(November 16) - Is the struggle against antisemitism around the world Israel's fight?
For close to thirty years the official answer to this question was a resounding no. Now that's changed, and there are policy implications.
In Israel's early years, the unspoken attitude was "if Jews abroad have a problem with antisemites they can always migrate to Israel." Indeed, the founding labor-socialist fathers of Israel were of the opinion that with the establishment of the Jewish state, antisemitism would eventually shrink to insignificance. Immersed in the business of building and defending the new Jewish nation, Israel's leaders had no time for "troubles of the past."
Attitudes began to change in the Seventies. The campaign of political delegitimization against Israel launched by the Arabs after the Yom Kippur War often was tinged with antiSemitism. To many Israelis, anti-Zionism and antisemitism seemed indistinguishable. After the Rue Copernic synagogue bombing in Paris in June 1982 and other terror attacks prime minister Begin took the decision to have Israeli officials begin advising Jewish communities abroad in security measures. Those in Israel who always had believed that "the whole world is against us," like Begin, made potent political use of this theme, and response to antisemitism rapidly found its place on the national agenda.
With the disintegration of the Communist bloc, an enhanced role for Israeli diplomacy regarding antisemitism became more necessary and possible. Jerusalem intervened and pressed for government crackdowns on official and street manifestations of antisemitism in the emerging states of the former USSR. The wave of neo-Nazi violence that swept Germany in 1993 brought to a climax public clamor for Israeli government action on antisemitism. The Knesset held a special debate on the matter, and one former Mossad chief even suggested publicly that Israeli agents act against neo-Nazi leaders.
Antisemitism in Arab media and government is now on the government's agenda too. It was no coincidence that congressmen directly confronted Hosni Mubarak with the issue of antisemitism in the Egyptian press, during the president's March visit to the US.
Then-cabinet secretary Elyakim Rubinstein established a Inter-Ministerial Forum for Monitoring Anti-Semitism in 1988, which today involves Diaspora Jewish representatives and academic experts too.
The forum and the ADL founded the Tel Aviv University Project on Antisemitism in 1992, a documentation and research center. The project compiles a report on antisemitism around the world which is debated yearly by the full cabinet. Subsequently, the World Jewish Congress joined the consortium, and the project now convenes an annual conclave of researchers and monitorers of antisemitism from around the world.
Cabinet secretary Dan Naveh, who chairs the forum, led off the most recent meeting, in October.
Naveh is now pushing the forum in controversial directions. Firstly, he wants the government and the Jewish groups associated with the forum to agitate for legislation abroad that will limit access to sources of hate literature, such as neo-Nazi web sites on the Internet. The ADL opposes this approach. They have documented and exposed racist Internet networks and fought for hate crimes legislation which mandates increased penalties for racially motivated offenses. But Naveh's proposals involve limits on free speech.
More politically, Naveh wants the forum to take up Palestinian antisemitism, and more specifically, the "antisemitism" inherent in the Palestinian Authority-declared death sentence for Palestinians who sell lands to Israelis.
Tel Aviv University and the major Jewish organizations fear politicization of the forum. "Our ability to combat antisemitism abroad could be undermined if the forum is perceived to be pursuing a political agenda," one of the forum members told me. "The death sentence for land dealers is definitely a violation of human rights, but is it antisemitism? This is, after all, a political conflict over land," he avers.
Perhaps. But it would be unfortunate if the antisemitism of Arafat or that of his colleagues were to be glossed over, by the project or Jewish organizations, because of any degree of discomfort with the Netanyahu government's diplomatic posture. Imagery and language that fits nicely with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is becoming commonplace in the Gaza and Ramallah press.
And what do you do when national interest conflicts with principled opposition to antisemitism? Take, for example, our decision to sell arms to Croatian leader Franjo Turjdman, a man with undisguised antisemitic proclivities.
These are some of the dilemmas posed by our new-found and belated diplomatic agenda in fighting antisemitism. Nonetheless, the fact that voice of Jerusalem is now appropriately being heard reflects a maturity in Israeli thinking. It's not just that antisemitism is a global growth industry that threatens Jewish brethren. Racism and antisemitism threaten the very fabric of western, liberal-democratic societies, even when Jews are not the first target of extremists. And ultimately, that's the greatest danger of all.
The writer comments on public affairs.