Reality Check: An Examination of Anti-Semitism in 2014
The U.S. Department of State and the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism sponsored a discussion, “Reality Check: An Examination of Anti-Semitism in 2014,” on June 26 from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. at the Yale MacMillan Center in New Haven, Connecticut.
The event covered the current trends in Anti-Semitism. The panel was moderated by Rabbi James E. Ponet, Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School and the Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale. Panelists included Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman (@SEASForman) and Roya Hakakian, a fellow at Yale University’s Whitney Humanities Center and a founding member of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.
English Transcript (below):
RABBI PONET: Good morning, everybody. I’m Rabbi Jim Ponet, the Howard M. Holtzman Jewish Chaplain at Yale. I wish to welcome you all here for an event that we’ve called Reality Check: An Examination of Anti-Semitism in 2014. This event is co-sponsored by the United States Department of State and the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism. We’ll be listening today to two people in public conversation that I’ll try not to interrupt – Ira Forman, who was sworn in as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism on May 20th, 2013. Prior to that, he served as the Jewish Outreach Director for the Obama campaign – for the Obama for America campaign. Ira has a long and distinguished history of working in the Jewish communal work and public service sector. He served for nearly 15 years as the Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. He also worked at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where he worked as Political Director and Legislative Liaison. He was the Director of Congressional Relations for the Office of Personnel Management. Throughout his career, he has spoken and written extensively on Jewish history and public policy. Mr. Forman also co-edited and wrote for the reference book, Jews in American Politics. And I should note, due to no fault of his own, he is a graduate of Harvard University. (Laughter.)
Roya Hakakian is known to many of us here in New Haven – poet, author, human rights activist, one of the founders of the – founding member of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, a fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center here at Yale University.
This discussion will be streamed live and there are people here who can fill in cards to ask questions. So I think the cards have been passed out to you. Send them down over here to Chanan who will bring them to my attention. We are also able to receive questions via Twitter. The event is streamed at humanrights.gov/stateofrights. Using #StateofRights, you can ask questions that will be received here, and I will call them as they appear.
Thought it appropriate to begin with our Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, the third person to fill that job, Ira Forman. I’m guessing, Ira, that most people don’t even know that the United States department has an office of a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Can you tell us something about the history of your office, what you do, and how it feels since you’ve been in place, since May?
MR. FORMAN: Well, certainly, though I want to start by thanking the Yale Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism. The one thing I have learned in a year in this job is the issue of worldwide anti-Semitism is incredibly complex, and to have an academic institution of Yale’s quality studying this topic is critical for us to ever get a handle on how to really, in any way, combat this kind of scourge. And I’m also honored to be on the program with Roya Hakakian, who is such an accomplished individual, and look forward to her remarks.
But yes, I – and every time I speak about this program, I ask my audience and say, “Do you know that the State Department even does this?” And the answer is invariable two-thirds to 90 percent say no, of course not.
But this program has been – this office was created by an act of Congress in 2004, and though many of you know, when we hear about things happening in Congress, most often we hear of great partisan divides. And I will say, in the year I’ve been in this office, and when this legislation went through, it was unique in the sense there are no partisan divides here. This is an issue, one of the few issues certainly, that both Democrats and Republicans at the time in 2004 when it was bipartisanly co-sponsored by former Congressman Tom Lantos, current Congressman Chris Smith, former Senator Voinovich, George Voinovich – tremendous bipartisan support.
And the office was actually set up two years later, in 2006, and it is fairly unique. Only – to my awareness, only Israel has a comparable – in their foreign office, foreign ministry – has a comparable office that is actually targeting directly anti-Semitism. And the title, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, is essentially what the office is all about. The monitoring is actually quite direct. The State Department every year issues both a Human Rights Report, which was issued in March of this year, and an International Religious Freedom Report, which usually follows in the following months and we hope to have out very soon.
And – but in addition to that, where we do monitor in over 60 countries, anti-Semitism is part of those reports. In addition, we are collecting data from around the world, places like the Kantor Center, Tel Aviv University, data that simply – like the ADL survey that just recently came out. But the other piece of our office is travel around the world to talk to members of the Jewish community, talk to governments, talk to NGOs about this problem. So there’s a number of ways we can monitor.
The combating side is more difficult. How do you combat a problem, as I mentioned, so complex, so different in many ways in different parts of the world, so many different manifestations of anti-Semitism? So we have tools of private diplomacy. We have tools of public diplomacy. I believe it’s really, really important, and why this type of meeting is so important, is to bring in other stakeholders – Jewish community stakeholders, non-Jewish stakeholders’ communities, other governments – because the problem will not be addressed in any sufficient way without a multitude of people. So we spend a lot of time outreaching to other groups, other governments, to talk about what we can do together. And of course, it’s part of our job to bring this whole issue up to the top of the State Department, to our most important diplomats, including Secretary Kerry, and the White House and the President, when we think that these issues need to come up to that level. And we increasingly, unfortunately, have to make those reports more and more often.
