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David Harris, Sandy Shindleman, Catherine Chatterley

David Harris Speaks at CISA’s 2019 Shindleman Family Lecture on “The Rise of Global Antisemitism: A Front Line View”

Penny Jones Square May 8, 2019

The Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA) hosted its 2019 Shindleman Family Lecture featuring David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), on the subject “The Rise of Global Antisemitism: A Front Line View." The lecture attracted a large audience clearly concerned by the resurgence of antisemitism at home and abroad. To call his lecture timely may be terribly cliched and trite, considering antisemitism’s almost two-millennial-long history; yet, given the direness of the contemporary moment, timely it was. With the increase in antisemitic incidents worldwide, including the recent killing of Jews as Jews in Pittsburgh and Poway, and with the proliferation of vicious antisemitic vitriol online and in social media—Harris’ perspective from the front line—a very long view, indeed, covering three decades—was a necessary call to action, prompting each of us to take a united stand with him against this ancient scourge that seemingly will not die.

Harris spoke eloquently and persuasively about his work in what he described as “Jewish diplomacy”—indeed, he was described by the late Israeli President Shimon Peres as the “foreign minister of the Jewish people.” He was drawn to this work in the 1970s when he recognized that “the war against the Jews had not ended with WWII.” Witnessing “the cry of the Jews in the Soviet Union—‘Let my people go,’” Israel caught by surprise in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and unable to find support from any nation but the US, and finally, the UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 equating Zionism and racism, convinced him to join the AJC. A sabbatical year in 2000, spent with his family in Geneva, undermined his desperate desire to believe history was moving forward in the right direction; he observed the rise in antisemitism “close-up” when his son became a victim of antisemitism in the international school he attended and the school refused to act on it. A triggering event was the Second Intifada in which over 1000 Israelis were killed. Being in Europe, he saw first-hand the reaction he termed “reverse causality”: a focusing on Israel’s response rather than on what incited it, such that the Israeli response was seen as “making Palestinian life miserable.” And then the reverse imagery of Jews as Nazis and Christ killers re-emerged, and all the age-old themes of antisemitism returned.

The antisemitism Harris saw emerge in Europe from 2000 took the form of Holocaust denial, the killing of Jews as Jews by Jihadists (in Toulouse, Paris, Copenhagen, Bulgaria, and Brussels), and of the anti-fascist (therefore, seemingly anti-antisemitic) Far Left fixating on the legitimacy of one state and one state only: Israel. Harris clarified that anti-Zionism is not necessarily synonymous with antisemitism, but when only one state is singled out and delegitimized, “Something else is going on here.” Most concerning to Harris at this time was the resistance of European leaders to even acknowledge the problem of antisemitism despite his countless meetings with them, despite their being friends, allies, and home to Jewish communities. His principle mission was, therefore, to “waken them up to the menace,” and once awake, to first get them to acknowledge the problem and its multi-dimensional aspects and then to depoliticize the problem, to move beyond the readiness of the left and the right to attack each other and their unreadiness or reluctance to confront the Islamist piece. In answer to the leaders’ “What now?,” Harris emphasized that “antisemitism is not a Jewish problem.” It may target Jews and begin with Jews, but it is primarily “a societal problem.” “Left unchecked, it will metastasize and destroy the democratic fabric of society.” Therefore, governments must “prioritize to depoliticize the problem”; knowing it is their values that are at stake, they must draw on all available resources, particularly educational resources.

Harris contended that in the last 17 – 18 years, these same forces have made their way across the ocean so that “feeling safe and apart from Europe” is no longer reasonable, especially considering the recent synagogue attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway. The polarization in the US between the right and left is not helping. What is needed now more than ever is the kind of non-partisan activism that Harris has persistently pursued in the AJC. His passionate commitment to countering antisemitism in all its deceptive guises derives from his being, as he referred to it, “swivel-headed,” able to confront the danger that can come from anywhere—from the Far Left, the Far Right, and from the Jihadists. “If you want to fight antisemitism effectively, focus on the specificity of antisemitism” while recognizing “the larger problem that the kind of life we want to live—“our democratic and pluralistic way of life”—“is under attack. We are all in the same boat.” Therefore, as Harris concluded: “We’ve got to join hands, as contrived as it might sound.” Either the people of good will, who make space for each other, will stand together as one, or others will be empowered to fight us.


Not wanting to leave the audience with a despairing or desperate message, Harris stated that in looking at the long arc of history, at how far we have come, at the story of Israel itself, he is optimistic. His final message was one of “determination not despondency. We will prevail.”


To watch the lecture, click here.

To read  about the Q and A after Harris's talk, click here.

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