Tackling the Disease of Anti-Semitism

It is commendable that the European Commission in October 2021 announced it was presenting the first-ever strategy on combatting anti-Semitism and fostering Jewish life. It proposes measures articulated around three factors: preventing all forms of anti-Semitism; protecting and fostering Jewish life; and promoting research and education about the Holocaust. Its premise is that any form of anti-Semitism, or incitement to hatred or violence is unacceptable and should be opposed in a comprehensive way, multifaceted and international.  

The task is formidable. The disease of anti-Semitism indeed has spread in many forms: hate speech, attacks, sometimes violent and lethal, on Jewish people and on their property and institutions, stereotyping of Jews, casual offensive remarks, desecration of synagogues, cemeteries, and memorials.  The virus is present in fringe and radical groups, politically both right- and left-wing, and Islamist, and increasingly related to the State of Israel.

Can the carriers of truth and justice prevent all forms of anti-Semitism? Two recent issues show the extent of the task. Alexander Lukashenko, ruler of Belarus since 1994, is an extreme example.  At the county’s Independence Day on July 3, 2021, this dictator remarked that “no one today would dare to raise a voice and deny the Holocaust, because the Jews have succeeded in making the whole world bow down to them. The entire world is afraid to say a single word out of place.” However, Belarus has raised its voice in recent days as it has in the past.  The memorial stone for Jews, in the center of Minsk, the capital, has been defaced several times. The fact that 80% of the Jewish population of Belarus was murdered during World War II remains unmentioned.

Contrary to Lukashenko’s harangue, Holocaust denial is increasing in the world, often feeding hatred against Jewish people, as well as rewriting history and collective historic memory. The European Commission recommends commemorating the Holocaust publicly, including participation in the national parliaments, and increasing education about the Holocaust.

A second issue relates to an apology on November 16, 2021, by a former professional cricket player, Azeem Rafiq, who sent anti-Semitic messages more than a decade ago. Rafiq born in Pakistan in 1991, played for the Yorkshire Cricket Club, the youngest person and the first person of Asian origin to captain the Yorkshire team. He apologized and was “deeply ashamed” for using anti-Semitic language. One message in 2011 referred to a Derbyshire cricketer, Atif Sheikh, who he said was reluctant to spend money on a meal because “he is a Jew.” Rafiq added, using his language, that Sheikh would “probs go after my 2nds (second helping of food) again. Only Jews do that sort of s…” However, whether his apology was heartfelt or not, he said in weeping tones in testimony before Parliament that his anti-Semitic remarks were not as bad as the racism he suffered in his career. English cricket, he remarked, was institutionally racist. Rafiq’s implication, an all too familiar one, is the relative insignificance of anti-Semitism.

More politically important is the attitude of the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, who cannot be considered a proponent of anti-Semitic views but who has accepted the views of her own political party in supporting the BDS movement against Israel. Her support of the boycott against Israel has increased hostility to Jewish students on campus as well as being discriminatory. Logically, a similar boycott could apply to all states with territorial disputes such as Tibet, Kashmir, and Cyprus, but this has not been seen.  What is it about Jews and the State of Israel that makes them always the single victim and the specific target for political criticism, prejudice, and economic sanctions? Scottish universities have been accused of anti-Jewish discrimination, such as students being punished for refusing to take exams on the Jewish sabbath.

And there is Thanos Plevris, appointed Greek minister of health in September 2021, who offered a meek apology for defending in 2009 the anti-Semitic writings of his father Constantine who advocated for Auschwitz to be kept in good condition, presumably because it could be used again, to kill Jews. At the trial of his father, Thanos commented on this statement, “What incitement is this? Is it that one is not allowed to believe and want to believe that “I want to exterminate someone?” Thanos, on appointment as minister, shrewdly said he completely disagreed with his father, and did not mean to offend anyone with his 2009 defense. But he did not put his father’s revolting remark in the context of Greek behavior during the Holocaust when 83%-87% of the Jewish population were killed. Greek officials assisted in the organization and deportation of Jews to their death and participated with Nazi occupiers in looting, interrogation, and execution.  Greece is the last European capital to have a Holocaust memorial.

A familiar accusation is that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to their own country. They are the subject of conspiracy myths, fake news, and disinformation, and the widespread fable that Jews have undue control of banks and the media.

An Oxford study showed that a fifth of Britons believed that Jews created COVID-19 to collapse the economy for financial gain. A British document edited by Lord Mann noted the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the anti-vaccination movement:  an analysis of 27 leading anti-vaccination networks showed that 79% had anti-Semitic content. This is the newest form of the long history of Jews as scapegoats, of deliberately poisoning wells, of accusations of the association between infectious diseases and anti-Semitism:  in the 14th century Jews were blamed for the spread of the bubonic plague and the Black Death 1348-1351.

The stark truth is that Jews are experiencing anti-Semitic attacks in most countries, that fear among Jewish communities has increased, and that more security is necessary. Displays of Holocaust denial or distortion are increasing, as is the belief that the Holocaust is a myth or has been exaggerated.  This example of hate speech has two effects.  It feeds hatred of the Jewish people. And it falsifies historical memory. The EU Commission correctly holds that anti-Semitism must be tackled as a racist phenomenon and it is important to commemorate the Holocaust publicly and to ensure that the true character and dimensions of the Holocaust are taught.

Image: Beny Shlevich

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