An international conference on antisemitism exploded in pandemonium last week when one rabbi warned against rushing to classify the January 19 suicide bombing in Jerusalem as an anti-Jewish attack, several participants said.
The controversy erupted after Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the global arm of the Reform movement, argued that the credibility of the conference, which was held in Jerusalem and largely focused on defining antisemitism, would be undermined if participants acted without having concrete information on the perpetrator of last week’s bombing that left 11 dead. Regev was responding to Israeli Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky, who convened the meeting of 90 Jewish communal officials from around the world, after he suggested that the conference’s final statement include language describing the bombing as an antisemitic act.
Sharansky made his suggestion shortly after participants in the conference had visited the bombing site.
Regev’s response to Sharansky drew emotional criticisms from several Jewish organizational leaders from North America, including Frank Diamant, the executive vice president of B’nai Brith Canada, and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, witnesses said.
“I thought the other people would tear him apart,” said one attendee who was angered by Regev’s remarks.
Cooper could not be reached for comment, but several people in attendance said that the Wiesenthal Center official kept saying to Regev: “Explain to me what you mean. Explain to me what you mean.” Diamant, who acknowledged having responded angrily at the meeting, complained to the Forward that “we don’t have to do a clinical analysis of each suicide bomber in Israel — the motivation is to kill as many Jews as possible.”
The debate over the suicide bombing was one of several exchanges highlighting a rift among participants over the fight against antisemitism and Islamic terrorism. A less explosive but perhaps equally revealing example of this clash arose as the majority of attendees beat back a push to include a direct reference to Islam in the conference’s call for dialogue with “Christianity and other faiths.” Participants also sparred over the claims by some participants that antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments were fueled worldwide by critical coverage of Jerusalem’s policies in the left-leaning Israeli daily Ha’aretz and negative comments made by left-wing Israeli politicians.
The wording of the conference’s final statement had Regev’s critics claiming victory. The conference’s final statement declared: “The Global Forum is cognizant of the tragic irony that as it was meeting, an abhorrent attack was perpetrated against Jews just a few blocks away — another Palestinian terrorist outrage stemming from the anti-Semitism, hatred and violence taught and inculcated in the Palestinian Authority.”
But Regev told the Forward that he was satisfied with the wording. Regev said he believed that many suicide bombers in Israel are motivated by hatred of Jews, and strongly condemned what he described as the prevalence of antisemitic rhetoric in Palestinian society. But, he added, at the time of the debate over the resolution, the bomber had not been identified, and his or her motivations were not clear. Regev said that some recent suicide bombers seemed to have been spurred by the death of family members or other factors not necessarily directly connected to antisemitism.
“I’m not sure I fully understand why they were so upset,” Regev said of his critics.
“Abe Cooper spoke very emotionally, pleading with Sharanksy to ask me to explain why is it that there is a question of this act being antisemitic,” Regev said. “I’m sure he is very genuine in the expression of his concern. I’m afraid that we differ in my equivalent zeal and commitment to fighting anti-Israeli terrorism, while at the same time feel that we are weakening our claims” if we speak out without first knowing all of the facts.
Diamant, however, rejected the need for such caution when addressing the question of suicide bombers.
“It is the ultimate antisemitic act — the killing of Jews,” the B’nai Brith Canada leader said. “I’m glad 99% of the forum agreed with that kind of thinking.”