INTERVIEW: Weitzman: Islamist radicalism is not the only problem, there was anti-Semitism in the West and it is still thereDuring his visit to Istanbul I had the chance to meet Mr. Mark Weitzman, the Director of Government Affairs of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a member of the official US delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, IHRA. We discussed the recent Paris attacks, the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and how to fight the hate in social media
The new year began with attacks to Charlie Hebdo and then to a kosher supermarket right before Shabbat. How do you explain these attacks? What are the motives behind them?
It is clearly tied up with Islamist radicalism. A small number of people see answers only in violence and expect the rest of the world to give in to all demands immediately. That is the similarity between the two. The underline issue of anti-Semitism in the supermarket is one that I think a lot of people in the western world and other parts of the world are happy to be ignoring. That is why I was glad to see the secretary general of the United Nations issue a statement stressing that as well. With conspiracy theories any Jew, any Jewish institution is a target just by their existence. We cannot accept that.
2014 was a year when a record number of French Jews made Aliyah. So there were clear signs of anti-Semitism in Europe already, especially in France. On the other hand Islamofobia is also rising and we see that far right parties are gaining popularity. Where is Europe heading to?
If I knew where Europe is heading to… I know there is a lot of concern about the rise of far right parties and Jews share that concern. Far right parties never have been great friends of the Jewish community. Right now they are clearly tapping into fear of immigration, fear of losing control of the society that has been built up in the last three centuries. The fears are legitimate. The ways they approach as an answer are different.
Wherever Europe is going, the direction is very bad. There is no question that throughout the continent anti-Semitism is rising, not just in France. A poll, three years ago, already showed that the Jews were strangers in Europe. This poll was taken in eight countries with largest Jewish population. People are hiding their Jewish identity, are afraid of being identified. This is before the shootings of Belgium, before the murders in Paris. So it is being going on for a number of years. I was in Berlin in November for the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) meeting on anti-Semitism. Samantha Power, head of the US delegation and ambassador to UN, made a very strong speech. One of the things she was angry or disappointed about was the fact that one third less of countries showed up this year than did in 2004.
Can we say that there is a failure of living together in a multicultural, liberal, democratic Europe?
I am not sure if we can say failure because I am not sure if it is ever implemented. You don’t fail if you don’t try and I am not sure if Europe really tried it sincerely. Europe had a problem with Jews. Currently Europe has a problem with Jews and Muslims. So in certain sense maybe the problem is Europe. But saying that does not solve it.
I don’t know how many Muslims are there in France, a million maybe, who have never been integrated to the society. That is what the radicals want. They want a failure. They want to be able to point out and say that “You’ll never be welcomed here, you don’t have to change and you should be radicalized.” They don’t want people, Muslims or anyone else, being able to say that “We are tolerant and pluralistic and we have a home here.”
Young people find local teachers, leaders who would try to pull them away from family, from the more traditional, more established structures like imams, bosses and so on… and they try to pull them in a direction of radicalization. They go off to Syria etc… for training and then they come back. This is a pattern that we see in a lot of cases. So one of the answers, not the only answer would be a better integration.
Radical terrorism is terrorism and there is a strength of that in Islam that is being used by terrorists. I think that is both part of our responsibility and the rest of Islam. Action is necessary and it has to be very strong about rejecting it. I don’t care what they say in English to International New York Times or Le Monde. It is what they say in Arabic in the mosques is important.
There were different reactions to the attacks; some said that Algerians suffered a lot because of the French and this was a reaction…
A reaction after sixty years? That is a very odd and late reaction. That is not a reason, it is an excuse. The internet contributed to that in a sense. Because it puts all these radical and harmful tweets and posts. In 140 characters you get to write something very sharp and millions of people can pick it and follow it. It is much easier to inflame population than it was hundred years ago. That is why the people who have followers, who have position of leadership, should be more aware and more responsible than ever before. What you used to think was just for an election result now has a longer, wider and more permanent imprint on people’s mind.
Anti-Semitism has always been an issue in Europe. Can we say that there is a renaissance in anti-Semitism or it has a new form? In the form of anti-Israel or Holocaust denial for example…
I think right now an important part of anti-Semitism is anti-Israel. Criticism of Israel or any other country is legitimate. Criticism of Israeli policies, politicians, political parties… You may disagree; there is no problem with that. Israel is no different than any other country in that regard. Any given day half of Israel’s population disagrees with its government.
But there is a double standard for Israel. When the separation wall was built, people only focused on that wall and ignored the fact that there was a wall built in Saudi Arabia and the United States as well. That raises a question when the only code of human rights that you are concerned in the Middle East is the ones for Israel. You ignore what happens in Saudi Arabia to Christians… You ignore all this and you focus on Israel only. When you say that the only people that cannot have a national liberation movement are Jews, the people that cannot have a national homeland are Jews… That is a form of discrimination as well. Things like that raise the question of anti-Semitism.
The second part, today as in Brussels and Paris, Jews are targeted just for being Jewish. Because they are linked to the state of Israel in some ways. And they are considered as acceptable targets in the ‘ongoing battle’ against Israel. That is clearly a major problem of anti-Semitism. And you have people from different countries who spread versions of conspiracy theories. Going back to 9/11 that Jews were responsible for that, going back to Charlie Hebdo Israel staged it… Wild conspiracies that are modern versions of blood libel; that Jews are still using blood of innocent people for their own purposes. So that is a mixture of old and new. Conspiracy part is the old part, focus on Israel is the new part. Another form of anti-Semitism is the attempts to ban kosher slaughtering and the circumcision.