RABBI PONET: Thank you, Ira. There’s much more I want to ask you, but I thought to bring you in right away, my dear Roya. Roya, born in Iran, wrote a memoir some years ago called The Land of No. Did I say that properly?
MS. HAKAKIAN: Journey from the Land of No.
RABBI PONET: The Journey from the Land of No, about your experience there. And you have a unique sense of – I would almost characterize it as a – well, it’s a love relationship that has serious critique in it regarding Iran. In other words, it’s not simply a story of anti-Semitism.
MS. HAKAKIAN: Not at all, no. In fact, well, I’m delighted to be part of this panel and honored to be next to my spiritual leader and Ira. I specifically wrote the book because I thought that Iran was misunderstood, and part of that misunderstanding is that the notion of Iran being equaled or the experience of – or my experience of being a Jew in Iran, being a young person in Iran at the revolutionary era was somehow synonymous or written off as the same as the leadership that represented Iran. And I think that’s really where – what I want to leave with our audiences today, if nothing else, that we pay a lot of lip service to the notion that we shouldn’t assume that the Iranian nation or any nation under a tyranny is equal to its regime, that regimes cannot represent nations under those circumstances. And it’s certainly true about Iran, and that’s what my book tried to capture.
So in other words, I think the best way of summarizing the experience is that the Iranian regime happens to be far more backward than the Iranian nation; that while, for instance, the previous president, Ahmadinejad, was going around the world trying to really warmonger and hatemonger by denying the Holocaust and claiming that he intended to wipe Israel off the map, or whatever that translation was – because there was a great deal of discussion whether or not the translation from Persian into English was correct – Iranians themselves had – are vastly different, and as a result of the government’s radical anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic positions, have stood actually to the opposite of the regime.
And that’s, I think, the most important point that is often lost as we watch the nuclear discussion, as we begin to worry about the propaganda coming out of Iran, that while the regime creates this mayhem, especially within the media realm, that the nation is going, in fact, the opposite, in the opposite direction. And when you look at the leadership of Iran, there is a great deal to worry about, but when you take a look at the 35-year movement of the Iranian people in terms of their relationship to Israel, views of Jews and all that, Iranians are probably the only nation in the region who have taken a step away in a completely independent and unique direction in that region. And I think – I’m glad that the representative of the Anti-Defamation League is here today, because their recent survey backs up my claims, which I desperately needed because I’ve been making this argument for several years and no one believes me. Everybody referred to me as a nostalgic exile who wanted to put a good face on the Iranian nation that she misses, but, in fact, I’m glad to see that Anti-Defamation League has produced a survey that pretty much makes these remarks valid. And we can go over them in subsequent questions.
RABBI PONET: Thank you, Roya, for that. That leads to a question that’s pertinent to your portfolio, Ira, and that is: It has been observed that the new anti-Semitism today is – cloaks itself in anti-Zionist, anti-Israel critique. And I’m certain you’ve seen that phenomenon. The question, I think, is how you sort that out. Surely criticism of every state is legitimate and perhaps necessary. Are you able, to your own satisfaction thus far, to distinguish an anti-Semitic attack on the State of Israel from a legitimate critique of the State of Israel?
MR. FORMAN: Well, Rabbi, that’s an excellent question, and I don’t have a perfect answer.
RABBI PONET: I wouldn’t think so. It’s a hard one, I know.
MR. FORMAN: There are some fuzzy lines, and the whole question of what is anti-Semitic is not always clear – sometimes is. But in terms of U.S. policy, certainly we would like to have Israel treated exactly like all other nations. So that means criticism of Israel is legitimate, like criticism of other nations. It also means sometimes that even criticism we may not agree with is legitimate. Question is, where does it cross the line? And from a U.S. perspective, we have some kind of markers. They’re not perfect, but they give us some really good direction. And the first is: Is that criticism delegitimizing Israel? Is it making the case that Israel has no right to exist? Is it making the case that Zionism is the only form of nationalism that’s illegitimate? When that’s the case, that certainly has crossed the line.
It also crosses the line, from a U.S. policy perspective, when Israel is defamed. So, for example, if someone says, “I don’t like what Israel is doing with Palestinians in the West Bank,” that’s not necessarily anti-Semitism at all. But if someone says, “What Israel is doing to the Palestinians is exactly what the Nazis did to Jews,” that’s crossed the line of defamation.
