left party members are planning a "deselection" purge of MPs not willing to toe the Corbynist line and remain quiet at the surge of anti-Semitism. But they spoke out in parliament, as they have done consistently, despite the torrents of hate, the entire year.

Jews spoke out this year not only against anti-Semitism, but against other forms of racism, like never before.

In a year which also an awful rise in hatred towards migrants, both individual Jews and Jewish organizations were on the front-lines - from the United States, to Hungary, Israel, Italy and Australia, extending material and legal aid and advocating on behalf of migrants and refugees

And within Jewish communities, once taboo subjects, including attitudes towards converts, Jews of color, LGBTs and the victims of sexual violence and harassment, have been aired in public like never before. The examples are simply too numerous to mention within the confines of one column.

25,000 people rally in Tel Aviv in protest of expulsion of African asylum seekers from Israel, March 24, 2018.

Many of these processes are painful. The growing recognition of the wide gulf between the values of many, if not most Israelis and the majority of Jews in the Diaspora, but also between liberal Jews and those who are much more comfortable with nationalism, is leading to a long and hard realization that Jews in different parts of the world have much less in common with each other than they may have thought.

But it is a necessary and ultimately positive process. And sometimes on the way, surprising and hopeful alliances among very different Jews are created.

>> Jeremy Corbyn's 'Good Jews' Are Mostly Dead | Opinion 

The fight against Corbynist anti-Semitism, for example, yielded, among other demonstrations of Jewish unity, an unprecedented joint letter by 68 rabbis of every stream of Judaism. Some of the ultra-Orthodox signatories would normally not even recognize their Reform colleagues as rabbis. But for once they were standing together.

Members of the Jewish community hold a protest against Britain's opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and anti-semitism in the Labour party, March 26, 2018

In another break with precedent, the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Ephraim Mirvis, published this week, together with KeshetUK, a report on 'The Wellbeing of LGBT+ Pupils: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Schools'.  Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the toxicity that has often, and still does characterize the Orthodox attitudes towards this issue, will now how important, and in this context, groundbreaking, this move is by Mirvis.

Forgive me for once again bringing examples from the community I was born into, but this year it’s especially important to be proud of being British Jews. We’ve had a particularly rough 5778.

It was a year that many Jews openly acknowledged that racism both around and within their communities, needs to be called out, no matter if its targets, or its perpetrators, are Jews. On that count alone, 5778 was a good year for the Jews. We can make 5779 an even better one. Shana tova.