Speakers emphasize Jewish pride among keys to fighting antisemitism.
By Dmitriy Shapiro, JNS.org
As anti-Semitism continues to rise in the United States, especially on college campuses, speakers at George Washington University who attended an event last week showed students that they have allies against anti-Semitism in both parties.
The Oct. 20 event—“Anti-Semitism & What to Do About It”—was put on by Chabad of GW, an affiliate of American Friend of Lubavitch (Chabad) in Washington at GW’s Jack Morton Auditorium. It brought politicians from both sides of the aisle to instill in the approximately 180 mostly young attendees, Jewish and non-Jewish, how to combat it on their campus.
Shir Levy, a senior student who as part of Chabad GW’s board, began the event by articulating the problem in her speech opening the event.
A survey by the organization, Jewish on Campus, indicated that 50 percent of Jewish students in the nation have experienced anti-Semitism.
At GW, even though about one-third of the student body is Jewish, it ranks second in the nation in reported anti-Semitic incidents.
“As a senior, I have personally experienced and witnessed a fair share of implicit and explicit anti-Semitic occurrences,” said Levy. “I have received threats on social media for sharing anything related to Israeli culture. I have been verbally harassed for speaking Hebrew. I have had my mezuzah torn down in my freshman dorm—the place where I’m supposed to feel most safe.
“I have peers who tell me that they are afraid of wearing the Star of David around their necks and who are scared to express their Jewish identities in class,” she continued. “I have peers who have had swastikas drawn in their dorms.”
GW president Thomas LeBlanc was there to speak about steps the university is taking and will take to combat anti-Semitism on campus.
‘Be proud of who you are’
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), said the message for the students was not to be afraid and that the strongest response to anti-Semitism, is a strengthened, energized and informed Semitism.
He told the Jewish students that if they did not know who they are and what they are supposed to do, they would not know how to defend against those who seek to harm the Jewish people.
“We cannot have spiritual capitulation, just like we cannot have personal capitulation,” said the rabbi. “So I urge you all—those who are Jewish or want to fight anti-Semitism from a sense of your Jewish identity—be proud of who you are. Understand that our history is littered over thousands of years with so many who came to destroy us, even came close to success sometimes, but they never succeeded.”
He also told the students not to be fearful, tempering that with “to say not to be fearful does not mean there’s nothing to be afraid of. It just means not to be afraid of it.”
Speakers that night included Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.). Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) also addressed the event by video.
Deutch, who is along with Smith is co-chair of the House Bipartisan Task Force on Anti-Semitism, said that the two started the task force years ago in response to the increasing anti-Semitism in Europe.
“I think fair to say we couldn’t have imagined that just a few years later, we would be having a program like this about what we’re seeing here,” he said. “We stand here united. We gather here together defiant. We gather here, understanding that we have a right, each one of us, in whatever we do, as a college student, as a professor, as a member of the community, as a member of Congress.”
Deutch recalled how he was once asked by former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power to address the United Nations’ first special session on combating anti-Semitism.
“I told the members of the U.N. who participated in this event that it doesn’t matter whether your country has a large Jewish population—or frankly, for some of them, no Jewish population at all—when there is anti-Semitism that is present, it suggests much greater problems,” he said. “This has been true throughout history. Every time that there is anti-Semitism, there is something gnawing at the core of that society.”
Smith said in his first term in Congress at age 28 in 1982, he and a delegation traveled to the Soviet Union and learned about the plight of Jews there, meeting with Soviet leaders and with the mother of the still-imprisoned Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky.
He described the leaders of the Soviet Union as both wanting Jews gone and not letting them leave. “It was very, very troubling. Why would they hate Jews? Why the anti-Semitic obsession?” posed Smith.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and former Eastern bloc nations were becoming democracies, there were high expectations that it will also reduce anti-Semitism, but shortly afterwards, the members of Congress were disappointed.
“It was becoming increasingly clear that the status of Jews in many countries, including our own, was deteriorating rapidly,” he said.
He pointed out that 60 percent of religious hate crimes in the United States are committed against Jews, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, despite only being 2 percent of the population.
“This increase in violence is a chilling reminder that our world still harbors a dangerous collection of bigots and racists who hate Jews,” he said. “If our fight is to succeed, we need government officials at all levels to denounce, without hesitation, … anti-Semitic acts whenever and wherever they occur. The purveyors of hate never take a holiday or grow weary, nor should we.”
“A crisis in democracy”
Following the members of Congress, Rebbetzin Nechama Shemtov, director of education and women’s issues at American Friends of Lubavitch, moderated a panel with former U.S. Special Envoys for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism Ira Forman, who served in former President Barack Obama’s administration, and Elan Carr, who served the same role in the Trump administration.