And finally, when we have clear, clear signs of double standards. We treat Israel very different than we treat other places, often in sometimes UN agencies, et cetera. We see this. That crosses the line. That crosses the line. When Israel is criticized for, say, human rights violations time and time and time again, and states like the North Koreans, the Iranians, the Syrians are never even mentioned, that’s illegitimate.
So, yes, that’s – those are kind of the guidelines we use. How the rubber meets the road is sometimes a little more difficult. Sometimes it may not be useful to use the term anti-Semitism. Sometimes we deal with issues that we would classify that are not anti-Semitism, and I will give you one example we’re working on right now, and that’s the issue in parts of Europe of attempts to ban circumcision. We have parts of civil society, we have political actors in parts of Northern Europe, some of the German-speaking parts of Europe, saying we should ban circumcision. Now, we address this because the people who usually say this usually speak about children’s autonomy. So we talk about this as an issue paramount of religious freedom, and that circumcision, as a religious ritual for not just Jews, but also Muslims, is an issue of religious freedom.
So, again, it’s a complex issue, but there are definite redlines and we try to call them out.
RABBI PONET: Thank you. That’s helpful, and I appreciate that it’s difficult and you’re new in your task, still finding your way. And Roya, you made a distinction, and I’ll be interested, Ira, in your reaction to that, between the regime and the people, specifically as regards Iran. To kind of deepen the possibility for you addressing that distinction, Roya, maybe you could say something about the state of Iranian Jewry today. In other words, as I understand, we all know there’s been – there was a massive flight, primarily in the ‘50s and through the ‘60s, of Jews from Arab and Middle Eastern and Northern African communities where they had lived for centuries, none older than the Jewish community of Iran. Most of those communities have next to no Jews left. Baghdad, I think, maybe has a handful. How many Jews live today in Tehran?
MS. HAKAKIAN: Well, the problem with all Iranian communities, even in the United States, is that it’s hell to get statistics from them because you’re talking about a population that has never learned or wanted or had any reason to collaborate with the authorities. So even Iranians in California today are reluctant to participate in census-taking and all sorts of efforts such as this. So it’s very difficult with Iranian communities in or outside of Iran when it comes to taking numbers. But it’s particularly more difficult in Iran today because the Iranian Jewish community has, to my great dismay and sadness, has gone back to what it used to know. So we had a period in Iran that my father very eloquently speaks about where Jews were better off staying hidden or being unrecognizable from the general population. And then, during the reign of Rezâ Šâh Pahlavi and his son, Mohammad Rezâ Pahlavi, Jews left the ghettos and they became visible citizens, so you could recognize Iranian Jews and it was okay because Iran was becoming far more eclectic in terms of its religious and ethnic makeup and accepting minorities within the fabric of the society was very much part of that regime was all about in creating one common nation.
But then, the Jews today, even though they, the Jewish community was recognized as a legitimate community, and Ayatollah Khomeini himself, a few weeks after the Iranian Revolution in February of 1979, said publicly that the Jews were welcome to stay in Iran because they were a people of the book, they have gone back to the old mode of retreating to the hidden Jewish mode that they knew before the revolution. So taking census within Iran is very difficult.
There are – prior to the Iranian Revolution, there was anywhere between 100 to 120,000 Jews living in Iran, and I have heard statistics that place that number today to less than a quarter of that number, so anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 seem to be remaining in Iran. However, it’s – reporting on this community is extremely difficult and I don’t know of a single journalist who has done a good job of going into Iran, interviewing or talking to people, and coming back with a proper and balanced piece.
RABBI PONET: Are the – do we know whether the Iranian Jewish community is free to emigrate today, or are there constraints on their travel?
MS. HAKAKIAN: There was never officially a ban on the departure of Jews, but that’s – so what interests me in the history of contemporary Iranian Jews in Iran isn’t simply that my own background is Jewish, but I think anybody who’s interested in Iran or the Middle East would learn a great deal about how this regime is operating by the way they’re dealing with the Jewish community.
RABBI PONET: This is part of what motivates you to want to establish here, at Yale, if possible, an Iranian Jewish archives.
MS. HAKAKIAN: Yes.
RABBI PONET: Is that right?
MS. HAKAKIAN: Thank you for that plug.
RABBI PONET: Mm-hmm, you’re welcome.
MS. HAKAKIAN: Yes. Yes, I think that, of course, it’s of interest to collect the history of Iranian Jewry, but it should be of interest to anybody who wants to study the Middle East and the behavior or the contemporary – this current regime in Iran, to watch the way in which the regime treats the Jewish community.
