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ADL senior VP, Iran native, reflects on anti-Semitism today

Sharon Nazarian

Sharon Nazarian

The bad news first: Anti-Semitism throughout much of the world is not only alive and well, but growing.

Then a touch of good news: It’s probably not as bad as it seems.

Those are among the convictions of Sharon Nazarian, the Anti-Defamation League’s senior vice president for international affairs, who spoke on the unpleasant but important subject of anti-Semitism to regional ADL board members, youth leaders and supporters in Denver last week, and in an interview with the Intermountain Jewish News.

Responsible for the ADL’s efforts to educate Jewish communities and law enforcement on anti-Semitism outside the US, Nazarian brings to her post considerable expertise from the worlds of academia (founder of the Center for Israel Studies and an adjunct professor in political science at UCLA), philanthropy (president of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation) and foreign policy (a member of the Council on Foreign Relations).

With an MA and a PhD in political science from USC, Nazarian also brings to her professional duties her personal background.

Born into Iran’s small and ancient Jewish community, she and her family fled that nation after the Islamic revolution of 1979. She was only 10 at the time but has plentiful memories of being Jewish in an environment with a long and sometimes violent history of anti-Semitism.

Her background as an Iranian Jew didn’t necessarily contribute to her choice of a career, Nazarian told the IJN, but she believes it probably influenced the ADL to hire her.

“I think it contributed to our CEO’s choice of me because being vice president for international affairs in a way is like being in a foreign ministry role. I think Jonathan Greenblatt wanted to select someone who has the understanding and experience of what it is to be a Diaspora Jew, especially from a small Diaspora community.

“I am responsible essentially for all Jewish communities outside the US, whether large or small. I know what it’s like to be a Jewish person in a Muslim majority country.”

Since 2017, when she joined the ADL, she has, tragically, also come to know how many Jews outside the US feel about the physical threat of anti-Semitism. As an American Jew in the wake of the deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue last October, she says her relationship with the Jews she works with abroad has grown into one of mutual understanding.

“Pittsburgh was a very defining moment,” Nazarian says.

“Before Pittsburgh, I would go to these communities around the world and talk about how we are American Jews and we’re safe and we’re well-to-do and how can we help you? It was a little condescending in a way.

“After Pittsburgh, it has been humbling for me personally. We American Jews have come to understand what it means to be insecure. We now have to learn from each other, and I’m there to learn from them how they keep their Jewish community centers safe, how they keep their synagogues safe.”

In her interview — a lightly edited transcript of which follows — Nazarian discusses the “perfect storm” of dynamics currently fueling international anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, as well as in Iran and its Jewish community.

How bad is worldwide anti-Semitism quantitatively?

“In Europe we have what I would call a perfect storm right now, rising anti-Semitism and nationalism. There are extreme right groups coming into the political center in a way that they had not before. They had been fringe, pushed to the side, and now they’ve made their way back, whether it’s in Austria or Germany or Italy, in all the places that we can imagine.

“At the same time, you see the rise in extremism from the left. Jeremy Corbyn is really the face of that in the UK, the populism around the Brexit movement. We see it in Northern Europe where there’s a lot of movement toward banning circumcision and ritual slaughter, very fundamental in Jewish ritual life.

“Thirdly, there is the rise of Islamic radicalization in Europe, with the coming in of all the refugees from North Africa and the Middle East. I am not one to close doors to those running away from wars and atrocities and I think the Europeans have done well and history will treat them well. But at the same time they have to recognize what’s coming into their communities and societies and what are the challenges to their democracies, to the vibrancy of their tolerance for others.

“This perfect storm does translate into a period of heightened threat to Jewish communities, whether it’s physical security for French Jewry or ritual life in Sweden and other places, or otherwise. All of these forces are coming on top of each other and exacerbating each other.”

Hasn’t this put the Jews of Europe into awkward positions? In some cases, Jews have supported publicly the nationalist movements. How do you advise on that?

“In France a certain percentage of the Jewish community voted for the National Front. They have some of the same motivations as the broader French society, some of the same reactions to Islamic radicalization. They think these groups have the answer.

