Any person of decency must be deeply alarmed by the dramatic resurgence of antisemitism — both verbal and violent — as a force on the world stage. After a half-century of decline, the last three years have seen a sudden turnaround. Synagogues firebombed in France and the Bronx. Prominent intellectuals casually tossing off theories of Jewish cabals in Washington and Hollywood. And now a major international figure, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in a keynote speech to an international summit, calls for what amounts to a Muslim holy war against “the Jews,” who he says “rule the world by proxy.”
In this incendiary atmosphere, our first duty is to tread cautiously and know where we are going. As Abraham Foxman reminds us on this page, masses of people in countries around the world are being inflamed by their leaders to dangerous levels of hostility toward Jews. It is incumbent on people of good will — world leaders, clerics, writers, artists and intellectuals — to speak out.
The last thing we need is to alienate our friends or create new enemies. But that’s what some of our community leaders have done in the last two weeks, in the aftermath of Mahathir’s October 16 tirade. It’s well to remember that the first statements of protest after Mahathir spoke were from the European Union, which issued a statement at the close of its summit that day, and several European nations that summoned Malaysian ambassadors for rebuke. Washington contented itself with a comment from a State Department spokesman. President Bush himself spoke out only four days later, in a meeting with Mahathir (who has repeatedly insisted Bush said nothing at their meeting).
Somehow, though, things have gotten turned around. Several Jewish organizations feature statements on their Web sites praising Bush for his moral leadership on this issue and taking the Europeans to task. That’s backwards.
Particular venom seems to be reserved for French President Jacques Chirac, at whose insistence the European condemnation was issued as a stand-alone document and not part of a summit protocol. Chirac’s stance was misreported in The Associated Press as an effort to block European condemnation. Chirac responded to that by writing to Mahathir personally and raising imagery of the Holocaust — the only world leader so far to do so.
In the course of the back and forth, Chirac has spoken and written angrily of Israeli and Diaspora Jewish efforts to depict him as an antisemite. This is no small thing. We don’t like it when people call us names. We should be careful when we do the same to others.