Now, to go back to your original question, the regime never officially banned Jews from leaving, but the regime never officially allowed Jews to leave either. So this is how it behaves in every possible way on critical questions. Is Iran developing nuclear weapons? You come away from one nuclear negotiations, maybe not. Then you go home and you get intelligence from ground that maybe they are. So this is, I think, the way that the regime has allowed this – so many things to fall into a shadowy, uncertain, gray area, has been basically the regime’s modus operandi and the reason the regime continues to survive, because you never know. There is no definite answer.
So when I left Iran in 1984, Jews were not officially banned from leaving, but when we applied for our passports to be renewed and turned our passports in, our passports were confiscated. And when we asked when we can pick them up, they said come back in six months. So when we returned in six months, we had to come back another six months. So rather than saying we’re not giving you your passports, they were saying you have to wait six months, and each time the six months were prolonged. Until that – it wasn’t until then that the Jewish community and other religious minorities in Iran – it’s not to say that the Jewish community is actually the worst-off religious minority in Iran. In fact, the Bahá’í community is doing far worse and is being severely persecuted to the point that Jews have never known in post-revolutionary Iran.
But since Jews are the topic of the discussion today, the Jewish community realized that the passport applications had been altered after the rise of the new regime. And one question that didn’t used to exist on passport applications was the question of religion. Religion had been added. And people started to simply respond to it truthfully, and until we realized that maybe we shouldn’t be responding truthfully to the question of religion, and so we found corrupt people within the passport office who could be bribed and swap the initial applications with the truthful responses to the question of religion to altered applications, which is what I did. I left as an Armenian; my original application was eventually swapped. And I think some of this continues to go on.
So it’s easier today to leave Iran if you’re Jewish than it was when I left Iran, and part of that has to do with the fact that the regime is far more secure and mature in its evolutionary or developmental stages of life, but back then it was far more insecure and had a harder time allowing people to leave. It’s easier now, but it’s – but there are no official positions and they can always tell you to come back in six months.
RABBI PONET: So thank you for that, Roya. So the distinction between the regime and the local population, the millions that live there, seems to matter significantly as we evaluate Iran, Ira. But I’m thinking, come to Europe, come, say, to France, where official state policy is very concerned about issues of anti-Semitism and yet the local Jewish community, to the best of my reading, is terribly upset, feels itself endangered. So is the distinction between what the regime says and what’s actually going on in a country one that is important for the State Department in general and for yourself in your particular role as Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism to consider?
MR. FORMAN: Well, as I’m listening to Roya, there are issues that are coming up that I – we haven’t wrestled with. We always look first, in our office, at what is actually happening on the ground. What are Jews themselves saying? What are they doing in terms of immigration? We had a survey that came out last year from the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU of eight Jewish communities in the EU, and one of the shocking things is that in France 46 percent of Jews have thought of emigrating, not for economic reasons but because of the situation as relates to anti-Semitism. That number in Hungary is 48 percent. And that we’ve actually seen another – in France another survey just this last month that actually said those numbers might be even higher.
And that is – that’s the first thing we look at. But of course, you have to look at what the government itself is doing, and I think, Rabbi, you’re exactly right when you say that as far as I’ve seen, the French Government knows what’s happening, they’re extremely concerned, they’re taking various measures. I don’t think they know – and I’m not sure we know – exactly what’s going to solve this problem. It’s a quite – it actually affects much more of their society than just the viability of their Jewish community. And that fundamentally, the viability of these communities, the pressure they’re feeling, is our first priority.
You go to other countries in Europe, and again, I think we should make the distinction. You go back to the interwar period, you had a number of governments I think you would classify clearly, besides Nazi Germany, as anti-Semitic. I think it’s much more difficult to say that about any government in Europe, at least in the governments that we deal with with significant Jewish populations in Europe, but that doesn’t mean they’re not – they’re similar to France in terms of, A, understanding what’s going on; B, willing to take steps to try and put resources to changing that; and often, and really important I found, confronting history.
When you have regimes that don’t want to confront what really has happened to their Jewish communities, their minority communities – often, in the Jewish community’s case, what happened in the Holocaust – to confront that, yes, Nazi Germany was primarily responsible, but what about their own responsibilities? And every nation in the world, I think you’d have to say, has some responsibility. No one acted perfectly in those years.
