Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

The Last Word: Retro-corrective

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Jeremy Jones

 


Brussels, in 1992, was the venue for an impressive gathering.

World leaders, cultural icons, scholars, human rights activists, religious leaders and Jewish organisational heads came together to plot a new course in community relations.

The Soviet Union had fallen, the influence of political and religious extremism seemed to be on the wane and new moral voices were emerging. A tidal wave of optimism threatened to drown out voices of caution and calm consideration of political realities.

Without the USSR, we attendees were informed, there would be no more state-sponsored anti-Jewish incitement.

Arab and Muslim culture was not fertile ground for antipathy towards Jews, and it had only been Christian intellectual corruption of tradition which had caused a temporary hiccup in the relationship of kindred religions, we heard.

Europe had learned lessons from the ravages of World War II and would never again be a comfortable home for xenophobia and racism, Europeans told the rest of us.

There were some dissenters and a few participants who raised new issues.

Antisemitism was becoming a larger problem in Arab migrant communities in the West, one scholar submitted, although voices of authority affirmed that the strength of liberal democracy would overwhelm this in the near future.

The far-right was flexing its muscles too, with manifestations of hatred directed at migrants in a number of countries, but its support base was minuscule compared to the broad political consensus.

Although this was before the first SMS had been sent, and the closest thing to the internet as a source of information was the emergence of file transfer protocols, the session in which I spoke heard about the way emerging technology had the potential to reshape battles for hearts and minds.

The memorable response was that the conference had no time to consider things which were of interest only to the young and to computer nerds.

A small group of participants convened towards the end of that conference, to try to navigate the way from grandstanding to understanding.

The first action it took was to plan, and then put in to effect, a meeting of expert analysts and researchers to seriously monitor, assess and design strategies towards combatting antisemitism.

Zurich, in 2017, hosted the 13th Conference on Contemporary Antisemitism, which provided the opportunity for serious people to examine serious problems.

State-supported antisemitism had not died - as was demonstrated dramatically in presentations and discussions concerning not just Iran, Turkey and others within the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, but also in Venezuela.

Court judgements in Europe have legitimised acts of violence and vandalism as acceptable political protest - including attacks on synagogues!

Some mainstream left and right wing political parties have removed any real stigma from antisemitism, tolerating, rationalising and excusing political allies who, objectively, crossed the lines from unpleasant to unacceptable.

Linguistic research has revealed that, in a number of languages, online platforms all have serious problems with antisemitic hatred - and that their responses have often been too tepid, too little and belated.

Within the Islamic sphere, antisemitism has been weaponised as a tool by political Islamists of many stripes, sometimes as a tool against the West, often in internecine battles, and occasionally even against actual Jews.

Civil society organisations have sometimes been anything but civil in their political advocacy, and Churches of a variety of denominations have reinforced some of their worst theological instincts.

There was some good news - in the area of interfaith and inter-communal coalition building, regarding police forces and educators and in setbacks to the progress of some hostile ideas.

But the best lesson to emerge was that a small number of brilliant, inspiring individuals have dedicated their professional and personal lives to serious scholarship, which allows the rest of us some potential for intellectual and moral clarity when we attempt to analyse the Oldest Hatred.

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