Former Anti-Defamation League National Director and Holocaust survivor Abraham Foxman characterized the global status of anti-Semitism today as more dire than at any point since World War II during a lecture delivered in the Copley Formal Lounge on Feb. 23.
The event, titled “Reflections on Recent Anti-Semitism,” addressed topics ranging from attitudes toward Jews in the Middle East to anti-Israel demonstrations on college campuses.
Foxman specifically highlighted protests ahead of the formal launch of the new Center for Jewish Civilization and Georgetown’s Conference on Understanding Contemporary European Anti-Semitism, which both occurred Feb. 22.
Foxman, who was born in Poland in 1940 and survived the annihilation of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, prefaced his remarks by cautioning against the rise of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who holds the highest poll numbers in the GOP election despite divisive comments about banning Muslims and deporting illegal immigrants.
“Mr. Trump comes in and breaks all the taboos about what is a civil compact in our society, that unwritten code of what is acceptable and what is not,” Foxman said. “When we watch every single day another taboo broken, and people hesitant to challenge that breaking of the taboo, it is beginning to undermine everything the common sense and respect that has served us and other minorities well.”
Following his comments on the political situation in America, Foxman contrasted the plight of Jews in the United States and Europe. He claimed that contemporary European Jews are confronted with lamentable situations in their home countries: They are faced with violence as well as discriminatory legislation that targets practices such as circumcision and kosher slaughtering.
“If Jews leave Europe because they cannot live there as Jews, because authorities send messages that ‘we don’t want you,’ because authorities say ‘yeah, you can stay but not as a Jew,’ they’re left with this haunting problem of whether or not to stay,” Foxman said. “And if they don’t stay, Hitler will have a posthumous victory.”
Foxman cited evidence compiled by the Anti-Defamation League over the past two years in a poll gauging levels of anti-Semitism in over 100 countries. The survey identified respondents to harbor anti-Semitic attitudes if they answered “true” to six or more of 11 statements describing negative Jewish stereotypes.
The ADL found that 26 percent of approximately 4.2 billion adults surveyed harbored anti-Semitic attitudes, with the highest averages in the Middle East and North Africa region at 74 percent.
Using the ADL data, Foxman said Jews in the United States are 10 times more likely to be targeted than any other religious group.
“Measuring anti-Semitism is not scientific, but if it acts like a duck, quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, it’s a duck,” Foxman said. “To find that a quarter of the adult population of the world is infected with serious anti-Semitism, and that the number one thing is that Jews cannot be trusted, that’s just very serious.”
As a staunch advocate for Israel, Foxman pronounced most criticism against Zionism to be rooted in anti-Semitism. He asserted that Israel is subjected to a double standard and unfairly chastised for acting in ways that other countries can with impunity.
“Israel is far from perfect. What other country in the world cannot decide where its capital is? Is there another country in the world that has to defend its right to defend itself?” Foxman said. “If you’re anti-Zionist, the only way you’re not an anti-Semite is if they are one of the unique ones in the world who reject all nationalism.”
Foxman said that anti-Zionist attitudes are increasingly evident on college campuses such as Vassar, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford. He explained that pro-Palestinian demonstrations in those schools may result in hostile climates for Jewish students. In January 2016, students at Wisconsin taped paper swastikas and a picture of Adolf Hitler on a Jewish student’s dorm room door.
“It never starts as anti-Semitism,” Foxman said. “It begins as advocacy and morphs and metastasizes very quickly into anti-Semitism. In these demonstrations by students for Palestine where they place eviction notices on students’ doors to symbolize Palestinians being evicted, they post it on the Cohens’, the Greenbergs’, the Goldsteins’ dorms.”
Following his address, Foxman answered questions from the audience about topics such as Jewish attitudes to the Syrian refugee crisis, the condition of Jews in Ireland and the implications of Jewish migration from Europe.
Annabelle Timsit (SFS ’17), who attended the event, said Foxman’s lecture reflected the rampant anti-Semitism she witnessed while growing up and attending public school in France.
“I was very much impacted in class when we talked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I heard some very anti-Semitic remarks from students in class,” Timsit said. “Even teachers said, not knowing I was Jewish, ‘Oh, but it’s expected, because these are Jews and they come in and they take over and become more powerful than anybody else’ or, ‘Well, something would have been done about this a long time ago except Jews have control of politics in France.’”
Retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer Ilya Levin, who also attended the event, noted how, during years of service abroad, he found post-World War II Europe riddled with subtle anti-Semitism.
“I went to a country, and they started a center of Jewish tolerance,” Levin said. “I told the director, as a naturalized American and a Jew, the name sounded kind of wrong. You tolerate an unwanted guest. You do not have to ‘tolerate’ someone who is part of your family. It’s the sort of thing here, in America, we take for granted.”
Adam Shinbrot (COL ’18) said certain aspects of the lecture rang more true than others.
“I’ve definitely witnessed anti-Zionism on campus, and obviously Georgetown is inherently political, and these are conversations that need to be had, but holding Israel to a different standard, I agree that is anti-Semitism,” Shinbrot said. “But something that is troubling for me to believe is that if Europe’s Jews have to leave, that is another victory for Hitler. That is very tough for me to hear, and I’m not sure I believe that completely.”