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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

In hall of orators, a closer look at anti-Semitism

Published: November 11, 2011
Section: News

Seventy-three years to the day after the tragedy of Kristallnacht, despite persistent efforts on the part of the Anti-Defamation League and its allies, anti-Semitism survives and, at times, thrives. But, according to both Justice Louis Brandeis and university President Frederick Lawrence, “the answer to bad speech is more speech.”

The Anti-Defamation League on Monday held the first in a series of discussions at Faneuil Hall called “Trials of Hate: The New Anti-Semitism.” Lawrence joined Nobel Peace Prize-winning author Eli Wiesel, Governor Deval Patrick and Anti-Defamation League Chairman Abraham Foxman to discuss a perceived recent rise in anti-Semitism, especially on the Internet.

Anti-Semitism in public polling has risen by 3 percent since 2009, bringing the percentage of Americans with anti-Semitic views to 15 percent, according to an ADL study released earlier this month. Twice as many Americans believe Jews have greater loyalty toward Israel than the United States, the study found.

Foxman explained that the Internet has made circulating subversive ideas far easier because it removes the need for a meeting place or any physical medium with which to spread ideas. Furthermore, search engine algorithms more easily return websites dedicated to controversial, flashy and thus sometimes hateful views.

Foxman cited the anonymity and power of the Internet as a “superhighway for bigotry,” which allowed people to be faceless behind their views, as an origin of increased anti-Semitism. “The Internet puts the mask back on bigotry … The unintended consequences are horrific.”

Lawrence voiced a more positive view of technology: “The same things that can be threats can be the seeds of solution.” He believes the Internet is “overall a source of good,” which can open avenues of information not readily available to people around the world, and that its use as a means of conveying information in repressed countries outweighs its ability to disseminate hate. By making information available and through education, Lawrence is sure anti-Semitism could be battled. “Water finds its own way, and the human mind will find it’s own way, too.”

Lawrence stated that while anti-Semitism has grown since the economic downturn, it has not created more anti-Semitic people.

“Economic downturn sees the rise of bigotry because people panic. But it does not make non-bigots into bigots. It gives rise to prejudice that would otherwise not be seen.”

Foxman took a staunch position on the definition of anti-Semitism. He even felt that much of the political criticism of Israel was actually veiled bigotry.

While progress, he said, had been made concerning the acceptability of bigoted language, new vocabulary had developed that allowed hate speech to continue. The “New Anti-Semitism,” he claims, is highlighted by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and he believes criticism of “Israel, the Jewish state” is actually just the same criticism of Jews.

“Israel has become the Jew,” explained Foxman and people have “transferred the double standard” of behavior to the state. He believes there is undue criticism toward Israel and, “unless you’re criticizing China and Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya as well, it’s anti-Semitic.”

Much of the political rhetoric against Israel, Foxman said, was propagated by anti-Semitic regimes in the Middle East. “Under the new anti-Semitism, the greatest physical threat to Jews is now extremist fundamentalist Islam … The great threat comes from Iran,” Foxman said, but “Hamas and Hezbollah are anti-Semitic. Hamas does not want to see any solution, any treaty. The same with Hezbollah and the same with Iran.”

Twenty years ago, Lawrence attended an ADL event for what he described as the “March of Dimes problem”—what to do when you’ve solved your problem and there’s no more cause for which to fight. He, and many with him, believed that by the current year, anti-Semitic sentiment would be a thing of the past.

With 14 percent of Americans agreeing with the statement “Jews have too much power in the United States today,” however, the ADL asserts that anti-Semitism still exists. Foxman cited other minority groups as comprising a significant portion of those who are anti-Semites. According to the organization’s study, 29 percent of the African-American community were surveyed as having “anti-Semitic propensities.” Foxman claimed that the prejudice persisted because community leaders refused to acknowledge it. “The last leader who said anti-Semitism was a sin and spoke out against it was Martin Luther King [Jr.].”

He continued, saying that with 42 percent of “foreign-born” and 20 percent of “American-born” Hispanics recorded as having anti-Semitic sympathies, but was glad the Hispanic leadership was working with the ADL.

The “exaggerated notion of Jewish power,” according to Lawrence, “doesn’t stand up. Its scholarship is vacuous.” He suggested a dual approach to battling bigotry: teaching directly to the point and addressing the issues in education, as well as a general education in the humanities. “Humanistic education,” would make it impossible to “look at another person and not see the humanity of the other person.” He lauded the liberal arts, to “teach the humanity of others,” which is important in disseminating hate. Education was the best way to ensure “breaking through the sense of the other, who can only be demonized out of ignorance.”

He defended First Amendment rights of speech, especially on college campuses. When Foxman bemoaned the widespread criticism of Israel on college campuses, where there are often demonstrations targeting the Israeli-Palestine conflict, Lawrence did not feel that a significant portion of the discussions about Israel was anti-Semitic: On campuses, “the proximity of different views can lead to conflict that can be mistaken as bigotry,” said Lawrence, an issue, he said, that was particularly “American.”

Higher education, Lawrence said, had “an obligation to have no place for hate, because it is stupid, antithetical to being a thinking person.” He encouraged debate and rejected “labeling even vigorous criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.” When asked about the supposedly tenuous difference between criticism and bigotry, he answered, “It’s often not as hard to draw this line as one thinks.”