Forman said it was important to triage anti-Semitism and determine where the biggest effect could be made.
While anti-Semitism emanating from from society and individuals, he pointed out that anti-Semitism that comes from the government is the most dangerous.
“I’m coming here to say that, as much as I worry about developments in the United States, and particularly on campus, every other Jewish community in the Diaspora around the world is under greater threat than we are,” said Forman. “And that’s not to minimize what’s happening here. And I don’t know what will happen in five years.[That] doesn’t mean we don’t work on anti-Semitism here, and especially on campus. But understand, there are communities all over the world that are really threatened much more than we.”
Forman said that government anti-Semitism is the deadliest because the government has a monopoly on violence, and it can bring violence to that society. He said that today there aren’t many governments with large Jewish populations that are anti-Semitic, but there are governments that “play the game of anti-Semitism” and use it for their own political purpose.
He noted that in Hungary and Poland, while neither is yet an openly anti-Semitic government, they utilize anti-Semitism as a political tool and falsify history to say that what happened in their countries during the Holocaust is only about the Nazi Germans, omitting the crimes committed by their own government and people.
“We have a crisis in democracy here and around the world. And though it’s not an ironclad rule, Jews and other minorities do better under democracies than authoritarian countries,” said Forman. “And in places in Europe and even here, we have to worry about our democracy and fight for it. Because without that democracy, we don’t have institutions that protect us and other minorities.”
Forman added that it’s up to the young people in the audience to determine whether anti-Semitism continues to resurge in this century.
“You turn out votes, you’re going to win these elections”
Carr made three recommendations on how the students can roll back anti-Semitism on campus, starting first by urging the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism. This, he said, should be uncontroversial, as the definition was adopted by Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe in a 56-1 vote.
“But you know where it is controversial? Try to get it passed on a campus. You’ll have a riot on your hands,” he said. “Because groups that openly traffic in anti-Semitism don’t want a definition of anti-Semitism. Because when there’s a definition, they can be called out.”
His second piece of advice is to fight the anti-Israel BDS movement.
“You want to really change the game? You turn out votes on election night so that student elections don’t elect kids who … ignore every student concern on the campus and instead focus obsessively on condemning Israel,” said Carr. “The average campus election turnout is as low as 8 percent. You turn out votes, you’re going to win these elections and change the game. You’re going to have students running the campus that won’t entertain BDS bills and instead are going to say, ‘We are proud to stand with our Jewish students’ rather than marginalize the Jewish students.’ ”
The final piece of advice Carr gave the students, mirroring what was said by the rabbi, is to have pride in being Jewish.
“You can’t win a war or a sports event if all you do is play defense. If you want to win, you play offense,” he said. “You know how you play offense against Jew-hatred? you shout from the rooftops what the Jewish people are and what Jewish history means, and what the values of Judaism are that are inextricably linked to the very fabric, the very DNA, of the United States of America.”
“Fight hate on both sides of the aisle”
After the event, which lasted nearly two hours, the guests stayed to mingle with the students on the stage.
Lexi Aronan, a freshman psychology student from American University, chose to attend to see how she could make a difference in what she considered a prevalent problem.
“Within the first week of school, we got an email that there were swastikas being drawn just a floor below me in the dorms,” she said. “It is here, and I hear about it a lot. So this is really important to me.”
Aronan, who was connected to the event at the neighboring campus through her school’s Chabad, liked how the event was not politically one-sided.
“I think the general idea of being proud of your identity is something that I will take with me and not being silenced,” she said.
Ari Patinkin, another freshman and vice president of Chabad GW’s board, said it was good for him to see influential people like the guests understand and support the students.
“People of influence like people like Elan Carr and Ira Forman, they understand the situation and see how there’s not only a degradation of kindness towards the Jews but also a degradation of American—I wouldn’t want to say patriotism, but a sense of family within the American community and within a sense of coming together,” he said. “We’re trying to fight hate on both sides of the aisle. We’re trying to come together, and we’re trying to be American, and we’re also trying to be Jewish at the same time.”
Richard Li, a sophomore international affairs student at GW whose family escaped from China 12 years ago, said that as a Christian, he was there to stand in solidarity with his Jewish friends.
“First of all, it’s not called Judeo-Christian values for no reason. We share the same fundamental beliefs, and we even worship the same God,” he said. “I know what it felt like to live under totalitarianism and; anti-Semitism is always the first door that’s opened towards totalitarianism.”
Li said what most inspired him that evening was the appeal to call out anti-Semitism wherever it is and to not let people who espouse anti-Semitic beliefs get into positions of power in the first place.
“Even though these positions might just be student representatives,” he said, the decisions that they make in these positions of authority can still have very influential results.”