People of the Pod'My worst enemy became my biggest supporter'

LISTEN: What makes a Syrian refugee become a pro-Israel advocate?

Episode #14: AJC’s Simone Rodan-Benzaquen explains French anti-Semitism definition adoption * IsraAID’s Yotam Polizer debriefs from the field * HIAS’ Naomi Steinberg on suing Trump

On this episode of People of the Pod, we speak to Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, Director of AJC Europe, about this week’s decision by the French National Assembly to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism.

Weekly podcast People of the Pod is produced in partnership between the American Jewish Committee and The Times of Israel to analyze global affairs through a Jewish lens.

Speaking with co-host Seffi Kogen, Rodan-Benzaquen said that the basic premise is that in order to combat anti-Semitism, you need to have a clear understanding of what it is. She speaks about how 16 European countries as well as “titans” such as the United States have adopted the working definition.

The recent adoption of the working definition is more of a symbolic victory than practical, and one that builds on a statement by French President Emmanuel Macron in February that the country intends to adopt it, Rodan-Benzaquen said. “No, it is not law,” she said, but its objective is to be useable by French officials and institutions to identify anti-Semitism in all of its forms.

A man enters the Jewish Westhoffen cemetery near Strasbourg, eastern France, on December 3, 2019 where 107 graves were found vandalized with swastikas and anti-Semitic inscriptions. (Patrick Hertzog/AFP)

The recognition of a “new” kind of anti-Semitism — anti-Israelism — caused much debate, she said, and remains a very sensitive subject in the French political system.

Next, co-host Manya Brachear Pashman speaks with Aboud Dandachi, a Syrian refugee now living in Canada, who shares his perspective on the wave of anti-Zionism sweeping college campuses, and Yotam Polizer, CEO of IsraAID, an Israeli NGO that serves refugees and others in need around the world.

In January 2011, Dandachi returned to Syria from a long stint abroad in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. “I thought life was looking great, nothing could go wrong,” he said. The protests began a few months later and by 2013 he had fled to Turkey. In 2017 he was able to obtain residency in Canada after former prime minister Stephen Harper decided that any Syrian anywhere in the world could be sponsored through the private sponsorship program in which private individuals or institutions put up a stake in getting the refugees into the country.

A few weeks ago Dandachi decided to attend a York University event in which former IDF soldiers were slated to speak. He found hundreds of anti-Israel protesters shouting “intifada, intifada,” banging on doors and blocking exits. “Intifada means a violent, armed struggle,” said Dandachi.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators at an event at York University in Toronto, Canada on November 20, 2019. (screen capture: YouTube/SWC)

These are the kind of hateful protests he saw in Syria, Dandachi related. “York was the most hateful demonstration I had seen in my life,” said Dandachi, who wrote a passionate Tablet magazine article about his experience.

Anti-Semitism is the norm in Arab states, he said, adding that the only Shakespeare play he was taught is “The Merchant of Venice.” The portrayal of the play’s pivotal character, Jewish moneylender Shylock, is often interpreted as anti-Semitic.

Syria is the biggest enemy, he said, and only in the past year has he learned more. “I had no idea that the Jewish connection to the land goes back thousands of years,” he said.

IsraAID’s Polizer explains that the non-political nonprofit is one of the few organizations still working on the ongoing wave of refugees in the field, on Greek islands as well as in the city of Thessaloniki. The refugee crisis is one of the organization’s major projects and a huge chunk of its budget is dedicated to it.

There are about 50-50 Jews and Arabs on the team working in the field, Polizer said, but often these are the first Jews the refugees meet in person. He shared one anecdote: “My worst enemy became my biggest supporter,” one Syrian refugee told an Israeli aid worker who saved his daughter from hypothermia after almost drowning.

Illustrative: Tali Shaltiel, an Israeli physician, taking a Syrian child from a dinghy that arrived at a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos. (Boaz Arad/IsraAID)

Lastly, we sit down with Naomi Steinberg, Vice President of Policy and Advocacy for the Hebrew Immigration and Aid Society (HIAS), which is suing the Trump administration over the latest restriction on refugee resettlement in the United States.

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