By Elise Alexander
Back in late June, the US State Department and the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism sponsored a discussion examining the state of anti-Semitism in 2014. At the time, the response was cautiously optimistic. Speakers voiced concerns about the rise of parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn and the loss of Christians in the Middle East, like the Jews before them.
Other incidents, such as the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, loomed large in the background due to their recent addition as crimes against the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The final note, however, was that while anti-Semitism may never be eradicated, it can be fought and the current generation can equip the next one to continue that struggle.
A discussion on the same topic held only one month later might end on an entirely different note. Following the escalation of hostilities in Israel and the Gaza Strip, racist and religiously intolerant speech and actions have spiked across the globe, including anti-Semitism on a frightening scale.
While activists have decried French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve’s decision to halt mass pro-Palestinian protests as an outrage against democracy, the decision did not come without reason. Residents of the Parisian Sarcelles district, known as Little Jerusalem, reported that rioters attacked Jewish-owned businesses and a synagogue while shouting slogans like “Gas the Jews” and “Slit Jews’ throats.”
The Society for the Protection of the Jewish Community estimated that anti-Jewish violence is seven times as high as it was in the 1990s, and Israeli government figures showed that more than one thousand Jews immigrated to the country in a ten-day span. Despite a show of solidarity from Parisian religious leaders and calls from pro-Palestinian activists to reject violence, the picture is a disheartening one.
In light of these developments, the remarks of Roya Hakakian of Yale University’s Whitney Humanities Center and the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center are more pertinent than ever. Reflecting on why Iran has the lowest percentage in the Middle East of residents who think the Jews “make too much of the Holocaust,” Hakakian spoke of the idea of Persian national identity (itself a concept challenged by Iranian ethnic minorities). Persians, Hakakian put forth, consider themselves civilized because they are diverse and can tolerate the Other while those outside their borders cannot. Although this narrative has not always been upheld in action, it remains a powerful resource.
Her other point on resistance to anti-Semitism in Iran was that because former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was so deeply “unloved” by the population which turned against him in the Green Movement, the ideas central to his propaganda were likewise laid open to scrutiny. Among these ideas was Holocaust denial, and Hakakian referred to this process of questioning received wisdom as an educational one.
France is not Iran; neither are the United States or the United Kingdom. Hakakian’s analysis of resistance to anti-Semitism in Iran, however, holds lessons for all three. Each in its own unique fashion considers itself a bastion of liberty and tolerance in the midst of a narrow-minded and prejudiced world. And each also has deeply embedded dominant narratives received over centuries concerning race, gender, religion, and class. Enacting the former (and recognizing where we fail to do so) and questioning the latter provides an “educational process” for us all without straying into scapegoat territory.
As Laurie Penny wrote for The New Statesman, “it is not anti-Semitic to say ‘not in my name’” as a person of Jewish descent speaking of violence committed by Israeli military. Just so, it is not un-American or un-European to say “not in my name” of anti-Semitism. In fact, just the opposite is true. In order to craft a future worthy of our ideals, we must remember and make clear that anti-Semitism is not among them.
Elise Alexander is a Washington, D.C.-based researcher, blogger, and human rights activist. She has studied in Syria and Morocco and recently received her MTS from Harvard Divinity School.