When you don’t confront history, we generally find that the regimes have more difficulty in confronting the problem. And that’s good and bad. We’d like regimes always to be – obviously every government to have an attitude of, “We have some problem,” and there is a problem to a lesser or greater degree in almost every country in Europe with anti-Semitism. And we’d like everybody to say, “Yes, we have a problem and we want to have policies that confront it.” But frankly, from a U.S. policy perspective, it’s sometimes easier for us to be able to make some changes and help those communities when we have a problematic situation with the government, where it doesn’t want or for whatever reason is not dealing with the issue, because then there’s one address you can go to – at least one address. There’s always multiple addresses you have to go to to try to begin to get a handle on this problem. But you end up having a really important address. It’s like – I use historical analogies – the Soviet Jewry movement. In that case, it almost makes – it seems very simple to the problem we face with anti-Semitism in Europe today. Because there was one address, and it was the Kremlin, that we could address to try to begin to fix that problem.
Here, there’s always – and that’s why I talked about complexity at the beginning. There’s, within one country, multiple, multiple addresses often. And between countries, the nature of anti-Semitism, often there are similarities but it’s often very different.
So all that’s to say, the way we look at this is to see what’s happening with the community, try to find indices, often data, but often anecdotal and interviews, and then we look at what the government is trying to do. And sometimes, again, our tools are better when the government is not as on top of the issue as we like.
RABBI PONET: Thank you for that. I want to reference a question and tie it to a phenomenon. I’m thinking the phenomenon – the Ukraine, a very murky, complex phenomenon, but with some very upsetting rhetoric –
MR. FORMAN: Yeah.
RABBI PONET: — and events reported. This can be linked to a question that comes from Washington, D.C., from Janine who said that she read that Germany and Poland are the safest places for Jews, two countries that have done differing levels, but real levels of confronting history in your sense, Ira. So she says they’re the safest places for Jews, she read. Is this true and does it offer any model for other countries in the European Union?
MS. HAKAKIAN: Philip Roth would agree with that.
MR. FORMAN: Pardon?
MS. HAKAKIAN: Philip Roth, the writer.
RABBI PONET: He would agree with that, yes.
MS. HAKAKIAN: Yes, because he wrote a book, Operation Shylock, suggesting that Jews need to go from Israel to Germany and Poland because those would be the places where nothing would happen for another thousand years. (Laughter.) So that’s Philip Roth. I don’t know what Ira has to say. (Laughter.)
MR. FORMAN: Well, I think it’s hard to say which is the absolute safest place to be as a Jew in Europe today.
MS. HAKAKIAN: Berlin.
MR. FORMAN: Berlin? Perhaps, but the UK –
MS. HAKAKIAN: It’s great.
MR. FORMAN: — which has problems, has very strong Jewish institutions, and like Germany, there is maybe even an increase in Jewish population. Now, Germany clearly is increasing in population, but the UK may slowly be adding some Jews as well. And Poland is a very interesting place. You do have a lot of anti-Semitism; how it’s manifested is often different. The violence – you don’t see the violence you might see in parts of Western Europe. And you also have a lot of very philo-Semitic views, and you hear it and it’s really touching in some ways when you look at institutions like the Galicia Jewish Museum, and you see that all the staff is Polish Catholic. And when you talk to them, often I’ve heard responses like, “I’m doing this because we lost something really precious when we lost 10 percent of our population, a cultural piece that we are trying to retain at least a little bit of.”
And I think that’s a lesson for all countries. A lot of countries that are concerned, often their nationalism sometimes takes a form which, if you’re not that ethnicity of that nation, somehow you’re polluting that nation and they would like to see a monoculture. And I think what we see in that response from, like, Poland, Polish Catholics, is that actually, the multicultural society is much richer. You look at some of these countries in the Middle East, Arab states that are – have lost their Jewish population, and now are in the process of losing their Christian population, and tragedies for the Jewish communities that left, tragedies for these Christian communities that are under pressure, but I think, ultimately, tragedies for the countries themselves.
So I think those are important issues. It’s hard – getting back to your initial question, very hard to say which is the safest place, but I think we’ve talked a little bit about a few. You mentioned Ukraine, which I think is fascinating. I’ve been to Ukraine twice in the year I’ve been here, both before Maidan and after Maidan, and it’s a – some really interesting changes. First, we all have to acknowledge there’s a lot of Jewish blood, there’s a lot of anti-Semitism in Ukrainian history. And we’ve heard, particularly since Maidan began, from particularly Moscow, that there is a lot – lots of Ukrainian anti-Semitic nationality, the government’s problematic, there’s anti-Semitism in Kyiv in the government. And what I found when I went back last month was not that talking to Jewish community leaders. I got as far east as I could. It was Dnipropetrovsk. And essentially unanimously saying these incidents that we have, in most cases we don’t know who did it. Some cases we do. But even when we don’t know, we believe they’re provocations. They’re happening by and large in west – the eastern part of the country, which is not the center of Ukrainian nationalism that has an anti-Semitic tint.
