Twenty years ago, on July 18, 1994, a car bomb in Buenos Aires destroyed the AMIA center, headquarters of Argentina’s main Jewish organizations. The blast killed 89 people and injured more than 300. It remains the deadliest single attack on Jews since World War II.
It almost caused a revolution in Jewish thinking about anti-Semitism. Almost, but not quite. It’s worth recalling today what was learned then and later forgotten. In these days of global Jew-hatred, of marchers chanting “Death to the Jews” in the streets of Berlin, mobs firebombing synagogues in Paris, and rabbis beaten on the sidewalks of England and Sweden, the lesson of the AMIA bombing is more important than ever.
The lesson, as we’ll see, was that there’s a difference between what’s traditionally known as anti-Semitism and the recent wave of hostility toward Jews on various continents. The old anti-Semitism was a hatred of Jews because of myths and fantasies disconnected from reality like drinking Christians’ blood or killing God.
The new anti-Semitism includes some of that, but it starts with something else: an anger at Jews over something that actually happened. Israel was created on land that Muslims, like it or not, considered part of their sacred waqf, the indivisible House of Islam. Many Muslims haven’t gotten over it. Hey, Osama bin Laden wanted Spain back.
Moreover, thousands of Palestinians were displaced, which generates its own anger. And many more Muslims get angry when they see large numbers of fellow Muslims getting killed, as happens periodically. There may be good reasons why those deaths happened, but not everyone is open to reason. Some hotheads will look for a target to vent their anger. Some thugs might blow up a bus in Haifa. Others might attack Israel’s best friends in, say, Paris.
This doesn’t excuse, it explains. Explaining is the first step toward solving. Rage at Israel can lead to actions that are thuggish, sometimes criminal, occasionally murderous. But it’s not necessarily the same as the world’s oldest hatred. It’s a fine distinction, but an important one. If someone hates you because of a delusion, there’s nothing you can do. If a person is angry with you because of something that actually happened, you have choices.
The AMIA bombing was never officially solved, but Israeli and other Western intelligence agencies blame it on Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite militia, Hezbollah. A similar blast in 1992 had destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 and wounding 242. A Hezbollah offshoot, the Islamic Jihad Organization, claimed responsibility for the embassy attack, saying it was in retaliation for the assassination a month earlier of Hezbollah secretary-general Abbas al-Musawi and his family in an Israeli helicopter raid over southern Lebanon.
Sallai Meridor, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and a member of a prominent Likud family, was working in 1992 as a special assistant to Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens. In a conversation a decade later, he recalled the day at the Defense Ministry that the decision was taken to target Musawi. The prospect of a revenge attack against an Israeli installation was not ruled out — but, he told me, “I promise you, nobody considered for a minute that it might affect Jews outside Israel. But it did.”
For Meridor, the AMIA bombing was a wakeup call. After leaving government in 1992 he’d gone to work for the World Zionist Organization as head of its controversial settlement department. The 1994 bombing rattled his outlook. Over the next five years, he politicked his way up to chairmanship of the joint WZO-Jewish Agency executive committee. That put him in a position to try addressing the oversight.
By 2002 he was able to launch a new think tank, the Jewish People Policy Institute. Its specialty was integrated analyses of the opportunities and threats facing the worldwide Jewish community, from demography to religious politics to security.
The institute produces an “annual assessment” summarizing the year’s key challenges. Because of the Jewish Agency’s status in Israeli law as a “national institution” of the Jewish people, the institute can present its assessment each year to a special meeting of the Israeli Cabinet, which then votes to accept it. Not that the Cabinet members read it.
The first assessment, produced in 2004, spanned 600 pages, addressing hundreds of issues, country by country. The executive summary alone was 56 pages of solid bullet points. But one point appeared repeatedly throughout: Israel must find a way to consult with representatives of Diaspora Jewish communities when making decisions that will affect their security. It didn’t mention Musawi and AMIA, but that’s what it meant.
“The Israeli-Arab dispute,” the assessment said, “carries important implications for all Jews wherever they reside. Therefore, innovative measures are required to involve the Jewish people as a whole in this critical choice, without undermining the prerogative of Israel to make its own choice.”
The 2005 assessment devoted an entire chapter to the issue, recalling Musawi and AMIA and proposing several possible structures for Diaspora input. If, it said, “Israel is indeed the State of the Jewish People, not merely the state of Israelis, then its own strategic choices and policy decisions must be somehow guided by a concern for the well-being, not only of its own citizens, but also of Jews around the world who are citizens of their own countries.”
The 2006 assessment raised the volume. It opened with six “policy recommendations” for “urgent consideration,” including “Implementation of the JPPI recommendation to assure taking into account the needs of the Jewish People as a whole.” It went on to warn of radical Islamist groups eyeing Jewish targets in Europe.
In 2007 the issue disappeared. The next few years’ assessments were filled with conventional pablum about Jews rallying to Israel’s defense, combating delegitimization and strengthening Jewish identity.
But then, in 2013, it resurfaced with a vengeance: “Given forecasts of a security deterioration (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, etc.), it is recommended that any decision-making process in this area take into consideration, in a structured manner, the implications of any decision for Jewish communities in the Diaspora.” It added prophetically, “Israeli military action might provoke reactions/backlash against Jews and Jewish communities in the Diaspora.”
In the summer of 2013 the institute undertook a massive study of worldwide Jewish opinion. Several Knesset bills aimed to tighten the definition of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to come up with a version that would hold up in Israel’s Supreme Court. Livni asked constitutional scholar Ruth Gavizon to get some Diaspora Jewish views on what a “nation-state of the Jewish people” should look like. Gavizon asked JPPI.
This year the institute convened a series of seminars on six continents, involving about 800 philanthropists, rabbis, activists, scholars, artists and public figures. The results were distilled into a 158-page report, “Jewish and Democratic.”
Much of the report focuses on participants’ concerns about Israeli democracy itself — religious pluralism and discrimination against Arab citizens, for example. But one section is devoted to “The impact of Israel’s policies on the security and wellbeing of Jews around the world.” It warns: “There is clear evidence that periods of tension between Israel and its neighbors raise the frequency and severity of harassment/attacks on Jews in locations around the world.”
In many incidents of physical attacks on Jews, the assailant cites Israeli actions as the motivation. The report mentions the shootings at the Jewish school in Toulouse, France, in 2012 and at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in 2006. It also might have mentioned the shootings at the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994 and at the El Al desk at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002.
And it quotes a 2012 Anti-Defamation League research report, “Anti-Semitism on the Rise in America,” which claimed, “Anti-Israel feelings are triggering anti-Semitism.”
It’s often argued, correctly, that anger at Israel shouldn’t lead to attacks on Jews in other countries. But enemies of Israel are already prepared to attack Israeli commuter buses and restaurants. It’s only a short jump from there to foreigners who identify themselves as Israel’s next line of defense and declare, “We are one.”
“Thus,” the report says, “it is understandable that Jews around the world… worry about those [of] Israel’s policies that damage its image internationally. When Israel is seen by other nations — as it is by some today — as a country that endangers the world, Jews around the world, whether they want to be associated with Israel or not, bear some of the consequences.”
This isn’t a popular view these days. Most observers who discuss the new European anti-Semitism describe anti-Israel feelings as a “pretext” or “cover” for old-fashioned anti-Semitism. They’re partly right, of course: Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).