Anti-Semitism is taking on potentially “pandemic” dimensions globally, even in the US, and if left unchecked could grow into an immensely serious threat, one of American Jewry’s most senior leaders said this week, calling on world leaders to convene a global summit to forcefully denounce the phenomenon.
“I think we’re seeing a pandemic in formation,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, who heads the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “I don’t think it’s here. I think America’s situation is different from Europe. But the potential is there.”
In a far-reaching interview, Hoenlein, who is currently in Israel, also spoke about widespread concerns over the Israeli government’s total alignment with US President Donald Trump, which some fear could turn Israel into a partisan issue in the United States. He called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to invite to Israel the newly elected head of the Democratic party, Tom Perez, in a bid to cement bipartisan support for the Jewish state.
“We saw anti-Semitism in Britain, we saw it in France, and now we see it’s spreading everywhere,” Hoenlein told The Times of Israel in its Jerusalem office on Sunday. “Look at the numbers of incidents in Germany, Scandinavia and other parts of the world. And now we see in America swastikas being painted, other expressions [such as phoned-in] threats or aggression against kids on campuses. So it spreads. It’s not isolated to one geographic locale. It’s like a virus that spreads. And you have to declare it for what it is.”
The interview with Hoenlein was conducted mere hours before news emerged of an apparently anti-Semitic act of vandalism that took place in his hometown of Philadelphia. Several tombstones in the city’s Jewish Mount Carmel Cemetery had been toppled in what the Israeli government called a “shocking” and worrying act.
“I don’t think now it’s a direct threat to Jewish existence or Jewish survival,” Hoenlein said about general trend of anti-Semitic acts committed recently in the US, including the desecration of Jewish cemeteries or bomb threats made to Jewish community centers. “I do think that this cancer, left unchecked, spreads and becomes more and more of a threat.”
The best example of such a process can be identified in France, where anti-Jewish sentiment “metastasized over a period of time,” he said. “It didn’t just happen,” he added, citing recent reports of attacks on Jews, and information from his own relatives who live in France telling him life has become “intolerable” there.
European governments have denounced such incidents and increased measures to protect Jews, Hoenlein said. “But we can’t deny the fact that anti-Semitism today is no longer something that has to be done under the cloak of darkness, with the fear of repercussions. Those restrictions are gone. And I think we have to reimpose it and there have to be standards set. That’s why I want government officials saying this is not acceptable, just like racism and bigotry in any other form is not acceptable.”
‘It’s everybody’s problem when there’s hatred against Jews. We’re the victims, we’re not the cause of it’
To effectively fight anti-Semitism, Hoenlein called for a “global summit” similar to the one convened on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the last century. He urged leaders from the US, Germany, Britain, India, East European and South American countries to attend and unequivocally declare that “hatred of Jews has taken too heavy a toll and that we gotta draw the line now.”
Combating anti-Semitism starts with the Jewish community, “but it doesn’t end with it,” posited Hoenlein. “This is not our problem. It’s society’s problem. It’s Christianity’s problem. It’s everybody’s problem, when there’s hatred against Jews. We’re the victims, we’re not the cause of it. It’s not because we did something wrong. It’s because of who we are and our values.”
Surveys and the high rate of intermarriage indicate that the American public generally accepts and appreciates Jews, Hoenlein said. “At the same time we are seeing an increase in anti-Semitism. We are seeing increased hostility in campuses in particular. We are seeing threats against institutions.”
It does not take much to pick up the phone and threaten a Jewish community center, he said. But, “it does have an impact,” he added. “People are not sending their kids to programs; they won’t attend if they feel if they feel they’re in danger. And a phone call does that — it disrupts the pace of Jewish communal life. I don’t dismiss those things.”
However, he is more troubled by “what happens on campuses and the greater acceptance of charges against Israel.” Many Americans accept the claim that Israel is an apartheid regime. For the last decade or two, it was okay for Americans to say that they are anti-Israel. “Today it is accepted to say I am anti-Jewish,” Hoenlein said. This, he suggested, is partly to due to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which, he said, provided a “cover for anti-Semitism.”
Hoenlein, who has been heading the Conference of President since 1986, credited Trump for speaking out against anti-Semitism and hatred, but acknowledged his organization wished he had done so earlier.
After long weeks in which the president remained mum on a series of evidently anti-Semitic events, last Tuesday he denounced them as “horrible,” “painful” and a “sad reminder” of evil.
“Certainly any accusations that Trump is an anti-Semite are unfounded,” Hoenlein declared. “We have to be very careful — and it’s a warning you cannot exaggerate — about using the label anti-Semite. It’s a very powerful accusation. If you demean it, if you make it commonplace, you remove the strength of the accusation. It has to be used carefully and only when you can substantiate it. And it should be reserved for occasions when it is really necessary.”
While some in the Jewish community had misgivings over the White House’s refusal to mention Jews in its International Holocaust Memorial Day statement, the administration should be judged by its deeds, Hoenlein argued, citing Trump’s appointing many Jews and voicing strong support for Israel.
While careful not to appear criticizing the prime minister, Hoenlein noted “concern” in the American-Jewish community over Netanyahu’s defense of the president from charges that he stoked anti-Semitic and xenophobic sentiment.
“The post-election divisions are still very deep. It’s a very sensitive time still,” Hoenlein said. “The one thing we have to protect is that Israel is a bipartisan issue. We cannot allow it become associated with one party or one ideology. It’s not a conservative issue; it’s not a liberal issue.”
Netanyahu’s tweet in support of Trump’s plan to build a border wall with Mexico “did create some negative reaction with some of of our Hispanic friends and supporters,” the veteran Jewish leader said. “It is always better for Israel and others to stay out [of domestic US politics]. Sometimes it’s required. We don’t hesitate to speak out on anti-Semitism in European countries, which is really a domestic affairs of theirs.”
It is appropriate for an Israeli leader to seek to close ties with a new US president, but one needs to “be sensitive of how it’s interpreted,” Hoenlein went on. “There has been concern expressed that if the prime minister is seen as too close to one party or another, you the risk alienating others. At the same time, being close to the president of the United States is an asset.”
Netanyahu did well in meeting with leaders from both sides of the aisle during his recent trip to Washington, DC, Hoenlein said. In that spirit, the prime minister should immediately move to establish good ties with Tom Perez, who on Saturday was elected as the Democratic National Committee’s new chairman. His chief rival, Keith Ellison, was controversial among American Jews due to his past record of associations with known anti-Semitic figures and critical stances on Israel. Perez named Ellison his deputy.
“I think it’s positive that Mr. Perez was chosen,” Hoenlein said. “We look forward to working with him and hope the government of Israel will reach out to him and invite him to visit.”