Global Anti-Semitism Report: Some Concerns

The US State Department doesn’t hang around: a mere three months after the US Congress passed an Act directing the State Department to study anti-Semitism around the world, the first Report on Global Anti-Semitism is out (link snagged from The Revealer). The project is not without controversy: back in October the British Daily Telegraph reported that:

A three-page State Department memorandum, leaked to The Telegraph yesterday, complained that congressional plans would throw US human rights reporting “out of balance”, and “erode our credibility by being interpreted as favouritism in human rights reporting”.

However, Act sponsor Tom Lantos (Dem) responded that:

State Department talk of “favouritism” as an alarming nod to “the worst stereotypes of Jews perpetrated in anti-Semitic tracts throughout modern history”.

Mr Lantos said the objections from diplomats overlooked existing offices at the State Department dedicated to promoting religious freedom, women’s rights, and Tibetan rights.

So, according to Lantos the State Department is itself anti-Semitic, which puts the report in a peculiar position. It is also unfortunate that just as the USA was casting its disapproving eye over the anti-Semitism of other nations, Bill O’Reilly and William Donahue managed to demonstrate that it is also an all-American vice.

The State Department already produces a useful yearly report on religious freedom, and this new report is in much the same style: an introduction followed by a coolly-compiled qualitative log listing various incidents and trends as reported by various sources, and some notes on governmental attitudes. The methodology is rather ad-hoc, and there is no real overall conclusion. However, there is lots of interesting information: in my opinion, the material about Eastern Europe is especially significant, revealing a lot of worrying and under-reported incidents.

But the report is also problematic, due to a certain vagueness and some assumptions. In the introduction, we read that:

For the purposes of this report, anti-Semitism is considered to be hatred toward Jews—individually and as a group—that can be attributed to the Jewish religion and/or ethnicity. An important issue is the distinction between legitimate criticism of policies and practices of the State of Israel, and commentary that assumes an anti-Semitic character. The demonization of Israel, or vilification of Israeli leaders, sometimes through comparisons with Nazi leaders, and through the use of Nazi symbols to caricature them, indicates an anti-Semitic bias rather than a valid criticism of policy concerning a controversial issue.

But the report never actually defines “legitimate criticism” of Israel, although the French politician Alain Menargues is singled out as an anti-Semite for having described Israel as “racist”. And besides the “Nazi” caricature, what exactly would consist of “vilification” of a war criminal like Ariel Sharon? We might also ask why “Nazi” caricatures necessarily “indicate an anti-Semitic bias”. Of course Israel shouldn’t be called “Nazi” – but it’s a debased and unimaginative insult that people of many political persuasions have been hurling at their enemies for decades. Are the Israeli Settlers in Gaza protesting in their orange Stars of David anti-Semites? Or the distributors of the thousands of posters of Yitzhak Rabin’s head superimposed on an SS uniform that I saw in Jerusalem in 1993?

This vagueness is also rather alarmist. For example, in relation to Europe we read that:

Also troubling is a bias that spills over into anti-Semitism in some of the left-of-center press and among some intellectuals.

I’m sure that’s true. But how is that statement meaningful without telling us who, what, where and how much? The survey in the latter part of the report does not clarify, and one gets the sense that we should just be generally suspicious. The same can be said about this statement, which apparently refers to the whole world:

Critics of Israel frequently use anti-Semitic cartoons depicting anti-Jewish images and caricatures to attack the State of Israel and its policies, as well as Jewish communities and others who support Israel. These media attacks can lack any pretext of balance or even factual basis and focus on the demonization of Israel.

Yes, especially in the Middle East, but what about the many critics of Israel who are very careful to oppose anti-Semitism? We read nothing about them in this call for “balance”. And surely “anti-Jewish images” and “lack of balance” are two different issues? While we should expect a cartoon not be anti-Semitic, the idea that a piece of satire should be “balanced” misses the mark. We also find the following:

During the 2004 United States presidential campaign, the Arab press ran numerous cartoons closely identifying both of the major American political parties with Israel and with Israeli Prime Minister Sharon.

Bush and Kerry pro-Israel? Surely not!

But, on the other hand, the report does discuss the real problem of anti-Semitism in the Middle East without resorting to the kind of unbalanced finger-pointing one finds at MEMRI. In relation to the Palestinian Authority, anti-Semitic sermons are noted, but the report also tells us that:

In a sign of positive change, the Friday sermon of December 3, broadcast on Palestinian Authority Television, preacher Muhammad Jammal Abu Hunud called for the development of a modern Islamic discourse, to recognize the “other,” to treat him with tolerance, and to avoid extremism and violence.

Syria comes under deserved criticism, although the report manages a factual contradiction and appears to be soft-pedalling on Egypt:

In November 2003, Hizballah’s Al-Manar satellite television channel broadcast an anti-Semitic, Egyptian pseudo-documentary called “Ash Shatat” (The Diaspora) [in France].

But later:

A Syrian production company created a TV series, Ash-Shatat (“The Diaspora”), an anti-Semitic program, and filmed it inside the country. The theme of this program centered on the alleged conspiracy of the “Elders of Zion” to orchestrate both world wars and manipulate world markets to create Israel. The show was not aired in the country, but it was shown elsewhere. The closing credits of the programs give “special thanks” to various government ministries, including the security ministry, the culture ministry, the Damascus Police Command, and the Department of Antiquities and Museums.

So, Syrian or Egyptian? In fact, Egypt was responsible for a different anti-Semitic serial, Rider without a Horse. Although this programme is also mentioned in the report, its Egyptian origins are passed over, and the confusion suggests a hurried redrafting in favour of Egypt. Also, while Syria’s anti-Semitism is included prominently in the report’s introduction, problems in Egypt are only touched on far later (the material on Egypt has also been criticised by the ADL and Robert Wistrich).

The section on Israel also ignores the phenomenon of anti-Semitism among Russian Israelis. The concept may sound bizarre, but it has been reported on in Haaretz (via The Pagan Prattle).

So, overall I would give this report a “B-” or “C+” – but I would still recommend it as required reading.