April 7, 2017

An Interfaith Approach to Combating Anti-Semitism

An Interfaith Approach to Combating Anti-Semitism

Amid a recent surge of desecrated tombstones, bomb threats, harassment, and other hateful acts toward Jewish communities around the globe, interfaith efforts are critical in the fight against anti-Semitism, said Ira Forman, former U.S. special envoy of the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, at a March 15 event at Georgetown University.

“Having churches fight against anti-Semitism, as well as mosques and other institutions, is absolutely essential,” he said, citing instances of Muslim individuals volunteering to guard synagogues and Jewish religious sites during services across the country. “We as a Jewish community have to work to ensure that Christians and Muslims are also safe and that their civil rights and human rights are also upheld.”

A Nonpartisan—but Political—Issue

In addition to urging priests, rabbis, and imams to speak out against religious hate during services, Forman said addressing this issue extends into the political sphere.

“Words are terribly important. It’s absolutely essential for not just the president, but Congress and local elected officials to speak out,” he said in the public conversation with Jacques Berlinerblau, director of Georgetown’s Center for Jewish Civilization. “If civil society does not come to our side, it’s over. This is about the very values of the French republic. By extension, you could say it’s about the values of liberal democracy. That’s what’s at stake.”

Thus far, the issue of anti-Semitism has persisted as a nonpartisan issue, Forman said, and it is the duty of each individual American to ensure it remains that way in “a society like ours where everything is used for partisan purposes.”

Anti-Semitism has received significant attention in recent months—from 10 bomb threats at Jewish community centers currently under federal investigation to vandalized tombstones in Philadelphia and rallies against Jews in Missoula, Montana.

Forman said 49 percent of Americans surveyed in a February 2017 Quinnipiac University poll believe that anti-Semitism is a very serious or somewhat serious problem in the United States. In the same poll taken one month later in March, that number was 70 percent.

No Quick Fix

Linking anti-Semitism to other issues of religious hate and human and civil rights, Forman suggested that combating this issue requires a multitude of efforts.

“There is no simple silver bullet partly because of the difficulty and complexity of the problem,” he said. “We cannot just address anti-Semitism. It’s part of a larger problem that we also have to address.”

In determining methods to address the current “uptick” of hate worldwide, Forman suggested gazing back to the 1930s to identify similarities of anti-Semitism in both historical and modern times of rising xenophobia and ultra-right nationalism. Though the United States does not currently face the same kind of hate seen in 1930s civil society, there are modern instances and risk factors that echo that decade, he said, citing the cyclical nature of history.

“I still believe anti-Semitism in the U.S., despite all our problems, is qualitatively different than the rest of the world. That’s not to say it can’t happen here,” he said. “Looking at the ‘30s can give us some answers and give us things to look for. We should approach this topic with a great deal of humility.”

In an unwillingness to confront history, many governments around the world today—particularly those in Europe, where the spotlight on anti-Semitism hit in the 1930s—tend to “deal with history in a way while covering their eyes because it interferes with nationalism,” Forman said.

Georgetown, however, has begun to take steps to address anti-Semitism on both a local and global scale. The Jan Karski Institute for Holocaust Education hosts an annual summer program for educators in Washington, D.C., to examine the evolution of the widespread hate and genocide in Europe in the mid-1900s and its continued impact on international relations and policy. The CJC extends its reach to the farthest edges of Europe, in Moldova, where it leads a program to deepen the understanding of the many origins and ongoing consequences of the Holocaust through intensive forensic research and education.

An Interfaith Effort

Collective action by individuals of all races and religions is necessary in order to lessen the prevalence of hate toward “otherness.”

“In the U.S., civil society generally does stand up. We can do it better—we can certainly do it better against Islamophobia—but we have that mechanism that is really important,” Forman said about our freedom of censorship to collectively speak out against hateful speech and actions. “But this is not about us. It’s not about the Jewish community. We may be the first to feel this but we will not be the last.”

Georgetown continuously promotes religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue on campus and in the broader Washington community. It was the first Catholic university to hire a full-time rabbi and the first university in the United States to hire a full-time imam—and in 2014, it hired its first Hindu chaplain. Rabbi Rachel Gartner and Imam Yahya Hendi spoke at a March 1 event hosted by Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative about religious discrimination and the need to support and ally with those of other minority faiths to prevent hateful religiously charged acts in the future.

According to Forman, the actions taken today to counter anti-Semitism and other religious hate will affect the nation generations from now.

“We’re not going to end anti-Semitism. Not in your lifetime, not in your children’s lifetime, not in your grandchildren’s lifetime. But if we can’t end it, we can shut it down a bit. I can’t tell you that even if we do all the right things that you will see a lessening of anti-Semitism, but I do know that if we do all those things, we’re making an investment in the future.”