We – and I – when I talked to government officials when I went back to Kyiv this time – Kiev or Kyiv, depending on whether you’re saying it in Russian or Ukrainian – when I went back, the line I got from government officials who are members of the Party of Regions, who was ruling prior to Maidan, the line I got almost unanimously was, “We have no anti-Semitism in Ukraine.” And I politely would say to them, “That’s not credible. We have anti-Semitism in the United States, and we are probably the friendliest country by far in the world,” with the possible exception of Israel – (laughter) – “to our Jewish population.” And, “We have no anti-Semitism.” This time, I hear a government saying – government officials often in the exact same offices, and sometimes the junior people in that room are the same people because they haven’t changed, and they’re saying, “Yes, we have a history, and yes, if we’re going to have a successful, modern Ukraine, we’re going to confront this, and we have to confront it because it’s a part of our rich history.” Very different response. And the Jewish community says, “We see what we – what you hear about in the West, we believe, even when we don’t know for sure who did it, it’s provocations.” And it’s not coming from the government and it’s not even coming from the nationalists in, like, private sector or what’s called Svoboda, another party that historically has anti-Semitic roots.
So fascinating dynamic there, and despite the history of Ukraine, you actually even see some optimism in the Jewish community.
MS. HAKAKIAN: Interesting. You – I’m sorry.
RABBI PONET: Please, go ahead.
MS. HAKAKIAN: I was really interested in one comment that you made about whether or not the term anti-Semitism applies to certain situations. So what did you mean by that? Because I think I know, but I would like to hear it from you.
MR. FORMAN: So to call someone an anti-Semite essentially ends your conversation. You’ve – as I like to say, you call someone an anti-Semite, you’ve hit them in the face with a two-by-four. Now, sometimes it’s appropriate. It’s clear, et cetera, and sometimes appropriate. Sometimes, in terms of certainly personal – what’s going on in that person’s mind, you don’t know. You can say what they’re saying, we interpret as anti-Semitism. We talked about those delegitimization/defamation-type of issues. But sometimes you want to have a conversation, and sometimes saying, “We don’t believe this is legitimate, we believe this crosses the line” is a better way, I believe, to continue to have that conversation.
So I don’t think combating anti-Semitism means, necessarily, that you say this is anti-Semitic or you’re anti-Semitic the most times you can. I think that it’s got to be – the way we combat this has got to be both complex and often subtle, and sometimes it’s quite appropriate to say; sometimes it may not be best to try to get to where you want to go.
Someone – just to give an example, Roya. We were talking about circumcision. If someone, like the six Nordic ombudsmen for children, have said that they have come out for a ban of circumcision in their countries, and they say it’s because of children’s autonomy, and other people say it’s because of – that the risks are so terrible and there’s no benefits. So I don’t think it would – no matter what I think someone may be feeling, if someone’s saying that, I’m going to make my arguments on religious freedom. I’m not going to say this is anti-Semitic or Islamophobic for that matter. I think it’s really important to say – to take them at their word and say, okay, this is an issue of religious freedom, and though – so you’re making the argument children have pain that persists psychologically through their lifetime, you’re making the argument risks are far outweighing and are great and the benefits are none. I say, okay, let’s have that argument on religious freedom grounds. And on religious freedom grounds, we don’t protect all forms of religious activity. We say, is there a compelling state interest to stop that form?
So I would then come back with people who are making that argument and say, okay, our largest studies – for example, the American Academy of Pediatrics would say that benefits, clear benefits far, far outweigh risks. Mayo Clinic, this publication this past month, said benefits outweigh risks 100 to one, and there are no studies whatsoever, there’s no indication that there’s any permanent traumatic pain. And so where’s the compelling state interest? And religious freedom is now being overturned without any kind of compelling interest. So that’s the argument we need to make, and I don’t think throwing around terms of anti-Semitism when someone’s claiming another reason is going to be useful.
RABBI PONET: I’m hearing a certain utility that I didn’t anticipate as I listen to each of you talk about anti-Semitism, and the fact that it’s become a factor inside of the United States Department of State is quite interesting and fills – suggests a number of possibilities, one of which finds expression in a question that comes from the Democracy Challenge online community, which asks: “How can anti-Semitism and racism hurt emerging democracies?” And then a follow-up question, which I think each of you might address: “Why is diversity beneficial to a democracy?”
Do you want to start off on that, Roya?
