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Grappling With Anti-Semitism
Eric J. Greenberg
May 15, 2003

The Jewish WeekColumbia University history professor Simon Schama stood at the podium in the Center for Jewish History's auditorium Sunday night relating how the desecration of hundreds of Jewish graves in England last week had affected him personally.

"The headstones of my uncle and great-aunt were turned over," when 386 Jewish graves were damaged in East London, he said.

Thus began a three-day international conference in New York on the rise of global anti-Semitism.

Titled "Old Demons, New Debates: Anti-Semitism in the West," it was billed as the first international conference to be sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in 68 years.

Nearly 35 Jewish scholars, academicians and thinkers from France, England, Mexico, Poland, Israel and the United States tried to put their arms around the complex and ever-morphing issue of anti-Semitism, where hard definitions and valid statistics are hard to come by.

It took place as Jewish leaders worried about a seeming explosion of anti-Semitism in Western Europe and from Arab Muslim quarters.

The scholars explored links among anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism and anti-democracy. They analyzed anti-Semitism and its various forms around the world before a packed audience of mostly older Jewish people.

At the same time, a separate three-day international conference on anti-Semitism was being held in Paris. sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where participants heard that anti-Semitism was rising at a rate not seen since the Holocaust, particularly in France and Britain. According to Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, two-thirds of the 313 racially motivated attacks reported in France last year were directed at Jews, while Britain had a 75 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents.

Back in New York, conference organizer Leon Wieseltier, literary editor for the New Republic, painted a much rosier picture for American Jews.

"We may finally be living in the sun," he said, referring to the "end of the European age of Jewish history," with the destiny of the Jewish people residing in Israel and the United States.

"I do not believe the United States is just another address for Jews on the run, just a safer haven," declared the white-haired, Brooklyn-born writer. "I believe the United States represents a revolution in Jewish history, a country that is in its philosophical foundations and in its political practices structurally hospitable to us."

Nevertheless, Wieseltier said it was "outrageous that we are still discussing this foul subject" of anti-Semitism, outlining like a Baskin & Robbins menu how it comes in many varieties: political, cultural, religious, secular, theological.

"There is the anti-Semitism of Christians, which comes in many forms, and of the Muslims," he said. "Anti-Semitism of the right in Europe and the United States, and anti-Semitism of the left, most recently seeking shelter and finding it in the anti-globalization movement."

But Wieseltier labeled the most dangerous variety "the anti-Semitism that manifests itself as anti-Zionism."

He contended that this conference really belonged at a center for non-Jewish history because anti-Semitism is really a problem for non-Jews.

Speakers from abroad tried to explain the nuances of their particular brand of anti-Semitism. They cited chilling newspaper quotes from young European Muslim boys speaking openly about the desire to kill Jews.

France was the focus of much criticism for failing to confront the rising incidence in a nation of 7 million Muslims, many of whom are anti-Israel. Questions also arose about England in light of this week's revelation that the two perpetrators of a recent suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv cafe were British Muslims.

French intellectual Alain Finkielkraut argued that anti-Semitism in France today is not the traditional kind, where Jews were criticized for their otherness, but rather a new strain using the intifada as its raison d'etre.

"What Jews are blamed for nowadays is not the corruption of French or European identity but the damage and suffering they inflict on Palestinians," he said. "They are not accused of clinging stubbornly to their Jewishness but of betraying it."

Mexican historian and editor Enrique Krauze related how after decades of philo-Semitism among intellectual and government circles in Mexico, a more subtle kind of anti-Semitism took root in the 1970s in Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

"It was an anti-Semitism of the left, angered by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza," Krauze said.

He said a newer Muslim anti-Semitism in Argentina, resulting in terrorist attacks against the Jewish community in Buenos Aires in 1994, "seems to have been orchestrated from Iran.

"There is an element of this kind of anti-Semitism in Chile, where the Palestinian population numbers about 300,000 and Jews only 15,000."

But he said in countries such as Costa Rica, Peru and Uruguay, "Jews have flourished at various levels including political power, and even in Venezuela [which has strong ties to Arab nations] there does not seem to be any real reason for alarm."

There seemed to be a consensus about the silence of Catholic and Protestant leaders in response to the rising global threats to Israel and Jews.

Mort Zuckerman, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, reported that "the establishment churches in Europe have been extremely hostile to Israel by and large. They are anti-Israel and have a long tradition of anti-Semitism. This is a real issue for us to cope with."

Polish journalist Konstanty Gebert said there is a "major moral failure of the Catholic Church" in Poland to combat anti-Semitism. He related the story of the bishop in Sandomierz who refuses to remove a cathedral painting depicting Jews killing a Christian boy to get his blood to make matzah.

Historian David Kertzer, author of "The Popes against the Jews," confided his "new pessimism" over the Vatican's renewed use of classic anti-Semitic stereotypes against Jews to defend the Church from new historical information about its role during the Holocaust era.

"Those Catholics, from simple laypeople to cardinals, who have tried to get the Church to come to terms with its role in spreading anti-Semitism in the past have been subjected to strong sanction," he said.

However, Paul Berman, author of "Terror and Liberalism," warned of the growing danger to Jews and Israel from a large, extremely powerful political movement he termed radical Islamism, which he compared to totalitarian groups of the 20th century.

"We must look at the fascist side" of Islamism, he said.

Historian Daniel Goldhagen raised questions about the conference's seeming inability to grapple with the subject.

"We're groping. We're trying to figure out what it is, what to call it," Goldhagen said. "There's some difficulty in conceptualizing it. Is it anti-Israelism?"

David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, cited last year's United Nations Human Rights conference in Durban, South Africa -- he called it "an organized anti-Semitic hate fest" -- as clear evidence of the worldwide problem.

Nevertheless, Harris said, "I wouldn't despair because history has shown at the end of the day, we demonstrate progress."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said a precondition for countering anti-Semitism is that the Jewish community must agree about the nature of the problem.

"The strategy today is to make sure there are consequences, political or otherwise, for anti-Semitic behavior."

Jerome Chanes, an expert on anti-Semitism, noted that we are currently "in a period of numerous anti-Semitism conferences all over the place."

But don't go looking for answers, he cautioned.

"The value of the New York conference is to make a range of connections -- historical, literary, cultural and political -- about anti-Semitism," Chanes said. "Any serious intellectual exploration is an end in itself."