“We have that in this country — those who believe in most of what this administration has done. They’re also responding to keeping our borders safe, keeping the terrorists out, keeping invaders and rapists out.

“On the whole, I would say the Jewish community generally — and definitely the Jewish communal organizations — see the dangers of those arguments. They know that [nationalist] groups will not stop with the Muslims and this will trickle down to the Jewish community. They’re very aware that this is a real threat and they haven’t forgotten their history.

“What worries me more is the separation of the national interests of the state of Israel from these Jewish communities. Almost all of the Jewish communities of Europe consider themselves pro-Israel. But you have cases like in Hungary where the role of the Israeli government coming in and embracing the president and leadership of Hungary makes it very difficult for the Hungarian Jewish community. That puts them in a very awkward position because of the state of anti-Semitism in Hungary, which is pretty horrendous.

“That’s a bigger challenge, I think, than worrying about Jews supporting right wing groups.”

How important is Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly in the anti-Semitism coming from the progressive left or the radical left?

“It’s a huge and much more complex issue. When you see things from the right, it’s kind of black and white. They say what they think, they act the way they do based on their beliefs. You see it and you know it.

“What happens on the extreme left, shrouded in this language of human rights and repression and post-colonialism is much more difficult to link specifically to anti-Semitic behavior. But very often, in essence it is. The left and extreme left are in some ways more sophisticated and intelligent in the way they send their messages out, so it’s more tricky.

“When you talk of Israel as being the last bastion of the colonial movement, whether it’s apartheid or it’s a colonial experiment, that language in its essence is anti-Semitic.

“It means that Jews do not have the right to self-determination like all the other people do. That’s anti-Semitic.”

So this progressivism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You’re suggesting that old-fashioned anti-Semitism is still lurking in their hearts.

“With Jeremy Corbyn there’s evidence that he was on the payroll of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I’m not going to call him an anti-Semite but his behavior, his language, the populist rhetoric he uses — as much as he will deny it — is harping to that.

“It’s irrefutable that he’s definitely using the human rights space undercover, for an attack on Israel that is unjustified. There’s no language of a two-state solution, no language of both people having a right to their own countries.

“So when you distill it to the bottom line of what they’re arguing for, it’s no Jewish state; that Jews do not have the right to have one. That to me is anti-Semitic. But it’s much harder for most average citizens to get through those layers and not get caught up in this wonderful sounding stuff.

“I’m an Iranian and in a way this is personal to me because of how this regime oppresses its own minorities. Forget everybody else, forget the havoc Iran is causing in the Middle East, in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen, just look at what the regime is doing to its own population, to its minorities, to its LGBT community. Where is Jeremy Corbyn on that? If you’re a true believer in social justice, why aren’t you talking about that? There’s zero, silence.

“It’s a real danger that the UK, our strongest ally, this bastion of post-WW II democracy, a country that has protected its Jewish community . . . is close to having somebody like Corbyn become prime minister.”

How should these phenomena of right- and left-wing anti-Semitism and Islamic radicalization be responded to by Jews? Some people with experience or memories of the Holocaust think this might be a recurrence.

“We at ADL are very careful about those comparisons. We try very hard not to use them frivolously. At this point I would not make that comparison.

“Polls show that in the UK some 40% of Jews have considered moving. That shows how people feel, what their fears are, but is it comparable to pre-WW II Europe? No.

“Is it something that we should be really concerned about, especially when we see the kind of legislation that is making Jewish life more and more difficult, especially when forces from the right and the left are making Jews feel less safe physically, that they literally can’t walk around with a kippah or a Star of David?

“Yes, those are the issues that we have to keep our focus on.

“I don’t like fear mongering or using those kinds of comparisons in an irresponsible way. I don’t think we’re there.”

Is there a particular place that you would rate as the most dangerous and where maybe there should be some emigration?

“France has already experienced that in the last five years, where there was a surge in emigration to Israel. We’ve been monitoring those numbers and what we’ve seen is not only that it has plateaued, there has also been some coming back.