MS. HAKAKIAN: Sure. I was really intrigued by Ira’s comments on Poland and why these Catholic Polish individuals were so concerned about the loss of the Jewish community. I have heard similar comments from within the Iranian community. People who are very patriotic about Iran constantly say that losing the Jewish community of Iran would be a major loss to Iran, period; that not only historically the Jewish community’s existence precedes that of the Muslim community, that Jews have been there before the advent of Islam, but that it is that the existence of a unique community that gives Iran its unique character. Of course, you know, if the regime were wise, it could begin to think economically about it because the most sacred Jewish sites in the Middle East outside of Israel are in Iran, and you could have a thriving tourism business out of just taking Jewish tourists to –
RABBI PONET: Really shows the way on that, doesn’t it?
MS. HAKAKIAN: Yes, yes. And so there is a very strong argument to make for Iran, which clearly isn’t an Arab country. Iranians really pride themselves on the notion of being Persians and being non-Arabs. And one of the factors that makes the Persians Persians is the notion that we are the civilized, more tolerant ones, at least according to the Persian narrative, and we are the ones – and what backs up that claim is that we are the ones that have been ethnically and religiously diverse because we can tolerate, whereas those people on the other side of the borders can’t.
And so you want to prove – I think it was Thurgood Marshall who said that the quality of any democracy can be observed by the quality of the lives of the most vulnerable minorities within those democracies. That, in fact, if you want to measure whether a democracy is truly a democracy, you look at how the most vulnerable minorities are existing within those democracies. And I think the reason Iran or any other country would want to hang onto its Jewish community, if for no other reason than to prove that it’s a serious democracy, is because you want to show that you’re able to cope and live in peace with your minorities and you are capable of taking care of the vulnerable, which, I think, Iran – in Iran today, Jews and other religious minorities definitely are. I feel that I must say that we keep talking about Jews in Iran, and I certainly don’t want to convey the idea that Jews are the only threatened minority in Iran; that, in fact, it’s – you would probably live a worse life in Iran if you were a Sunni in Iran today.
RABBI PONET: Is there a Sunni population in Iran?
MS. HAKAKIAN: Ten percent, I think. And Sunnis are not allowed to build mosques in Iran. And Sunnis have a much harder time of being religiously free in Iran than Jews have. So I think in the interests of being fair and balanced, we should mention that there are other religious minorities in Iran who have a much harder time and are far more seriously persecuted than the Jews are.
RABBI PONET: So you’re suggesting that the treatment afforded the Jews has implications for other vulnerable communities –
MS. HAKAKIAN: Absolutely, yes.
RABBI PONET: — in Iran, perhaps elsewhere as well. Any comments on that, Ira?
MR. FORMAN: Well, I would agree with much of what Roya has said. I am not an academic that can point to statistics and data that would say a multicultural society is more beneficial. I think we have a strong bias where I work, in the U.S. State Department, for many reasons that multicultural societies are stronger. Certainly our own history: Our multiculturalism has been a long and difficult path often, and is not always totally complete. But we’ve had – I think around the world where I go, people are marveling at our example, where we have come to. And so there’s almost – there’s a wishfulness by people who believe in democratic principles, et cetera, to be able – how do we follow the U.S. model?
So I think we certainly have that bias. Whether I can prove it academically or not that that’s a stronger society, I think we do strongly feel that. And I think there’s a lot of historical analogies we can use. I love the story of the Ottoman – the sultan of the Ottoman empire in 1492 questioning, “What kind of king and queen,” meaning Ferdinand and Isabella, “would kick out their most productive members of their society? I’m happy to take them.” And he did.
I’m fascinated that when I was in Greece recently, where conspiracy theories and the protocols of the elders of Zion are ubiquitous, and Golden Dawn is a neo-Nazi, deeply anti-Semitic, deeply violent party in parliament, talking to NGOs who say part of – some ways that people now in Greece interpret Hellenic civilization, Greek nationalism, is to say we were a pure kind of ethnicity and race, and so all of these foreigners, not just Jews but all these – more importantly, the refugees coming in from Asia and Africa, they’re polluting our Greek civilization. And the irony of that, that Hellenism, which was so successful for a thousand years, thrived on the integration of different cultures, and that was the – in some ways the height of Greek culture and Greek nationalism.
And the other irony is this: Whether we think multicultural societies are good or not – and we all, I think, on this panel certainly think strongly that they are – it’s happening. In this modern world, with economics, et cetera, a country like Greece is going to be multicultural. There’s no way of going back. And I think most governments in Europe understand that, that it’s inevitable, so how do we live with that and take its strengths and integrate different groups that are coming in. So I think that’s a powerful piece, and I’m proud the United States sometimes can serve as a model in this area.
RABBI PONET: Rather than taking the risk of ending on that upbeat hope, I do wish to note – (laughter) – that anti-Semitism has been called the longest hatred. And there’s a question from our live audience that emerges from that sense: “Is anti-Semitism ineradicable? Any why, in any case, is it so persistent?” Perhaps each of you might care to comment on that.
