For centuries, unjust bigotry towards Jewish people has plagued societies, culminating in mass antisemitic atrocities during the twentieth century, notably the Holocaust. Now, reports of antisemitic incidents over the last five years have escalated alarmingly, everywhere from Europe to the United States and from the Middle East to Latin America. Even in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, allegations of antisemitism have played a critical role, with both sides accusing the other of exhibiting Nazism. To figure out how we got here and what this means for our global politics, the Anti-Defamation League’s Senior Vice President of International Affairs Sharon Nazarian joins GJIA for a conversation on the sociological causes and geopolitical implications of this centuries-old hatred.
GJIA: To establish the foundations of this conversation, could you briefly describe to us the state of antisemitism globally today, and what you identify as the main cause for this state we’re in now?
SN: We at ADL are quite careful about the way we describe the situation around the world at any moment in time. Given that we’re over one hundred years old, we’re very careful about not hyping things up or bringing an agenda to our data or analysis. Part of the way we do that is by using polls, and we’re doing incident collection of antisemitic incidents that happen, primarily in the US, but also we rely on partners around the world. So to answer the question, we have seen over the past four to five years a spike in incidents of antisemitism in the U.S., and our partner organizations around the world, primarily in Europe, also are showing that the levelsof antisemitic acts are on the rise.
Today, Europe is a three-alarm fire. With the rise in extremism from the extreme right to the extreme left and to Islamist extremism, Europe is facing a triple threat. But we’re seeing very worrisome trends in the US as well. One data point came in May of 2021, with the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. That was a real watershed moment, both in the US and around the world. We sawassaults on Jews in New York and Los Angeles, where Jews were assaulted, not because of their political views based on the settlements or on Benjamin Netanyahu or any specific issue, but for the very fact that they were just Jewish or had Jewish physical attributes.
So we’re seeing some global patterns that are very worrisome. And we do know that what happens in Israel doesn’t stay there. So we are very worried about the increasing connectivity between what takes place in the Middle East to the rest of the world, and their impact on Jewish communities across the world with societies holding their Jewish citizens responsible for what happens in the Middle East.
One thing you touched on briefly is this right-wing extremism, particularly in Europe. We’ve seen this ideology run rampant throughout the continent, ranging from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Italy’s Matteo Salvini to France’s Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. Does this ideology’s growth constitute a threat to the safety and security of European Jewry? Is this the foremost threat to European Jewry today?
So I would say that absolutely, the answer to your first question is, yes. Ultra-nationalism, neo-Nazi groups, all of those are a threat to Jewish communities across Europe. The trend that is more worrisome actually, is the normalization of those political ideologies in the political space in Europe. You’re seeing governments and coalitions made up of political actors who hold those views in a way that twenty, thirty years ago was completely inconceivable. So it’s not that those groups didn’t exist before. What is different today is that those groups have now somehow been normalized and allowed into the political arena in a way that two decades ago was just not allowed. We saw what happened with COVID-19. Those groups used COVID, used the sentiment around fighting masking and vaccination to create a whole slew of conspiracy theories directed against Jews. So it was about COVID. It was about government suppression. But who was the evil culprit? It was the Jews. And so somehow, no matter what happens, if they’re attacking their governments, somehow the Jews are brought in.
So yes, those groups continue to be a huge threat. But when you ask me your second question, are they the biggest threat, I answer that we can’t afford to choose one and neglect the others. We have to be very focused on all sources of threat. For example, in 2021, both the UK and the French communities reported their highest levels of incidents. In France, the largest number of antisemitic attacks on Jews came from Islamic extremist groups. But in the UK, a lot of it had to do withIsrael-related violence, and that is from the left. So we cannot pick which group is the biggest threat in Europe today. All of those sources of threat have to be taken very seriously. And we will need different solutions for different sources, but we cannot close our eyes to any of them.
I do want to apply what you just said about the British and French juxtaposition to the United States, where we’ve seen antisemitism being used as a sort of political football, with both sides of the aisle accuse one another of being antisemitic. Taking this in the historical context of American discrimination against Jews, what does it mean to you that both sides of the American aisle today claim to be standing up to antisemitism? Does this represent authentic solidarity with the Jewish people or just convenient politicking?
