The mass murder of 11 Jewish worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue has brought home to America the scourge of anti-Semitic violence. For decades, European countries from France to Denmark and from Hungary to Greece have experienced violent extremist attacks on Jews. But now Americans also must come to terms with a rising tide of anti-Semitic rhetoric and action here at home. As the Anti-Defamation League and others have carefully reported, anti-Semitic hate has surged in the United States in recent years, fueled by social media extremism. That hatred spilled over into Saturday’s carnage.
Anti-Semitic actions are violations of core international human rights and should be deplored not just by Jewish organizations but by human rights advocates everywhere. These norms were first articulated by the United Nations 70 years ago when Eleanor Roosevelt led the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She dubbed that document a “Magna Carta for all mankind.” A central principle of the Universal Declaration is the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or gender. This emphasis is unsurprising given that the United Nations and its Commission on Human Rights were created in response to World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust.
But too often in the past, anti-Semitism has been viewed as a Jewish problem, one that organizations like the Anti-Defamation League alone were meant to address. While these groups have played a vital role in sounding an alarm, the killings in Pittsburgh underscore the need for a more ecumenical response. In 2002, Human Rights First, an organization I then led, published the first in a series of reports on this issue, entitled “Fire and Broken Glass.” It chronicled the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, documenting attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions, and called on European governments to respond more forcefully. The report concluded: “Anti-Semitism is racism. Anti-Semitic actions need to be confronted more forcefully and treated as serious violations of international human rights.“
A human rights approach has multiple benefits. First, it broadens the universe of human rights advocates and organizations raising these concerns globally. This is important at a moment when authoritarian leaders like Hungary’s Victor Orban tolerate and even court anti-Semitic forces in their own societies. Second, it brings human rights fact-finding methodologies and advocacy strategies to the fore, approaches that have proven effective in other contexts. Finally, it encourages the assembling of more dynamic coalitions, enabling people focused on anti-Muslim or racial discrimination to join forces with those who are working to stop the anti-Semitic hate. The efforts of each of these groups will be strengthened, as they re-enforce each other.
Inhibiting this kind of coalition building has been an ongoing debate about how to define anti-Semitism, especially its relation to criticism of Israel. While some have argued that criticism of the Israeli government’s policies or practices are inherently part of a “new anti-Semitism,” this goes too far. As Human Rights First concluded in a 2004 report, this “blurs the distinction between legitimate criticism of Israel and criticism which disparages or demonizes Jews as individuals or collectively.” But as the report also observed, “When attacks on Israel or Zionism take the form of broadside attacks against ‘Jews’ or ‘the Jewish State’ – this crosses the line to become anti-Semitic expression.”
The murderous attack in Pittsburgh should compel us to put those differences aside. This is a moment for our political leaders, including the President, to desist from any language that fuels discrimination or hatred of any kind. Words matter, especially those coming from our leaders. It’s also time for federal, state, and local agencies to enforce reporting requirements and pursue prosecutions of hate crimes, including anti-Semitic attacks. And it’s an opportune moment for the broad network of human rights advocates, here and abroad, to join the fight against the growing tide of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and worldwide.