Indiana University Professor Alvin Rosenfeld separates what he calls "age-old anti-Semitism" from a resurgent brand of anti-Semitism -- one proving lethal and focused not just on Jews but also on the elimination of Israel.
Rosenfeld, director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at IU and founder of the University's Borns Jewish Studies Program, spoke to about 50 Jewish Community Relations Council organizational leaders and Jewish community members on Nov. 7 at a program titled "Anti-Semitism and the Delegitimization of Israel," which was co-sponsored by AJC Chicago and the Anti-Defamation League.
"In the time of intensifying anti-Semitism, to be a Jew in some places in the world is a capital sentence," he said, mentioning more than 10 years of deadly attacks on Jews including those in India, Pakistan, France, Germany, and Belgium, among others.
Rosenfeld reflected that the danger lies not only in the resurgence of anti-Semitism, but in the conflation of anti-Jewish bias with anti-Zionism and a hatred for the modern State of Israel. "Those who promote an anti-Israel agenda not only take shots at Israel, but also at Jews as a people," he said.
Rosenfeld blamed those on the extreme left and those on the extreme right for the rise in anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment. He quoted from Arab world media, which calls Jews a Satan and promotes a "lethal obsession with Jews." He also noted that textbooks in Muslim-majority countries as well as sermons from religious leaders often peddle the theory that "a Zionist conspiracy is laying siege to the entire Arab world."
"We need vigilance and knowledge to curb this phenomenon," Rosenfeld said, "though the chances of changing minds of people in the extreme anti-Israel camp are slim because they aren't interested in listening to facts."
Despite the grim recent history he detailed, Rosenfeld offered a ray of hope: world leaders such as former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and Pope Francis have all spoken out against anti-Semitism and attacks against Israel. In addition, Muslim intellectuals are defying anti-Semitic teachings and standing strong against anti-Semitism in the Arab world despite great personal risk.
In discussion with attendees, Rosenfeld differentiated between "well-intentioned criticism of Israel's policies" and anti-Zionism. "Anyone comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa or to Nazi Germany is not well-intentioned," he said.
The topic for the JCRC meeting dovetailed with a new JCRC initiative about protecting civility in public discourse.
"As the convening body of Chicago's Jewish community, our JCRC has a longstanding commitment to civil discourse and the exchange of differing views on difficult topics, as this strengthens our community and our democracy," said JCRC Executive Director Emily Sweet. "Given the increasing polarization we are witnessing in our country today, we felt it was time for JCRC to re-affirm the norms and values we have always used to guide our public discourse, and renew our commitment to derech eretz -- the traditional Jewish standards of common decency."
JCRC Assistant Vice President Steven Dishler sat down for a conversation with Rosenfeld that can be watched below.
JCRC member organizations and other Jewish institutions are being asked to sign on in support of this statement, which will be shared broadly with the Jewish community in the coming months.