Holocaust denial is another form of anti-Semitism…
I am very concerned about Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial except for some countries is not acceptable anymore. Most people rejected it and it is limited to a bunch of neo-Nazis. Now there is Holocaust distortion which is more dangerous. Even some western governments have been involved in. They don’t deny the Holocaust but they play with it to suit their own political purposes. The government of Hungary for example was taking a political position where they created a document to pass Hungary as a victim of the Nazis, with no ability to be involved in the actions of World War II. They claim that they have no responsibility on the deportation of Hungarian Jews as the mass deportations happened under the Nazi occupation. But in reality there were anti-Semitic laws and murders before Nazis already invaded the country. The number of Germans who were involved in deportation and murder were never more than 120 and you can’t deport 240,000 people with 120 soldiers without major collaboration. They are not saying that the Jews were not murdered or deported. So they are not denying the Holocaust, they even passed a law against Holocaust denial. But the policy is to give the blame onto somebody else and say “we have nothing to do with it” and that is distortion. Another part of it is the comparison of Israel to Nazis, to call Gaza a concentration camp, to say Israel is committing genocide. We hear it all the time by political leaders who should know better and not use it for their own purposes. So the distortion of the Holocaust in that way concerns me more than denial.
There is also the use of religious texts for anti-Semitism, it is like trying to find a religious base for the hatred of Jews…
In the West is somehow different. One of the effects of the Holocaust was that organized religion, the church took a look into itself and that is something that all the religions have to do at a certain point. Because a lot of the holy and fundamental texts of religions have things that were written for a very different society. While they teach us and guide us they also contain things that speak to a different time and different situation.
Judaism had to deal with it when they lost political power, when they lost their independence. It is very different when you have a country and when you don’t have a country. Christianity did not deal with that issue until after the Holocaust. There was a Jewish historian who when he was hiding in France during World War II, wrote a book to describe the history of Christian anti-Semitism. The book had an influence on John the 23rd and used in the second Vatican Council when they wanted to reword the relations between Catholics and other religions including Judaism. So this is a process still ongoing.
I think this is one of the tasks that Islam is struggling with undertaking for itself today. Maybe the great task that Islam has to do is to take that next step into maintaining its identity while trying to get along with others. On the other hand, there are religious issues about Israel that make it even harder. Israel is the focal point of these three religions. So you have claims and you have tensions because of that.
The situation of anti-Semitism is worse than I can ever remember. It is not 1933 or 1939 but it is bad enough to take it seriously. I think there is a crisis in Europe and part of the larger crisis, the challenge of our generation is dealing with radical Islam. And in many ways it is tied up together. But have said that there is lot of places like Hungary where there is no radical Islamic movement or Sweden where there is a very small Jewish community but there is still anti-Semitism. We have to be careful about not blaming Islam for everything, ignoring the main wave of anti-Semitism that still exists in the West.
Anti-Semitism is spread by social media easily, what can be done to fight it?
That is a big part of my work. What I have argued for a longtime is that we can do something by going first of all to the service providers. We have relations with Facebook for example. You bring things to Facebook and we have pretty good success rate. You have terms of agreement, the stuff that people check without reading it. But lots of them list what violates their standards. So if you can make a case, you can get something done. On the other hand there is stuff that we lost. We brought a page to Facebook that I think is disgusting but they said it is ok. It is about the agreement between the service provider and the contractor; it does not involve the government.
Too many people in general think that whatever they read is real, is true. And I think we have a job of teaching young people especially what we call critical evaluation. Look at something you see and think about it, just don’t say “If it is there it is fine.” Because especially in today’s world there is so much that is photoshopped and meant to manipulate. It does not only imply to this. Buying something online or taking a loan or connecting with people, you have to learn how to get through the real from the fake.
On the other part, in terms of education we have to do a better job answering faster, quicker and better than them. If there is a bunch of lies going on and conspiracy theories, we have to have people out there to tell the truth. You can’t just ignore it.
When you talk about Jihadi stuff you are talking about law enforcement. That is where it has to be strong. And we have to have international cooperation on that. It is a globalized problem. Those four components are necessary to start.
What do you think about the situation in Turkey?
I love Turkey. This is my third visit in two years. I am very concerned about the situation in Turkey. There is a political tension in general. Turkey can show that it is possible to live in a pluralist, multicultural society especially as a Muslim country. If Turkey can do that I think it could become an example for the rest of the world. It is no secret that there are a lot of accusations. The pop singer’s tweets for example and how many people followed it. That sort of things is of very much of concern.
Turkey has the ability to be an example and a leader. Turkey is a Muslim country with a large Jewish population today. And I know that the political leaders generally make statements that point out that Turkey’s Jews are valued members of the society. But I think there has to be an awareness that it is difficult to say that on one hand after somebody else telling lauder statements to different segments that are left unchallenged. Turkey is a Muslim country and if it can make a positive contribution would be a great gain. And no one else has the ability to do that.