November 13, 2018

A Yom Kippur forum on anti-Semitism

Is the recent uptick in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe due, in part, to the distance in time from the Holocaust and a fading memory of the 6 million Jews who perished in it? 

This was among the topics of a panel discussion titled “Anti-Semitism in Europe: Crisis or Challenge?” for the Contemporary Issues Forum on Yom Kippur afternoon at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. The panel featured Anti-Defamation League (ADL) regional director Amanda Susskind, the Consul General of France in Los Angeles Axel Cruau and associate professor of history and cultural studies at Claremont Graduate University, Joshua Goode. The annual event focuses on topical issues, both secular and religious.

American Jewish Committee board member and Temple Emanuel congregant Cathy Unger served as moderator for the discussion. Susskind and Goode also are members of the Reform congregation. 

Lasting 90 minutes and held in the synagogue’s Bess P. Maltz Center, the discussion before an audience of about 200 followed an afternoon service in the Temple Emanuel Corwin Family Sanctuary and preceded Neilah, the final service of Yom Kippur. 

The event began with an acknowledgement of what was already obvious to many, when Cruau acknowledged that anti-Semitism in his country is on the rise. 

This past summer, as Israel waged war with Gaza, attacks against a Jewish synagogue in Paris rattled Jews worldwide. Anti-Israel demonstrations on the streets of France that devolved into chaos, as well, have left many wondering about the fate of Jews there, as well as in other Western European nations. 

The events have prompted thousands of Jews of France to make aliyah. Home to some 500,000 Jews, France continues to have the largest Jewish population of any European country.

Still, the emigration of Jews from France is worrisome, Cruau said, acknowledging that the Jews of France are critical to the country’s success. He said the French government plans to crack down on anti-Semitism by monitoring offensive material disseminated on social media platforms.

The speakers also discussed the causes of anti-Semitism, asking whether it is caused by Israeli actions.

Susskind dismissed the oft-cited assumption that settlements in the West Bank cause people to be anti-Israel. Anti-Israel voices would persist with or without the existence of controversial Israeli settlements, the ADL leader said, adding that this argument connecting settlements with anti-Zionism “irritated” her greatly.  

Late in the event, dialogue persisted over when anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism, as the discussion turned to attitudes toward Israel on college campuses in the United States, after an audience member asked whether European campuses are as bad as American ones. 

Cruau said European university students tend to be sympathetic to Palestinians. 

Susskind said the majority of U.S. college campuses don’t have strong anti-Zionist movements, despite the widely held belief that anti-Israel activity is rampant among college students. She said it is difficult to determine the best course of action at campuses where strong anti-Israel sentiment does exist, especially because it is generally healthy for students to debate global issues. 

Goode, for his part, looked to the past to understand the future. He said he is most worried about antidemocratic movements in countries such as France, Greece and Hungary, whose populations traditionally have been anti-Semitic, but have toned down their anti-Semitic rhetoric so as to have broader appeal. To draw an analogy, he spoke about how Hitler, when elected chancellor of Germany, initially dressed like every other politician in Germany’s executive cabinet, in top hat, and suit and tie. 

Goode cited France’s political party, the National Front, a far-right group that is reportedly gaining traction among Jews by playing on the Jewish fear of France’s Islamic immigrant communities, as an example of “wolves who are dressed in sheep’s clothing.”

The panelists also discussed French politics, debating who might succeed French President Francois Hollande in the 2017 presidential elections. Cruau attempted to allay Goode’s fear that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, the third-largest political party in France, has any chance of winning the next election.  

The participation of a French diplomatic official in the panel at Emanuel reinforced one of the key differences between events of today and events of 1930s Europe, Goode said during the discussion. It demonstrates that while anti-Semitic activity reminiscent of prewar Europe might be taking place here and there, the activity today, unlike back then, is not state-sanctioned. On the contrary, state officials are condemning what’s happening to the Jews, he said. 

ISIS, the Islamic militant group that is massacring nonbelievers throughout Syria and Iraq, also was discussed. The news last month that an Algerian-based group claiming affinity with ISIS had kidnapped and beheaded a French national, Herve Gourdel, prompted moderator Unger to offer condolences to Cruau at the beginning of the event.  

Additional participants in the program included Temple Emanuel Rabbi Laura Geller, who appeared at the end of the event and told the audience that the purpose of the afternoon forum, while unconventional for a Yom Kippur service, was to gather the community for a thought-provoking conversation during the High Holy Days. 

“If not now, when?” Geller said, drawing on the famous Hillel saying that also served as the theme for the congregation’s 2014 High Holy Day services.