Global Antisemitism: Assault on Human Rights

By l'Hon. Irwin Cotler on February 26, 2009

Keynote Address by the Honourable Irwin Cotler at the founding conference of the Inter-parliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism (ICCA)
Professor Cotler is the co-founder of ICCA with UK MP John Mann. 
He is the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and is the Liberal MP for the Montreal riding of Mount Royal.

What we are witnessing today – and which has been developing incrementally, sometimes imperceptibly, and even indulgently, for some thirty-five years now – is a new sophisticated, globalizing, virulent and even lethal antisemitism, reminiscent of the atmospherics of the 30s, and without parallel or precedent since the end of the Second World War. 

The new anti-Jewishness overlaps with classical antisemitism but is distinguishable from it. It found early juridical, and even institutional, expression in the United Nations’ ‘Zionism is Racism’ resolution – which the late US Senator Daniel Moynihan said “gave the abomination of antisemitism the appearance of international legal sanction” – but has gone dramatically beyond it. This new antisemitism almost needs a new vocabulary to define it; however, it can best be identified using a rights-based juridical perspective.

cotler-at-ICCA.jpgIn a word, classical or traditional antisemitism is the discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon, the rights of Jews to live as equal members of whatever host society they inhabit. The new antisemitism involves the discrimination against the right of the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the family of nations – the denial of, and assault upon, the Jewish people’s right even to live – with Israel as the ‘collective Jew among the nations’. As the closing “London Declaration” of the ICCA Conference affirms: “We are alarmed at the resurrection of the old language of prejudice and its modern manifestations – in rhetoric and political action – against Jews, Jewish belief and practice and the State of Israel.”

Observing the complex intersections between the old and the new antisemitism, and the impact of the new on the old, Per Ahlmark, former leader of the Swedish Liberal Party and Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, pithily concluded: 

Compared to most previous anti-Jewish outbreaks, this [new antisemitism] is often less directed against individual Jews. It attacks primarily the collective Jews, the State of Israel. And then such attacks start a chain reaction of assaults on individual Jews and Jewish institutions … In the past, the most dangerous anti-Semites were those who wanted to make the world Judenrein, ‘free of Jews’. Today, the most dangerous anti-Semites might be those who want to make the world Judenstaatrein, ‘free of a Jewish state’. 


Genocidal Antisemitism

The first modality of the new antisemitism – and the most lethal type – is what I would call genocidal antisemitism. This is not a term that I use lightly or easily. In particular, I am referring to the Genocide Convention’s prohibition against the ‘direct and public incitement to genocide’. If antisemitism is the most enduring of hatreds and genocide is the most horrific of crimes, then the convergence of this genocidal intent embedded in antisemitic ideology is the most toxic of combinations.

There are three manifestations of this genocidal antisemitism. The first is the state-sanctioned – indeed, state-orchestrated - genocidal antisemitism of Ahmadinejad’s Iran, dramatized by the parading in the streets of Teheran of a Shihab-3 missile draped in the emblem ‘Wipe Israel off the Map,’ while demonizing both the State of Israel as a ‘cancerous tumour to be excised’ and the Jewish people as ‘evil incarnate’.

A second manifestation of this genocidal Antisemitism is in the covenants and charters, platforms and policies of such terrorist movements and militias as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda, which not only call for the destruction of Israel and the killing of Jews wherever they may be, but also for the perpetration of acts of terror in furtherance of that objective. 

The third manifestation of this genocidal antisemitism are the religious fatwas or execution writs, where these genocidal calls in mosques and media are held out as religious obligations – where Jews and Judaism are characterized as the perfidious enemy of Islam – and Israel becomes the Salmon Rushdie of the nations.

In a word, Israel is the only state in the world today – and the Jews the only people in the world today – that are the object of a standing set of threats by governmental, religious and terrorist bodies seeking their destruction. The London Declaration – again in a significant clarion call – recognizes that “where there is incitement to genocide signatories [to the Genocide Convention] automatically have an obligation to act.” This promise must now be acted upon.


Ideological Antisemitism

Ideological antisemitism is a much more sophisticated and arguably a more pernicious expression of the new antisemitism. It finds expression not in any genocidal incitement against Jews and Israel, or overt racist denial of the Jewish people and Israel’s right to be; rather, ideological antisemitism disguises itself as part of the struggle against racism.

