Threats against Jews have become more prevalent around the world, and both the far right and the far left are contributing to them, says David Harris, director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). While right-wing radicals encourage hatred of Jews for their different religion, left-wing extremists advocate the end of the State of Israel, he said.
And the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in May helped amplify the revolt against the Israelis. At the time, there were pro-Palestinian protests in various parts of the world. In 11 days of fighting, there were around 230 dead in Gaza and 12 in Israel, according to local governments.
Harris, 71, has been director of the AJC since 1990. The committee is one of America’s oldest Jewish advocacy NGOs. In an email interview with Folha, he also commented on how governments can tackle anti-Semitism, rejected comparisons between the Holocaust and pandemic restrictions, and championed the creation of a state. Palestinian as a means to end the conflict in the Middle East. .
Was there an upsurge in anti-Semitism after the conflict between Israel and Hamas in May? Yes, we have seen a very marked increase here in the United States and elsewhere as well. Whenever Israel has to defend itself against terrorist attacks, there are those who challenge its right to do so, seek to vilify the country, distort reality and invoke anti-Semitic language and images. The surprising rise in anti-Semitism, which comes from multiple sources, right and left, has included violence and intimidation.
How do the right and the left generate threats? Today, the extreme right once again evokes the image of the Jews as “the other”, as a kind of human virus that must be extinguished. Meanwhile, the far left has focused most of its hatred on the one predominantly Jewish country, Israel, and is mobilizing an entire global industry in an effort to eradicate the Jewish state and its 9 million people.
When it comes to anti-Semitism, the far right and the far left have more in common than they like to admit. In either case, there is a long and painful history. It concerns my family. My mother was born in a communist country, the Soviet Union. Along with her parents and brother, she fled due to a combination of political tyranny and anti-Semitism. The Kremlin needed a scapegoat, and the Jews were chosen for it, costing many lives.
My family moved to France, where 11 years later Nazi Germany invaded the country. The Jews were among the first targets, seen as “sub-humans” or “worms”. By dehumanizing the Jews, it became easier for the Nazis to gain support for committing genocide against an entire people.
How do you assess the way President Joe Biden negotiated the conflict between Israel and Palestine? The president made clear the strong American support for Israel and the need for Israel to protect its citizens against the thousands of missiles fired from Gaza, controlled by Hamas. This reflects Biden’s friendship with the country for decades. There is a long history of closeness between the Jewish people and the President. Thanks to weddings, there are many Jews in your family today. He has a deep understanding of Jewish history and the Holocaust and an awareness of the danger of the resurgence of anti-Semitism today.
Is there a way to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? Certainly. The solution was understood as early as 1947, including by eminent statesmen like the Brazilian Oswaldo Aranha, who chaired the United Nations General Assembly. The answer, then and now, is the creation of two states for two peoples. One state, Israel, has existed since 1948. The other, a Palestinian state, should have been formalized at the same time. Tragically, the Palestinian leadership has rejected all opportunities for this. With a spirit of goodwill and commitment, this outcome is still possible.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro is a defender of Israel. How do you see this support and a certain electoral use of the image of Israel? As a longtime friend of Israel, I appreciate other friends in the country, including Brazil today. At the same time, it would be inappropriate to comment on a domestic political issue in a country that I have visited several times, but whose complexities I do not necessarily understand.
What can governments do to fight anti-Semitism? They must make it clear that there is zero tolerance. Hesitation, ambiguity or weakness only serve to strengthen anti-Semites. And it is not just about official statements, but about mobilizing education authorities, security forces, justice and civil society to react quickly and clearly. Concrete action is to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, and we hope that Brazil will follow Argentina and Uruguay and adopt it as well. Generally speaking, an attack on a Jew, a Jewish synagogue or a Jewish cemetery should be seen as an attack on the country as a whole and its commitment to protect all citizens, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.
During the pandemic, some people compared the restriction measures and the application of vaccines to the Holocaust. Why have these associations become frequent? These attempts are simply outrageous. They show a complete lack of understanding of what the Holocaust was and what its victims endured. How to compare Jewish men, women and children, forced to wear yellow identification tags, deported to brutal concentration camps and murdered in gas chambers, with those now told to stay at home to protect their health and who were encouraged to receive life-saving vaccines?
All the inconvenience we’ve all experienced since 2020 doesn’t even compare remotely to what happened during WWII.
David Harris, 71
Born in New York in 1949, he holds a doctorate from the London School of Economics. He started working at AJC in 1979 and in 1990 he became its Executive Director. He is part of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.