It’s been nearly a decade since a bipartisan Congress tasked the State Department with the creation of a special envoy to combat anti-Semitism abroad, but if you ask Ira Forman, the current occupant of that office, he’ll say that the current state of anti-Semitism has parallels with the dark days of the 1930s.
Forman, who was in town as part of a visit coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council, sat down with the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and reporters of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last Thursday and spoke at the Katz Theatre in the JCC’s Robinson Building.
In the JCC talk, Forman provided an overview of his responsibilities as the State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and addressed contemporary global instances of anti-Semitism.
“The beginning of the 21st Century was an inflection point in anti-Semitism,” he said by way of explaining the efforts of Congress to establish his position in 2004. But while anti-Semitism has waxed and waned, he sees parallels between today and the environment that allowed the Nazis to rise to power in Germany.
He noted that governments exist in Europe with “open and brazenly anti-Semitic parties” and pointed to violence in the streets as emblematic of a modern rise in anti-Jewish hatred.
In France, he said, participants in recent marches chanted, “Jews out of the country. Jews to the gas chamber. Jews out of France.”
While different leaders have condemned this behavior — an act that Forman applauded — his concerns are specific.
“We are facing the loss of Jewish communities in Europe,” he said.
Forman said that 46 percent of Jews in France and 48
percent of Jews in Hungary wish to emigrate because of anti-Semitism. And although similar statistics appear in both countries, Forman noted a disparity. France has seen some of the worst acts of violence, including the storming of a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 that claimed the lives of three students and a teacher.
“Hungarian Jews fear anti-Semitism, but not violence,” he said. “French Jews do.”
Forman provided no full-proof tactics for combating anti-Semitism, but instead said that “speaking up is critical to combating anti-Semitism.”
“We ask our democratic allies to look at our model — overwhelm bad speech with good speech,” he said.
Forman cited Pope Francis as an ally in combating anti-Semitism and praised the work of German chancellor Angela Merkel.
“Pope Francis has said amazing things,” said Forman. “It’s important that people be called out.”
Although Forman admitted that America lacks the “wherewithal” to end anti-Semitism, he claimed that countries can work together to lessen the scope of hatred and violence.
Like slowing a stream of water, Forman explained, “we cannot turn the faucet off, but we can turn it down, and give tools to future generations to turn it down.”
Forman’s address was a collaboration among the Holocaust Center, the Community Relations Council, and the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Commitee and was underwritten by Dr. Steve Smiga.
At the conclusion of the event, Smiga explained his rationale for facilitating Forman’s remarks.
“It’s up to me,” said Smiga. “I want to keep the Holocaust memories alive. If I don’t do it and my generation doesn’t do it, who will do it?”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.