The Top Ten Issues Facing Jews in 2013
World Powers Negotiate with Iran, with Limited Results
Following his election to the Iranian presidency, Hassan Rouhani, who pledged to improve Iran’s economy and relations with the international community, embarked on a global “charm offensive” in an effort to put forward a more moderate face of the Islamic Republic. Within months intense negotiations commenced and, ultimately, an agreement was struck in Geneva between the P5-plus-one powers and Iran over its nuclear program.
While the initial limited agreement was a first step toward a broader solution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, many in the U.S. and particularly Israel’s leadership remained deeply skeptical of the regime’s intentions, given their long record of noncompliance. Tehran agreed to accept some limits on its nuclear activity in exchange for temporary sanctions relief. At the same time, members of Congress considered proposing legislation that would pursue further crippling sanctions against the regime should a final agreement not be reached. As the year came to a close the Western powers and Iran continued to work on a plan for implementing the Geneva agreement, while doubts remain about Iran’s commitment to making serious concessions on its nuclear program in a permanent agreement.
In Visit to Jerusalem, Obama Urges Two-State Solution
In the first visit to Jerusalem of his presidency, President Barack Obama appealed to the people of Israel to not give up on the peace process and reassured the Israeli public that they have a friend in the White House and could count on the special U.S.-Israel relationship enduring under his leadership. He powerfully summed up the special relationship with words uttered in Hebrew, “Atem lo levad“ (“You are not alone”). The president called for a two-state solution as being necessary for Israel to maintain a Jewish and democratic state. He acknowledged Israel’s past offers to the Palestinians while articulating American opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Finally, appearing in Ramallah before Palestinian representatives, he argued that the settlement issue, like others, must be resolved at the negotiating table, marking a contrast to the most egregious early blunder of his administration, in which he made the settlement issue a precondition for negotiations.
Supreme Court Decisions Change Landscape for Civil Rights in America
In a landmark decision in a case brought by a Jewish woman and destined to impact significant numbers of Jews, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that legally married same-sex couples are entitled to all of the federal rights, protections and benefits of civil marriage. While the court analyzed the case as a discrimination case, Jewish and other religious organizations also made the argument that the Defense of Marriage Act reflected an effort by its supporters to inappropriately enshrine their religious understanding of marriage into civil law. Federal authorities interpreted the decision to mean that legally married same-sex married couples are entitled to the same federal benefits as other married couples even if they are living in states where their marriage is not recognized as a matter of state law.
In another closely watched case, the Supreme Court struck down a critical part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, one of the most important and effective civil rights laws ever passed protecting minority voters from discrimination. The provision the court invalidated — requiring certain states and counties with a history of discriminatory voting practices to “preclear” changes in voting laws with the federal government — had played a key role in ensuring that every American could exercise his or her right to vote. Jewish groups played an important historic role in arguing in favor of the act and its periodic renewal, and advocated specifically in this case to keep the pre-clearance provision. Following the court’s decision, the Jewish community joined others in vowing to press Congress to adopt new legislation to protect voting rights.
Attacks Against Jews Increase Globally; Neo-Nazis Gain Traction in Europe
Global anti-Semitism remained a serious concern in 2013, as Jewish communities around the world, and particularly those in Eastern and Western Europe and South America, witnessed a rise in serious anti-Jewish assaults, vandalism and harassment. In France, attacks against Jews continued at a disturbing rate. In Vitry-Sur-Seine three men accosted a teenager, who was singled out because he was wearing a skullcap, and threatened to kidnap and kill him and other Jews; a 20-year-old Jewish man wearing a Star of David pendant was mugged and robbed twice outside of Marseille’s main train station. Numerous other attacks targeting Jews and Jewish institutions were reported in Argentina, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Romania, Sweden, Ukraine, Venezuela and the United Kingdom.