MS. HAKAKIAN: I think – I often think about anti-Semitism in relationship to misogyny, because I experience both. And I write often, as I impose on you to read – (laughter) – about the fact that I think the problem that we in the West have identified as Islamic fundamentalism, in the Middle East is only disguising itself as Islamic fundamentalism. It’s actually misogyny that wishes to cloak itself behind the look of Islamic fundamentalism, because once we label it as Islam, everybody else in the West says, well, this is their tradition and their religion and we can have nothing to do with it and we can’t intervene and we can’t – it’s their thing. But if we call it misogyny, which I think what it is truly, then we can intervene because we believe in human rights and we believe in – that these rights should be afforded to all people around the world, that for the same reason that people, because of the virtue of their race, shouldn’t be treated as lesser people, they also shouldn’t be treated as lesser people for the virtue of their gender.
So I see them as – I see misogyny and I see anti-Semitism, because of my own personal experience, as being the two sides of the same coin. And that’s a long argument, but I think in relationship to the Middle East, it certainly applies.
And I think these are not, at least in our lifetime or in my lifetime, problems that can be eradicated, but they’re problems that can be – that can fade with the sort of strides that a society makes as a whole. If you – there was something very interesting in the ADL survey that came out. And with a friend who’s much more of a historian than I am, we sat down to look at the details of the ADL numbers with respect to Iran. And something that was very remarkable about the ADL survey with respect to Iran was that it had the lowest numbers of people who believe that Jews are making too much of the Holocaust in the Middle East. And so we started with this friend discussing – it was only 18 percent, I believe. So 18 percent of Iranians believe that Jews were making too much of the Holocaust and had a hard time letting it go. And so we thought, why should then – for the same question anywhere else in the Middle East, people, say, stand at 70 percent and 80 percent, and Iran would be 18. Well, part of that is because Iran is – we had a president in Iran who was completely unloved, at least during his second term of presidency, against whom the population turned. And that was the Green Movement in Iran in 2009, where people believed that the election had been stolen from them, poured to the streets, took – demonstrated against Ahmadinejad, and underwent that process of rising up, standing against a tyrant, speaking up had – it was an educational process because they began to also question his platform and his propaganda, a cornerstone of which was the denial of the Holocaust.
So I think societies, in the process of reaching for greater civil liberties, equality, freedom, and democracy, undergo – whether they want it or not – a reform in or an education in anti-Semitism and other afflictions, such as misogyny and racism and et cetera, et cetera. And in Iran, the reason now we see that only 18 percent of the population believe that the Holocaust is something that the Jews can’t let go is because five years after Ahmadinejad, the fact that the nation had to confront this president and together think through his entire propaganda machinery was a major point of education. And I think each time we do one of these things, as people, we take a step back from anti-Semitism, from misogyny, and from all these terrible things that we are trying to do away with.
RABBI PONET: Thank you for that, Roya. Ira, do you have any concluding remarks on this question of –
MR. FORMAN: Eradicating anti-Semitism.
RABBI PONET: Yeah, the ineradicable or possibly eradicable hatred.
MR. FORMAN: Well, I don’t know the answer to the question of whether anti-Semitism will ever be eradicated. Again, I always like to look at history as kind of a little bit of a guidepost. And we can see that in history, we can go back at least 2,300 years or so and see forms of anti-Semitism. We can see anti-Semitism morphing into different forms, often with different arguments but with some basic principles behind it. We see it today in Europe and other places.
So this is what I do think: I don’t think that we will see the end of anti-Semitism in my lifetime or in my children’s lifetime or my grandchildren’s or many, many, many, many generations. But I don’t think that’s the key question. I think certainly in the Jewish tradition and I think in other traditions, the issue is not do – can we eradicate evil. The issue remains we have to fight against it. We have to give future generations the tools to fight against it. We have to make it better. Whether we eradicate it or not, history will tell us eventually. I don’t expect it anytime soon. But our job is here to fight it with every means we have, and do it in the smartest, most effective way we have.
RABBI PONET: Beautiful. Thank you. I think we can conclude here. If you have additional questions – I’m speaking to people online and here – we are happy to continue the conversation online. We’ll continue to monitor the hashtag #StateOfRights on Twitter and converse with you there. This event will be archived and made available on public – on humanrights.gov in the coming few days. Special thank you to Yale University and the Program for the Study of Anti-Semitism, U.S. Department of State for co-hosting this discussion, and thank you to everybody who participated today. Thank you.
MR. FORMAN: Thank you, Rabbi.
MS. HAKAKIAN: Thank you. (Applause.)