Anti-Semitism abroad not yet at 1930s level, but ‘bleak’ nonetheless

Anti-Semitism abroad not yet at 1930s level, but ‘bleak’ nonetheless

State Department official Ira Forman (left) makes a presentation to Jewish journalists.

Photo by Toby Tabachnick
State Department official Ira Forman (left) makes a presentation to Jewish journalists. Photo by Toby Tabachnick

Jewish journalists met with members of the Obama administration on Wednesday, Nov. 16 at the State Department for a briefing on worldwide anti-Semitism. The meeting was arranged by the American Jewish Press Association, which held its annual conference in Washington, D.C., last week.

During his three and a half year tenure, Ira Forman, U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, has been to 36 countries and has spoken to leaders all over the world, including “a whole slew of rabbis” and a conference of bishops about the rise of anti-Semitism, he told the journalists.

“The most important thing I think we could do, I call ‘getting it right,’” he said. “It is equally bad to overstate [the situation] as it is to understate it.”

The pervasiveness of anti-Semitism outside the United States does not yet rise to the level of that in the 1930s, although “we can find analogies,” said Forman, a Cleveland native who was a founder and executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council from 1996 to 2010.

In both Greece and in Hungary there exist “deeply ideological Nazi parties that are deeply committed, with representation, and also there is street volition,” he said.

“But we don’t see trains to concentration camps. We can’t predict what’s coming up, but we don’t see it.”

And yet, he observed, Jews nonetheless have been dying at the hands of anti-Semites in street attacks.

“But Jews are not being shot en masse,” Forman said. “So, what is it? It’s bad enough.”

If current trends in Europe continue, he predicted, the smaller and newer Jewish communities could disappear due to attrition.

Forman said that during his tenure, he has been “struck by the complexity of the problem.”

So many factors are at play when it comes to dealing with anti-Semitism abroad, including the size of the individual community, the size of the community’s Muslim population, the leadership of the community, and threats to abolish the practice of circumcision or bans on kosher slaughter. European Jews can face anti-Semitism stemming from a range of ideological perpetrators, including “classic xenophobic extremists,” Muslims, and left-wing populists. In addition, there is also anti-Semitism associated with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Forman said.

While the majority of Muslims in France “have no interest in harming Jews,” he noted, there is a “small percentage of young people” who are committing violence and murder.  

While meeting with leaders of the Jewish community in Paris in 2014, Forman learned that most French Jews had talked about leaving France. And yet, he said, only about 15 percent would actually do so.

The French government has been “great” in stepping up to protect its Jewish citizens, he said, “but that’s not enough.”

“Civil society has not stepped up and we don’t know if they will,” Forman said. “It’s looking bleak.”

The U.S. is working on fighting anti-Semitism abroad, with its first priority being the encouragement of European governments to accept a working definition of anti-Semitism that includes efforts to delegitimize the state of Israel. The U.S. is further “urging countries to appoint people who can gather data and suggest resources” to address the issue, Forman said.

One of the most challenging aspects of fighting anti-Semitism Forman has faced is hate speech and incitement on social media.

“We don’t believe in censorship in the United States,” he said. “You can say whatever you want and not be charged criminally.

“We know how to deal with bad speech: you overwhelm it with good speech. But we don’t know how to do that on social media.”

Forman emphasized the imperative of European civil society stepping up to the plate to shut anti-Semitism down. While overt anti-Semitism is typically condemned in the United States by clergy members and other citizens, “that doesn’t happen in other countries. You need civil society to make this unacceptable.”

Forman, who expects to be replaced by the incoming Trump administration, is a realist when it comes to hatred against Jews.

“We can’t turn the faucet off,” Forman said. “But we can turn it down.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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