“Some French Jews went to Israel, many bought homes, some settled families, but some did come back. So with emigration, we’re not there yet.

“In terms of physical security, Paris and France are definitely the worst. You see it when you go to any Jewish institution around Paris — they’re barricaded. The French government, to their credit, provides serious security to Jewish buildings, whether a synagogue or a kosher restaurant. For them, physical security is the number one issue.”

Could you provide a description of the atmosphere in some of these French neighborhoods?

“If you’re not an outwardly observant Jewish person, they all say there’s absolutely no threat to you. The difficulties come when you have an outward appearance of Jewishness, and which neighborhood you find yourself in.

“It’s a social class issue. Definitely, the upper socioeconomic members of the Jewish community feel very safe. They’re not feeling the institutional anti-Semitism. They know that the government is very much in support of the Jewish community. When CRIF — the organization of the French Jewish community — has its gala, the president of France, the foreign minister, all of them are there. So they feel politically safe. They feel they’re in a good place in terms of the resources they’re getting from the government.

“But if you’re an observant Jew, with the clothing that goes with it, you have to think about your neighborhood and where your children are playing. If you’re in a mixed neighborhood, for example, with North Africans, you think about that. There’s been a movement from certain arrondissements to others.

“There is still curiosity about how bad it is, but I think that French society as a whole is afraid of the Islamic radicalization because there are terrorists, they’ve had Hyper Cacher, they’ve had very real traumas. That’s undeniable.”

Can you evaluate how European Jewish communities have responded so far?

“I was in Stockholm a few months after the incident in Malmo. The Jewish community made very right move on the security side, on the communal side, on the government relations side, on the law enforcement side. I was very impressed.

“There are obviously things that could be done better. One of the things that we at the ADL are looking at, because we’re such a large purveyor of law enforcement training in the US, is having the heads of our Jewish Community Security Task Force meet with the heads of police of specific European cities. We are bringing them in pairs to our training twice a year in Washington, DC. We’ve done it now with Barcelona, with Budapest, with Finland.

“They have found that very helpful on two fronts: Number one is the actual content, and number two is the bonding between the heads of those cities’ police departments and the heads of security for the Jewish communities. That kind of relationship itself is very valuable.

“They’re doing a great job for themselves, they’re advocating for themselves, they’re getting the resources they need to make their buildings safe. At the ADL, we have amazing experience in helping the police, when there’s a murder or any act of violence, how to know very quickly that this is a hate crime.

“The challenge with the Jewish community reaching out is not in Europe, it’s in Latin America. There the Jewish communities are more reluctant to work with the police because of the corruption. They don’t reach out in the same way. They often rely on their own private security. It’s a very different dynamic.”

We see Iran as a relentless foe of Israel and very anti-Semitic: Are the people of Iran different from their government?

“It’s very important to separate the government of Iran and the people. Put aside for the moment the regime, with all its nefarious activities, in the country, in the region, around the world.

“When you ask a non-Jewish Iranian, whether an observant Muslim or not, they will say that the Jewish minority in Iran has always been treated well. But if you understand the sociology and the majority-minority dynamic, most majorities think that they treat their minorities quite well. They don’t have that sensitivity.

“What I can tell you about my family’s history was that my father was born in a ghetto, a legal ghetto. In Tehran, I remember my mother saying to me, ‘Don’t say that in public, don’t go there, be careful.’

“Would an average Iranian know about that? No. Would he or she know that there was a period in Iran that Jews were not allowed to come outside when it was raining, because the Jewish body was considered dirty, and it could touch a Muslim and they would become impure? They would not know any of that because that is not part of their consciousness.

“Are they anti-Semites? It depends. Are there millions of Iranians today who support Israel? I’m not even saying that they’re neutral, but actually supporting Israel because of their hatred for their own regime and for 40 years they’ve seen the anti-Israel rhetoric? Yes.

“You see demonstrations going on in Iran today where they say Israel is not the enemy, it’s their own government. They are saying that Palestinians don’t need their money; they need it.

“It’s a very complicated issue.”

Chris Leppek may be reached at

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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