Well, I’m not in the heads of our political leaders, but what I can tell you that we at ADL feel that the politicization of antisemitism is hugely damaging to our cause. And the real litmus test that we use at ADL in looking at any party is when you call out antisemitism taking place in your own party. So our demand is when incidents happen in your own camp, that’s when you need to call it out. That’s leadership. And that is what will prevent the politicization of antisemitism in our country in the US.
We have to understand that whether you are delegitimizing the State of Israel, or you’re blaming Jews for COVID-19 conspiracy theories, the effect is the same. You are marginalizing, you are demonizing the Jewish community. And the ripple effect of that is on our democracy. We always say is that antisemitism is not a Jewish problem, antisemitism is a reflection of the health of any society and especially a democracy. So when antisemitic incidents are on the rise, it doesn’t mean that only Jews are in danger. It means that our democracy is in danger, that we’re heading in the wrong direction. What we saw happen on January 6th in our capital with the antisemitic T-shirts and signs that were held exactly exemplified that antisemitism and assault on democracy go hand-in-hand. That’s where we have to really wake up and say, what is happening to our country and to our democratic institutions?
Turning now to American foreign policy, I want to ask about the US’s role in combatting antisemitism. For example, in the case of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States is working closely with Poland. However it has still expressed strong disagreement about Polish legislation which limits speech and research about Polish involvement in the Holocaust. In cases like this, will America’s commitment to fighting antisemitism as a foreign policy tool always come second to great power competition considerations?
First of all, I want to tell you that today’s an auspicious day to be having this conversation, because just today, Dr. Deborah Lipstadt was finally confirmed as the US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism. And the fact that this office was held open for as long as the Biden administration has been in place speaks to the fact that the US government was leaving its own voice weakened by not having a special envoy. So the fact that she’s there today is a huge step, not only in the work that we do, but also in the statement that the US government makes in prioritizing the fight against antisemitism around the world.
Now, we are all students of international affairs, we understand how power politics plays, and we understand how governments push forward their own national interests. And we’re not naive in that. We have seen throughout history as well, that major powers like the US need allies and partnerships with other countries when they are not fully in agreement on a lot of matters. But that’s where civil society comes in to put pressure on our own governments to say, we understand why you need to partner with Poland on Ukraine, but we’re not going to let it go and we’re not going to forget the Polish challenges that we’ve highlighted in the past when it comes to their own legislation. We at ADL are very adamant about making sure that we hold our own governments to task and not just let power politics play its way out and let everything else fall by the wayside. So I think this is really where the voice of civil society becomes imperative. And yes, we want Ukraine’s integrity as a democratic state to be maintained and as wide a coalition of states that will push back against Russian aggression—no doubt about that. But again, it is our job to make sure that our government doesn’t neglect the other issues that also have to be confronted. And it is the job of civil society to make sure we do that.
As a pretext for Russia’s invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed he was attempting to “denazify” Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelensky said in March that the Russian government was exhibiting “pure Nazism.” What do comparisons to Nazism and the Holocaust throughout this war mean for the global fight against antisemitism? Is one side more justified than the other in making such claims?
The ADL’s position on any use of Holocaust references imagery has been that it is a disservice in general to do that. The atrocities committed during World War Two and the Holocaust were so unprecedented in human history, that when you continue to use such language, it diminishes the uniqueness of those atrocities. So when President Putin used the language of “denazification,” we strongly criticized and called him out on that, and we understand again, the politicization of this terminology and the agenda behind the use of that term.
Now when President Zelensky uses it, his country is in an existential moment and there are moments in history where comparisons are appropriate. We did not call out President Zelensky for the use of those terms. We understand that from his perspective, his country is facing annihilation in some ways. When heads of state use it, we will call them out, and we felt that President Putin’s use was completely illegitimate and inappropriate. For President Zekelnsky, we had to understand the context from which he’s set it in, and therefore, we understood how he felt. Of course, we’re picking sides here. Ukraine is the victim and Russia is the aggressor, and therefore it’s more understandable.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
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Interview conducted by Uri Guttman
Sharon Nazarian is the Anti-Defamation League’s Senior Vice President of International Affairs and the President of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation. She is also the founder of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA and is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations. Her Twitter handle is @Sharon_Nazarian.