Not Your Father’s Anti-Semitism Holocaust Scholar Rabbi Michael Berenbaum

by Eva Beim March 28, 2018


berenbaumAnti-Semitism has again risen to the fore of conversation, and for some, the concern is valid, while others hold it is exaggerated and damaging. According to American author, professor and leading Holocaust scholar, Michael Berenbaum, “that’s only half true. Less people hate Jews today than ever before. There is not a growth in anti-Semitism.” However, the hatred that does exist is fueled by technology and social media, thus, the public is more aware of the disparaging rhetoric via the Internet.

“If we had thought that 20 years ago people would be deeply interested in the question of anti-Semitism in 2018, we would not have believed it,” he said. “We lived in a generation in which it looked like anti-Semitism would not define the future.”

I spoke with Mr. Berenbaum in a phone interview in which we discussed today’s anti-Semitism versus that of the past. “In 1993, communism had collapsed, apartheid failed, and it looked like anti Semitism was going to be a thing of the past,” he explained, and also made reference to the hopeful anticipation of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Anti-Semitism is a worldwide phenomenon now,” stated Mr. Berenbaum, who is also a rabbi, renowned lecturer and filmmaker. “I’m going to argue a contradiction, which will not make me popular with the audience,” he said, referring to his upcoming appearance at the San Diego Jewish BookFest this April.

“There are not more anti-Semites than yesterday, or ten or 20 years ago, but there is an expression of hatred which is on the increase,” he claims, “because people feel free to express the hatred they feel, and the Internet magnifies their expression.”

It is this expression that echoes the oft-cited concern that the Internet has provided such pervasive anonymity, that it veils certain civility in a decent society; ergo, the hatred spewed is more powerful, according to Mr. Berenbaum. He sited an example of a serious hashtag seen recently, ‘kill the Jews, kill the Jews,’ saying, “today this is regarded as permissible, whereas before this never would have been permissible in civil society.”

Jews now find they have problems with the extreme left and the extreme right, he stated, which “becomes a tremendous problem in our world. The left will turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism because they are anti-Israel. They even tolerate the extreme Louis Farrakhan.”

Another example is the popular Women’s movement, whom he said won’t defy the hatred lobbed against Israel. One of its leaders and event organizers, Linda Sarsour, is a devout Muslim who had family members who were jailed in Israel for ties to Hamas. She is an outspoken critic of Israel and supporter of the BDS movement. (The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is the anti-Israel group inspired by Hamas, which uses various forms of public protest, economic pressure and lawsuits to advance their agenda of permanently destroying Israel as a Jewish nation-state).  Sarsour helped spearhead the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, after President Trump was elected.

Mr. Berenbaum cited another group with anti-Israel stances: Black Lives Matter. He said he would have supported them, had they not been an institution that openly hates Israel and describes it as an apartheid state. It was also stated in their platform, as reported by The Washington Post, August 5, 2016, that they were opposed to any U.S. support of Israel, since the U.S. is “complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”

“And the extreme right is equally dangerous,” Mr. Berenbaum emphasized.  “Safety is always found in the moderate. Polarization in any way is bad for the Jews and society historically. Where there has been a pluralistic multi-cultural society there has been a tendency towards moderation.”

He grew up in a generation where there was a glass ceiling for Jews in all aspects of society. He recounted when Henry Rosovsky, a refugee, was offered the presidency of Yale in 1977. His wife – who was Israeli – said, ‘you must take the position because you’ll be the first Jewish president of Yale.’ He responded to his wife saying ‘it will happen, there will be a Jewish president, and I’ll be the first to turn it down.’

Now Mr. Berenbaum believes the Jewish community is as strong as its been since the period of Solomon. “But as wise as he was,” he said, “his regime was unstable, and it did not last beyond himself.”

In Europe, there is legitimate concern over anti-Semitism and Mr. Berenbaum explains it this way, “there is anti Semitism from Europe and in Europe from Muslim elements of Europe’s society. France believes that if you’re a Frenchman who has French values you are accepted as an integral part of your society. If a non-European or a multi-generational person from a more divisive country or background is angered about Israel, they then believe it’s acceptable to assault (or kill) their Jewish neighbors in France.”

When the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls in 2015 said, “France without its Jews is not France,” Mr. Berenbaum said no Frenchman would have accepted that statement 70 years ago. And he maintained that Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu made a mistake when he said ‘don’t worry, come to Israel, we’ll protect you.’ But Mr. Berenbaum felt separating the Jewish Frenchman from France was not the appropriate thing to say at the time.

Valls had made this statement before the terror attack at the kosher HyperCacher market, and at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. The French prime minister called for a millions-strong march against the terror a day after an Islamist gunman killed four men and held several more people hostage before being killed by police.

“Instead of telling the French to come to Israel, Bibi should have supported and encouraged a march by presidents and prime ministers protesting anti-Semitism,” Mr. Berenbaum said.  “Europeans don’t have to accept everything about Israel, or even like Israel,” however they need to have a vigorous showing against anti-Semitism.

The attacks re-ignited the issue of increased Jewish immigration to Israel from France and elsewhere in Europe.

At the time, Jewish Agency head, Natan Sharansky, predicted a possible 250,000 French Jews would move to Israel over the next two decades.

When asked what he predicts could happen in Europe, Mr. Berenbaum said, “It’s still a struggle,” and is uncertain what will come of it. He used the proverbial canary in the coalmine analogy for the Jews of Europe. “You know what happens to the canary, they lose oxygen first.”

He raised a compelling point that conceptually many Jews can relate to; “Jews are perceived in a way that we do not perceive ourselves. Jews are perceived as a privileged part of the white majority and we perceive ourselves as a minority. And Israel is perceived as a military superpower and a global economic force, but we perceive Israel as the victim.”

“We are, in reality, agents of and beneficiaries of globalization. It’s not your father’s anti-Semitism,” Mr. Berenbaum said. “We now have resources that no Jewish community has ever had. And consequently we have to understand those resources, and that’s a very different world we live in.”

In speaking about his upcoming talk in San Diego, Mr. Berenbaum, whom has written prolifically about the Holocaust and has some of the most referenced books on the subject, said he also plans to discuss the difference between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel, asserting the importance of distinguishing the difference.

“I’m going to anger everybody, because I’m arguing something that is intellectually important and historically informed.

“There is not a growth in anti-Semitism. There are not more anti- Semites than yesterday or 10 or 20 years ago.  But because we live in a climate that says it’s okay to express your hatred, it’s more powerful because of the Internet. And we Jews have to become more sophisticated in how we understand it.”

He shared one example he said illustrates this problem today. “Fine scholars have written about anti-Semitism without even a chapter about the Internet…but the tools of yesterday are not the tools of tomorrow.” Α

Michael Berenbaum will speak at Bookfair at the Lawrence Family JCC at 2 p.m. on April 19.


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