Opinion |

The Front Lines of Antisemitism Are in the Diaspora, Not in Israel

Dina Porat
Dina Porat
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The protest in New York City calling on Mayor De Balsio to take action against antisemitism, in 2019.
The protest in New York City calling on Mayor De Balsio to take action against antisemitism, in 2019.Credit: Danielle Ziri
Dina Porat
Dina Porat

One of the subjects discussed with great passion in media outlets in the past Jewish year, 5781, and especially of late, is antisemitism. It has received broad coverage in academia, in the media and in politics, in debates over which minister is mistaken, who is eroding the unique nature of antisemitism, which professor is deceiving themselves and which journalist is engaging in scaremongering.

These discussions attest to the degree to which the subject affects people and society. These are not only political debates – they are accompanied by discussions about the essence of antisemitism, which are actually debates about identity, national history and self-perception. And that is the reason for the passion and the concern.

However, anyone who is following the discussions is aware of the gap, of which we should be cautious, between the discussion taking place here in Israel, and the way Diaspora Jews relate to antisemitism. The Jews in the Diaspora, as individuals and as members of congregations and organizations, are on the front lines – not we Jews living in Israel. They are the ones who get up in the morning and find a swastika on the wall of their school or their synagogue. They are attacked in the street and their children are the ones who encounter statements that “Hitler was right” on social media.

This gap is likely to be another reason that Diaspora Jews are distancing themselves from Israel, and for their sense that Israel is unaware of their situation and perhaps is not even aware of the nadir of its own image as they experience it in progressive and liberal circles, among leftists and academics, including former Jews and Israelis. Jewish congregations and organizations have barely discussed the words of Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism (to the effect that antisemitism isn’t just hatred of Jews), while in Israel their stormy reverberations were heard for a long time.

In the heat of the debate here, the basis was omitted: Various forms of antisemitism have increased in the past two years, and reached a height during the hostilities between Israel and Gaza in May. Perhaps when we have the full summary of findings we’ll be able to point to a decline in recent weeks, but until then, the previous trend has left its mark:

It began with accusations that the Jews and Israel created the coronavirus, accompanied by medieval caricatures and imagery, including greed at the expense of the ailing world. The murder of George Floyd added accusations of alleged Jewish involvement in the slave trade, and that the U.S. police were trained in cruel behavior by the Israel Police.

The ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of 9/11 exacerbated existing conspiracy theories. In the era of COVID-19, the world is living in the Jew world order. Anti-vaxxers, who are constantly making comparisons to Nazism, call the authorities vaccinazis, and the attitude toward Israel is defined as a new phobia – Zionophobia.

Another central factor has joined the familiar sources of antisemitic and anti-Israeli sentiment in recent years: Iran. Over a decade ago it began with a campaign of Holocaust denial, which included caricatures, conferences and generous hosting of deniers, and now it generously finances antisemitic and anti-Israel activity in various languages on social media and on television.

Since the start of COVID-19, Iran has been investing great efforts in the campaign, and even more so during the May hostilities. Time magazine published a U.S. intelligence study that identified the intensification of Iranian propaganda being disseminated to provoke anti-Jewish Jews and anti-Israel sentiment, and the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, headed by Dr. Liora Hendelman-Baavur, agreed with the findings.

Another area barely mentioned in Israel is the reaction of Jewish congregations and groups. At the Kantor Center we counted 16 organizations, some of them only recently established, that monitor antisemitic incidents, publish periodical reports and consider ways to respond. Innumerable seminars are taking place to find tools like the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism.

According to the Kantor Center, the University of Haifa and the Combat Antisemitism Movement, over 700 groups have adopted the definition to date: countries, parliaments, universities, churches, municipalities and sports organizations.

The European Union published a detailed guide to the use of the definition, and hundreds of academics have signed a declaration of support for it. Indeed, the greater the international and academic support, the more the IHRA definition is criticized, and there are already three new definitions that aspire to replace it. The critics claim that the definition is obsessively involved in defending Israel, and refrains from criticizing it.

But for the most part, the definition deals with antisemitism and Holocaust denial, and is not a legally binding document. And criticism of Israel is heard constantly, with or without the IHRA definition. In fact, Jewish congregations and groups see it as an effective tool for monitoring, for reducing Holocaust denial, as a basis for submitting complaints and for educating against discrimination in general.

Currently, there are almost 7 million Jews living in Israel – half of the Jewish people. The other half lives in the Diaspora, and the distress caused there by antisemitism must be a central rather than a marginal issue, because the connection between the different parts of the Jewish people is essential for us.

Prof. Porat is the director of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University and the chief historian of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

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