The first manifestation of this ideological antisemitism was its institutional and juridical anchorage in the ‘Zionism is Racism’ resolution at the UN. Notwithstanding the fact that the there was a formal repeal of this resolution, ‘Zionism as Racism’ remains alive and well in the global arena, particularly in the campus cultures of North America and Europe, as confirmed by the recent British All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism.

The second manifestation is the indictment of Israel as an apartheid state. This involves more than the simple indictment of Israel as an apartheid state. It also involves the call for the dismantling of Israel as an apartheid state as evidenced by the events at the 2001 UN World Conference against Racism in Durban.

The third manifestation of ideological antisemitism involves the characterization of Israel not only as an apartheid state – and one that must be dismantled as part of the struggle against racism – but as a Nazi one.

And so it is then that Israel is delegitimized – if not demonized – by the ascription to it of the two most scurrilous indictments of twentieth-century racism – Nazism and apartheid – the embodiment of all evil. These very labels of Zionism and Israel as ‘racist, apartheid, and Nazi’ supply the criminal indictment. No further debate is required. The conviction that this ‘triple racism’ warrants the dismantling of Israel as a moral obligation has been secured. For who would deny that a ‘racist, apartheid, Nazi’ state should not have any right to exist today? What is more, this characterization allows for terrorist ‘resistance’ to be deemed justifiable – after all, such a situation is portrayed as nothing other than occupation et résistance, where ‘resistance’ against a racist, apartheid, Nazi occupying state is legitimate, if not mandatory.

Legalized Antisemitism

If ideological antisemitism seeks to mask itself under the banner of anti-racism, legalized antisemitism is even more sophisticated and insidious. Here, antisemitism simultaneously seeks to mask itself under the banner of human rights, to invoke the authority of international law, and to operate under the protective cover of the UN. In a word – and in an inversion of human rights, language and law – the singling-out of Israel and the Jewish people for differential and discriminatory treatment in the international arena is ‘legalized’.

But one example of legalized antisemitism occurred annually for over 35 years at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. This influential body consistently began its annual session with Israel being the only country singled-out for country-specific indictment – even before the deliberations started – the whole in breach of the UN’s own procedures and principles. In this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ situation, the conviction and sentence were pronounced even before the hearings commenced. Some 30% of all the resolutions passed at the Commission were indictments of Israel.

After the Commission was replaced in June 2006 by the UN Human Rights Council, the new body proceeded to condemn one member state – Israel – in 80% of its twenty-five country-specific resolutions, while the major human rights violators of our time enjoyed exculpatory immunity. Indeed, five special sessions, two fact-finding missions, and a high level commission of inquiry have been devoted to a single purpose: the singling-out of Israel.

This week’s ICCA Conference and London Declaration unequivocally condemn this ‘legalized’ antisemitism, calling out that “Governments and the UN should resolve that never again will the institutions of the international community and the dialogue of nations states be abused to try to establish any legitimacy for antisemitism, including the singling out of Israel for discriminatory treatment in the international arena, and we will never witness – or be party to – another gathering like Durban in 2001.”


The Resurgence of Global Antisemitism: Evidentiary Data

The data unsurprisingly confirm that antisemitic incidents are very much on the rise. Still, the available figures only show half the picture – they demonstrate an increase in this old/new antisemitism by concentrating on the traditional antisemitic paradigm targeting individual Jews and Jewish institutions, while failing to consider the new antisemitic paradigm targeting Israel as the Jew among nations and the fall-out from it for traditional antisemitism. But the rise in traditional antisemitism is bound up with the rise in the new antisemitism, insidiously buoyed by a climate receptive to attacks on Jews because of the attacks on the Jewish state. Indeed, reports illustrate both an upsurge in violence and related antisemitic crimes corresponding with the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, and the recent 2009 Israel-Hamas war, which delegates to the ICCA Conference characterized as a “pandemic”.



It is this global escalation and intensification of antisemitism that underpins – indeed, necessitates – the establishment of this Inter-parliamentary Coalition to confront and combat this oldest and most enduring of hatreds. Silence is not an option. The time has come not only to sound the alarm – but to act. For as history has taught us only too well: while it may begin with Jews, it does not end with Jews. Antisemitism is the canary in the mineshaft of evil, and it threatens us all.



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