Try USA for a mature Israel debate

In Europe, hate infects and polarises discourse about the Middle East

By Stephen Smith, August 27, 2009

From over here, things look so different. I moved to Los Angeles just a month ago, and the temperature is warmer — but that is not a remark about the weather. It is just simply easier to be Jewish here — and I am not even Jewish!

Maybe it is distance that clouds my view. But, why do I feel less guarded in the USA? Why do I feel I do not need to justify who I am or what I do? As Executive Director of the Shoah Foundation Institute, it should be easy. I am hardly in the antisemitic epicentre of the universe. I am privileged to work at the University of Southern California, where the 52,000 Holocaust Survivor testimonies are archived.

There is enthusiasm among staff and students to learn from the testimonies. I have tremendous moral support from our founder, Steven Spielberg, who has worldwide respect for his vision in creating such a unique resource. There are people I can turn to if the going gets tough.

But that’s the point. I lived in Britain and taught about the Holocaust for over 15 years, and only now do I understand how tough it was there.

It should be said that the environment in Britain is not as hostile as many Americans would like to think. Their impression of a British Jewish community besieged by antisemites baying for blood is not the reality.

In fact we have enjoyed tremendous successes recently. The introduction of the Holocaust to the curriculum; the museums and exhibitions; the school visits to Auschwitz; the success of Holocaust Memorial Day; the teacher training programmes; not to mention the All Party Commission Against Antisemitism; these all show there is change for the better, including the attitudes to Israel and the Holocaust.

I picked up the Los Angeles Times and read the article by Israeli academic Neve Gordon in which he publicly signed up to an international boycott of Israel through sanctions and divestment. We have long been used to the boycott of Israeli academics in universities in Britain, not to mention the call for all-out economic sanctions. But the thought of an Israeli academic writing in a Los Angeles paper calling for such a boycott was astounding.

There is a legitimate place for Israelis to discuss their views and frustrations. The LA Times did not seem the obvious choice to me. Nevertheless, I reviewed readers’ comments online. The first thing I noticed was that unlike in Britain, virtually none of the critics of Israel were non-Jews (they were mainly Jews). Secondly, the comments which were critical of Israel were less vociferous, more politically nuanced than I am used to in Britain and not obviously antisemitic (and in most cases not anti-Zionist either). Thirdly, those who support the rights of both Israelis and the Palestinians — and their equal right to peaceful co-existence — were much more vocal and visible than I am used to.

In Britain I grew used to polarized debate, in which either the Israelis or the Palestinians are right (or wrong) and antisemitism lurks dangerously at the heart of the debate. We have grown used to antisemitism, we have learned to live with it, and we do so at our peril.

One reader of the LA Times made the point very clearly that actions speak louder than words when he asked Dr Gordon to first “give a Palestinian your home so that I can believe you”. I always thought that freedom of speech was the all-important American principle. I am discovering the freedom to be whatever you want to be is equally important here — and that actions that coincide with that really matter.

Last night I was feeling disappointed about the debates that rage about Israel. I was with Renee Firestone, a Holocaust survivor who has been active with the Shoah Foundation Institute since its inception. She spends time working with pupils who are learning about the Holocaust. She also is active with the Freedom Writers, working to empower disaffected inner city youth. When she travels to Poland taking groups of young people on tour, she wears her red hoodie with the words “Freedom” across her chest. I asked her, “why freedom?” She looked at me. “I wear that because we survivors know just how important the concept of freedom really is!”

Last updated: 3:49pm, August 28 2009