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A disturbing rise of anti-Semitism

From Europe to South America, Jews find themselves facing modern forms of bigotry

Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and international issues.

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In Belgium, a group of students at a Jewish school are assaulted by neighborhood youth.

In a small town in the Czech Republic, vandals topple 80 tombstones at a Jewish cemetery and damage a Holocaust memorial twice.

In Finland, swastikas with anti-Semitic slogans are spray-painted on public buildings.

The son of a rabbi in France is attacked outside his home by men shouting ant-Semitic slogans. Reports continue to grow in Spain of incidents that include vandalism, verbal harassment, and anti-Semitic sentiment in newspapers and at sporting events.

These examples, all of which have been reported by the State Department, are true. And all of them occurred in Europe, where 22 percent of Jewish people say they hide their Jewish identity because they are afraid.

But the same kinds of anti-Semitic acts are happening all over the world, from Armenia to Argentina, Belarus to Brazil, Syria to Saudi Arabia.

Commenting on a 2012 survey of more than 5,000 people in nine European countries conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, a former representative of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe noted that “a majority of European Jews are experiencing a rise in anti-Semitism.”

* * *

The global increase in incidents of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, not only by individuals but by some government officials and religious leaders, has prompted the U.S. State Department to appoint a special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. The Department’s 2012 report on religious freedom cited particular concerns about government-sanctioned expressions of anti-Semitism in Venezuela, Egypt, and Iran.

A recent Voice of America editorial shared a message from Hannah Rosenthal, the now-retired U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.

“Not only is anti-Semitism still prevalent,” she said before stepping down last year, “but it is evolving into new, contemporary forms of religious hatred, racism, and political, social, and cultural bigotry.”

One need only consider how President Obama has been treated in some quarters to see the relevance of her remark.

According to the VOA editorial, Ms. Rosenthal has underscored that anti-Semitism is no longer limited to its traditional forms, such as defacing property and desecrating Jewish cemeteries.

New forms include Holocaust denial; “Holocaust glorification,” a particular favorite among some Middle Eastern media that call for a new Holocaust to finish Jewish annihilation; and “Holocaust relativism,” in which some governments and institutions conflate the Holocaust with other tragic events that include great human suffering.

* * *

Because of the increasing frequency and severity of anti-Semitic incidents over the past decade, especially in Europe, the international community is taking steps to combat it.

But how effective will these efforts be?

United Nations meetings and resolutions are notoriously ineffective. Speeches by government officials are just so much blah-blah. Law-enforcement agencies frequently downplay the seriousness of hate crimes. And the media seems increasingly willing to provide a forum for anti-Semitic propaganda to flourish.

Perhaps recent events in Hungary, reported by The New York Times, offer a way to at least shine light on anti-Semitism.

Iván Fischer, conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, fed up with right-wing parties in his country and across Europe, wrote an opera about a famous 1882 blood libel case in Hungary as a rebuke to the country’s growing tolerance for anti-Semitism under the leadership of its right-wing, authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán. The opera has been seen widely and is much discussed in the media and in coffee houses across Hungary.

“Culture has a strong responsibility to find the essence, the real concealed truth, which lies behind the day to day,” Mr. Fischer told The New York Times. Perhaps culture can help curb the growing crisis.

But as Hannah Rosenthal knows, “leaders must confront bigotry. Where there is hatred born of ignorance, we must teach and inspire,” she said.

“Where there is hatred born of blindness, we must expose people to a larger world of ideas,” Rosenthal said. “Where there is hatred whipped up by irresponsible leaders, we must call them out and answer as strongly as we can — and make their message totally unacceptable to all people of conscience.”

Having just passed the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass” in Berlin that marked the turning point toward Hitler’s Jewish genocide, Rosenthal’s words are urgent and perhaps prescient.

A Neo-Nazi group in Kansas City, Mo., chose the anniversary day to plan a rally protesting immigration reform. The white supremacist gang, which is connected to the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups, claims to be “the political party for every patriotic white American.” It stands against granting amnesty to “illegal aliens” who, its members say, (as Hitler did of German Jews) are causing the “nation to drown in a free fall of economic collapse.”

Never again? As my mother would say, “From your lips to God’s ear.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #232 (Wednesday, December 4, 2013). This story appeared on page C1.

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