Last week, the United Nations issued a report on anti-Semitism that was characterized in the press as “unprecedented.” Titled “Combatting Antisemitism to Eliminate Discrimination and Intolerance Based on Religion or Belief,” the report was authored by Ahmed Shaheed, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Shaheed ominously warned that anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world, “increasing in magnitude in several countries,” and noted that the hatred comes from right and left, white supremacists and Islamists, and is prevalent online.
None of Shaheed’s findings is particularly surprising, as our community already knows well that anti-Semitism is widespread and growing. But the report did hit some unexpected notes, including the fact that anti-Semitic attitudes are common even in countries with few Jewish people, or even no Jews at all.
The report urged U.N. member states to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism: “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Based upon that language, it would have made sense for the report to label the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel as anti-Semitic. But it didn’t quite say that. Instead, the report voiced criticism of BDS proponents, noting that “expression which draws upon anti-Semitic tropes or stereotypes, rejects the right of Israel to exist or advocates discrimination against Jewish individuals because of their religion should be condemned.” And the report expressed support for boycotts, saying, “international law recognizes boycotts as constituting legitimate forms of political expression, and that nonviolent expressions of support for boycotts are, as a general matter, legitimate speech that should be protected.”
If you find the report’s logic a bit confusing, you’re not alone. Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Danny Danon, praised the report’s determination that the BDS movement encourages anti-Semitism, even though the report said no such thing. Instead, the report merely acknowledged that there are those who view “the objectives, activities and effects of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement [to be] fundamentally anti-Semitic,” but added that “these allegations are rejected by the BDS movement.”
Even with its limitations, however, the report is welcome recognition from a world body that has, until now, buried its head in the sand on issues relating to Israel, and by extension, world Jewry. Now, through the report, the U.N. has recognized, acknowledged and provided some guidance regarding the very real threat of anti-Semitism for all of its member nations, and that is significant.
It will take a concerted effort to get governments of the world — democracies and autocracies alike — to take the issue of anti-Semitism seriously, and to do something about it. But this is a start.
Jewish communities and organizations, and Israel, must figure out a way to be international partners in that work.