Anti-Semitism may be canary in the coal mine of intolerance

I am a product of the civil rights movement and thus a strong believer in the value of racial and ethnic diversity. I am also a Jew who supports the existence of the State of Israel while highly critical of many current Israeli policies. So I could not resist accepting a recent invitation to join a diverse delegation of Americans attending a conference on anti-Semitism in Berlin that would address, among other matters, the distinction between anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conference brought together civil and human rights advocates from around the world. Its focus was the alarming increase in anti-Semitism in Europe. Thus, it was more than a bit disappointing that little more than half the OSCE member states attended and those who that, unlike the United States, sent deputy-level representatives. Were they unaware or did they not care? And which is worse?

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, led the U.S. delegation to the conference. Describing herself as an “undiplomatic diplomat,” she chided European leaders for their absence, warning that anti-Semitic actions pose “not only a threat to the Jewish community, they are a threat to the larger project of European liberalism and pluralism.”

Power singled out the U.S. delegation as a model for countries that value their racial and ethnic diversity to have a hedge against racism and bigotry. Our NGO delegation was composed of leaders of the American Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, African American, Asian American, Latino and LGBT communities; all are members of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a broad-based interracial, interethnic coalition that has been quite successful in advocating the interests of people of color and other marginalized groups in the United States. The ambassador did not need to point out the homogeneous composition of all the other delegations, which was hardly reflective of the diversity of the countries they represented.

Undaunted by the notable absence of key European countries, those who did attend the conference engaged in spirited debate over issues such as how anti-Israel sentiments, in certain instances, can and should be seen as pure, unadulterated anti-Semitism, and how in other instances, we must accept anti-Israeli sentiment as just that — a foreign policy judgment — and not dismiss it as reflective of a personal hatred of Jews.

Our NGO delegation took every opportunity to underscore how, in addressing such potentially volatile questions, there are distinct advantages to having a broad-based multiethnic, multiracial coalition that works together on issues that, at various times, may not directly impact particular coalition members. The group was also united in its understanding that a threat to one vulnerable group can be a threat to all. Or as Power stressed that “rising anti-Semitism is rarely the lone or the last expression of intolerance in a society”; instead it is often “the canary in the coal mine.”

Combating racism is, at its core, a battle for the hearts and minds of people. It’s about more than offering legal protections or remedies for bigotry and hatred; it actually seeks to impact the way people think. In that battle, words matter. And words carrying moral suasion matter even more. Laws can establish standards but constructive dialogue can create change.

That is why Power’s remarks at the Berlin conference were so welcome and compelling. For her, the message is simple: Jewish communities throughout Europe must join with diverse communities around the world to confront not only anti-Semitism, but all forms of racism.

But the questions remain: Is there sufficient recognition of the problem? Is there the political will? Sounding a note of optimism, Leadership Conference CEO Wade Henderson remarked that if this type of coalition building “can happen in the U.S. with our record of violence, bigotry and oppression, it can certainly happen in any nation.”

So, diverse coalitions matter. And they matter because vexing issues can be best addressed when the interested parties can proceed from a reservoir of trust established through a history of working together on matters that may not directly affect their particular community but are recognized as being in what Alexis de Tocqueville might call “our enlightened self-interest.”

A final note: Diverse individuals are stepping forward in the wake of the tragedies of Ferguson and Staten Island to confront the vicious cycle of violence directed against black men. These people understand that this issue is not only a problem for the African American community. If a cohesive coalition — white, black, Jewish, Christian, Muslim — can be built and can sustain itself, we may still be able to fulfill the promise of our democratic ideals to be an honest and decent society that promotes justice for all.

Robert Rubin, longtime legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, is now in private practice with his own civil rights law firm in San Francisco.