What does it look like when our vulgar and polarized political era collides with one of American Jews’ oldest and most genteel organizations? Rather like the 2019 American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum.
Last week, nearly 2,500 people representing the United States and 50 other nations gathered in Washington D.C. for the organization’s annual conference. Myriad speakers addressed issues concerning Jews across the world, reflecting AJC’s global advocacy efforts.
Those concerns, which recurred across three days of speakers, panels, and videos, included such weighty issues as the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe, hyper-partisanship in our politics, concerns about the misrepresentation of Jews and other minorities, a defense of values including civility, an affirmation of a community of conscience, and a discussion of whether American global leadership is in decline.
As is typical of these annual conferences, there was a star-studded lineup of speakers. However, as AJC CEO David Harris noted in his call to action this year, organizers focused more than usual on capturing the zeitgeist. So, while the conference included AJC’s hallmark bipartisanship (among speakers) and brainy bent, the event had a different feel this year.
For example, when Jason Isaacson, AJC’s chief policy and political affairs officer, introduced Neera Tanden and Michael Anton’s debate over whether American global leadership is in decline, Isaacson felt compelled to remind the crowd that booing would not be tolerated. I didn’t hear any booing, but having attended multiple such gatherings since 2001, I also don’t recall ever hearing such a warning before. It’s clearly a sign of the times.
Another striking change appeared in the ongoing conversation over resurgent anti-Semitism. A panel on this subject was introduced by a video that led with American examples, including assaults in Brooklyn, as well as the deadly attacks in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Poway, California. AJC has been warning about this resurgence for nearly 20 years. However, even a year ago, this video and the ensuing discussion would have been laser-focused on Europe. No more.
But back to Tanden and Anton. Given how differently they view the world, they surprised me by agreeing that American power is in decline. They only differ over whether President Trump is to blame.
Tanden sidestepped Isaacson’s question about President Obama’s policy failures, instead insisting that President Trump is a chaotic leader with a go-it-alone strategy, while Obama had nations to lead. Anton defended Trump’s foreign policy decisions and tactics, including renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and threatening Mexico with tariffs, while Tanden attacked the president for undermining his own appointees and being too friendly to authoritarian leaders.
Tanden and Anton also agreed that foreign policy nostalgia is unhelpful. Anton observed that the liberal international order was so successful that the foreign policy establishment started believing it could fix anything and should last forever. However, our post-9/11 world requires an update, and that’s what Trump is hammering out. Tanden offered that we shouldn’t hold onto decades-old policies to make people feel good. Rather, our foreign policy should focus on ensuring America is strong and secure.
‘No One Is Irredeemable’
Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) talked about bills he has introduced to support Israel’s national security, as well as the resolution he is working on with Sen. Tim Kaine (D–Va.) to clearly condemn anti-Semitism; this is essentially the resolution the House should have passed earlier this year. Cruz also advised the audience that the pro-Israel community has more work to do to make the case for Israel domestically.
Sen. Rob Portman (R–Ohio) looked very much in his element as he touched on a number of topics, including the importance of American leaders condemning anti-Semitism, while eschewing partisanship. Portman described legislation he’s introduced to ensure synagogues and other religious institutions can afford necessary security.
Portman also spoke forcefully about the discrimination inherent in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) and the importance of opposing it in the context of bilateral trade agreements and international organizations, especially as the threat of an international blacklist of companies working beyond Israel’s Green Line looms.
As for anti-Semitism, in addition to being referenced by numerous speakers (including by some Democratic presidential hopefuls in pre-taped videos), it was addressed directly. One session specifically addressed combating white supremacy. As the moderator noted in introducing the panel, Klansmen used to hide behind hoods. By contrast, when marchers in Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us!” their faces were visible.
Tony McAleer, co-founder and board chair of Life After Hate, recalled his time in the movement, surrounded by “vulnerable young men, bound by our wounds and anger.” He explained that the ideology is not what draws people in. Rather, it’s the sense of purpose, belonging, and community that comes along with it. For these reasons, we shouldn’t write them off, because “no one is irredeemable.”
Anti-Semitism at Home and Abroad
A second panel featured an interview with Joan Ryan and Ian Austin, two British members of Parliament who quit the Labour Party earlier this year over its institutional anti-Semitism. Listening to Ryan and Austin describe how Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have captured their formerly center-left political party felt eerily familiar, having watched Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar lead their party sharply leftward—and toward increasing anti-Semitism—this year.
There was also a panel dedicated to the rise of global anti-Semitism, including the proposed paradox that while more European leaders condemn anti-Semitism publicly, it continues to grow increasingly common—even more than statistics reveal. Michael O’Flaherty, director of the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, shared that 80 percent of these crimes go unreported because, as one person asked him, “Why would I report anti-Semitism to an anti-Semite?” There is both fear and remarkably little faith in the police or the courts to fairly address anti-Semitic crimes.
John Mann, a Labour MP, declared that “politicians need to act, not just talk.” He laid out a two-point plan to combat anti-Semitism: consequences and consistency. Without consequences for any individual or organization that engages in anti-Semitism, “It’ll spread and deepen.”
Consistent responses are also a must. Mann said Labour has been “very bad at spreading good practice and very shy at calling out bad practice,” frequently including a lack of action. He believes it’s important that all countries and civil society organizations adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance‘s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism as a way to eliminate tail-chasing arguments on the left about defining anti-Semitism and ensure that it’s combated.
While U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Elan Carr reported feeling optimistic about the global battle against anti-Semitism, O’Flaherty opined, “I’m not as optimistic. It’s getting worse.” He continued, “It’s not just a struggle for the Jewish community. It’s a struggle for the whole of our societies. Combatting anti-Semitism is a test of our civilizations. If we fail it, our civilizations have failed.”
Indeed, this is no low-stakes fight. It’s time for all people of good will to step up and help win it.