What does it take to fight anti-Semitism?

Gideon Behar, Israel’s ambassador for combating anti-Semitism, says unless he is optimistic, he “can’t change anything.” Photo by David Holzel
Gideon Behar, Israel’s ambassador for combating anti-Semitism, says unless he is optimistic, he “can’t change anything.” Photo by David Holzel

Anti-Semitism is a disease. Anti-Semitism is a fungus. Whichever metaphor you pick, anti-Semitism is serious, and it is spreading, especially in Europe, according to Israel’s ambassador for combating anti-Semitism, Gideon Behar, who visited Washington last week.

His department at the Foreign Ministry is charged with making the case that “anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem,” he said. “It affects Jews, but it’s a global problem.”

The growth of Jew hatred and anti-Jewish violence is not news. What Behar brought to Washington was a sense of urgency. There is “an alarming rise” in a region that is home to 1 ½ million Jews. And the fact that anti-Semitism is growing in the heart of democratic Europe means it is now “a direct threat to democracy,” said Behar, a former ambassador to Senegal.

He noted four sources of anti-Semitism: The main threat in Europe is from Islamist radicals and “jihadis coming from fighting in the Middle East.” He said that Mehdi Nemmouche, who murdered three Jews at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May, and Mohammed Merah, who murdered seven people, including three Jewish children, in Toulouse in 2012, were French-born jihadists.


The second threat is the rise of neo-Nazi and fascist parties, such as Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary. At the last elections, more than 20 percent of Hungarians voted for Jobbik, Behar said, and called on the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban to do more to enforce laws against Holocaust denial, which is punishable with up to three years in prison.

A third source is “racism coming from the radical left and the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] movement.”

The fourth is the Internet. “The Internet is a threat because it’s not an isolated arena. It’s real life today,” he said. “Did you know there is a theory [online] that Jews are aliens?”

Anti-Semitism begins with Jews,” he said. “It never stops with Jews. This ideology is like a virus. It spreads.”

This is the anti-Semitism as disease model. But what if anti-Semitism is not a disease? What if it is more like a fungus whose spores travel invisibly and innocently unless they reach soil with conditions suitable for sprouting overnight? What if high unemployment and economic uncertainty are the conditions that let dormant anti-Semitism mushroom into violent hatred?

“Anti-Semitism is litmus paper,” he said, shifting metaphors again. “It shows you where there are social problems, economic problems. This just strengthens my point that anti-Semitism isn’t a Jewish problem. It’s a world problem.”

This is why last month’s unanimous House resolution condemning anti-Semitism is important, he said. Far from being a politically safe statement of the obvious, it “shows that the biggest democracy in the world understands that anti-Semitism is a threat to democracy.”

But, he added, “We should pass from declarations to actions.”Behar called on Jewish communities
to reach out to each other to decrease the sense of being under siege that many Jews feel. “We need more solidarity among Jewish communities of the world,” he said.

Rabbi Joel and Aviva Tessler share the sentiment. The couple are leading a mission to Hungary, Romania and Ukraine in November. The 25 participants will visit Jewish communities, stop in at nursing homes, clean cemeteries and try to make connections with the Jews they meet, said Rabbi Tessler, rabbi emeritus of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac.

In Budapest, they plan to meet the U.S. and Israeli ambassadors to Hungary as well as members of parliament who, the rabbi said, welcome “ambassadors” who will get out the word of how Hungary is fighting anti-Semitism.

“The majority in parliament is against anti-Semitism,” the rabbi said.

Aviva Tessler said the trip is an opportunity to learn things firsthand, and not just rely on media and emails for information.

Her husband added, “One of the ways to combat anti-Semitism is to strengthen the Jews who live there, so they’re not afraid to go up against something much bigger than them.”

This is the kind of outreach that Behar is calling for. But will it be enough?

“On the one hand, I have to be a pessimist. It’s my job,” he said. “But unless I’m optimistic, I can’t change anything.”

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