As the leaders of the Anti-Defamation League gather today at The Breakers for our annual winter meeting, I can’t help but think that the challenges we face in society and the world today are greater than they have been for some time.
Two years ago, in celebrating our centennial, I wrote on these pages of how far we have come in this country since ADL was founded in 1913. Anti-Semitism, racism, opposition to diversity have all significantly diminished.
All that remains true, but new challenges and old challenges in new forms have emerged and with a vengeance.
The content of the hate — racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia—has not changed all that much. The way it is disseminated, however, the ability of the haters to reach new and broader audiences through the Internet and social media, adds an unprecedented layer of danger.
We see it in the ability of terrorists to recruit new followers. So many of the so-called “lone wolf” terrorists got their inspiration from online zealots.
Despite, or maybe because, of its brutality, the Islamic State has been able to lure thousands of fighters to its cause through a sophisticated online approach.
And the intrusion of hate on our lives is much more personal with the epidemic of cyberbullying. It used to be that schools could be a terrifying place for young people if bullying was not addressed. But home was a safe haven. Not necessarily so today, as bullying through cyberspace rears its ugly head.
Connected to this is the explosion of conspiracy theories of all kinds, but particularly those about Jews. Historically, Jews have been a favorite target of conspiratorialists, but the Internet has given new life to this mode of hate. Just as the printing press in the 15th century produced huge benefits to society but also spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories with a speed unknown until then, so, too, with the Internet.
Today, with the Middle East in greater turmoil than ever — with Sunni extremists murdering Shiites and Shiite extremists murdering Sunnis — the one thing they can agree on is that the Jews and Zionists are behind their enemy’s vicious activities. Blame the Jews is a favorite approach to try to win people to your side. And the great conspiracy accusation of our time — that the Jews, and not al-Qaida, were behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks — still resonates.
The Internet is the vehicle, and the underlying attitudes the root of the problem. In light of ADL’s GLOBAL 100 survey of attitudes toward Jews in the spring of 2014, none of this should be too surprising. Classic anti-Semitic attitudes — Jews have too much power, Jews are not loyal, etc.— were strong around the globe, highest in the Middle East (74 percent), but powerful in eastern Europe (34 percent) and western Europe (24 percent).
What’s particularly worrisome is that several factors have come together to produce a perfect storm for anti-Semitism. Adding to the classic hatred is the new one, anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism. And the disaffection of many Muslims from their European societies and cultures opens some to the path of violent extremism, with Jews being a favorite target, as we saw recently in Paris.
Add to all this the expanding threat of Iran, both in its determination to develop a nuclear bomb and its widening influence in the Middle East, and one could get quite pessimistic.
But I remain an optimist. In our business of fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of hate, we don’t have the luxury to be pessimists.
I maintain my optimism by keeping things in perspective. Where were we 70 years ago? The Jewish people were at their low point following the murder of the 6 million. Israel was a weak state, surrounded by enemies committed to its destruction, with an uncertain future. The civil rights movement here in America was nascent, and segregation and exclusion dominated attitudes toward African-Americans. And a Soviet Union with nuclear weapons seemed to bring foreboding about the future of mankind.
We do have immense challenges today. They have new elements. But we have overcome in the past and there’s reason to think we can do so again.
What is needed to meet these challenges are those values that have always prevailed: courageous and principled leadership; the willingness to stand up against hate wherever it appears; the commitment to work together with allies and especially with those with whom we don’t always agree; and the recognition of the importance of compromise for the greater good.