Neo-Nazi parties were participants in the parliaments of four European nations. The political platforms of Jobbik in Hungary, Ataka in Bulgaria, Golden Dawn in Greece, and Svoboda in Ukraine were anti-democratic manifestos of racism and anti-Semitism. Two of the parties, Jobbik and Golden Dawn, have associated militias that assault minorities. Xenophobic parties were active in other European countries as well. And, in a clear threat to religious freedom, the Polish parliament voted in July against a proposal to explicitly allow kosher and halal slaughter. The vote put in doubt the legal status of kosher and halal slaughter, striking a blow to the future of Jews living in Poland and giving rise to questions of whether anti-Semitic prejudice played a role in the decision.
Election of Pope Francis Bodes Well for Catholic-Jewish Relations
Following the surprise announcement in February that Pope Benedict XVI was retiring in office, the Vatican moved quickly to name a successor. The election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina as Pope Francis was hailed as a significant moment in the history of the church. Under his leadership in Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio made important strides in promoting Catholic-Jewish relations. His first outreach to the Jewish community as pope was strongly encouraging. Francis sent a message of friendship to Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, expressing hope that he would be able to contribute to the progress that relations between Jews and Catholics have enjoyed since the Second Vatican Council. The pope later invited Rabbi Di Segni to the papal installation. In early December, Pope Francis met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and discussed his desire to visit Israel in the near future.
Syrian Civil War Prompts Refugee Crisis; Assad Fires Chemical Weapons
The two-and-half-year civil war in Syria continued to rage with no end in sight, a mounting death toll that reached as high as 126,000 people, and a growing refugee crisis, with an estimated 1.6 million people fleeing to neighboring countries including Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. President Bashar al-Assad continued to hold on to power, even after his government was accused of deploying chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in August. President Obama announced he was prepared to use military force to respond; however, a diplomatic agreement was struck with Russian facilitation to dismantle and remove Syria’s chemical weapons cache.
The civil war created a number of challenges for the international community and for Israel, with concerns that Syria’s conventional and chemical weapons could end up in the wrong hands. In May, Israel targeted weapons-storage facilities in Syria amid fears that the Syrian regime had begun transferring sophisticated missiles to Hezbollah. Iran and Hezbollah declared their support for the Syrian government, and as Hezbollah militants were fighting rebel forces, Sunni terrorists possibly aligned with the opposition were suspected in bombings targeting Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon.
Anti-Semitism Challenges Internet Providers
Internet providers and social media networks continued to grapple with the issue of anti-Semitism and hate speech. In France, Twitter was ordered to reveal the identities of the authors of a series of racist and anti-Semitic tweets in response to a request from law enforcement and a Jewish student group. In July, Facebook took action to remove the page of a leading Hungarian purveyor of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma hate speech. But serious challenges remained. Anti-Semites, racists, conspiracy theorists and Holocaust deniers continued to find new and more creative ways to exploit the Internet and social media to spread their messages of anti-Semitism and hatred. Even Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei got into the act, using his Facebook profile to feature a visual representation of the classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theory of Jewish control of the U.S. government.
U.S. Spearheads New Round of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations
The Obama Administration began a new push toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the announcement in July that Secretary of State John Kerry had secured an agreement on the resumption of direct negotiations between the parties. Despite a flurry of activity in the intervening months, with Secretary Kerry making a series of shuttle diplomacy visits to the region, mediators for both sides talked of wide gaps between the parties, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned that any failure to reach an accord after the nine-month period allotted for talks would lead the Palestinian Authority to seek recourse to international institutions, including the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. Meanwhile, the European Union threatened to take action on produce originating in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and was considering withholding funds it gives to the Palestinian Authority each year should the talks collapse.
Anti-Israel Activity Spreads on American College Campuses
Student groups that engage in campus advocacy designed to demonize and isolate Israel continued to organize anti-Israel events, conferences and demonstrations on college campuses. This activity was ratcheted up in several fundamental aspects in 2013, including mock “eviction notices” that were distributed to students’ dorm rooms at Harvard University, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, San Diego State University and the University of California, Santa Cruz as part of an effort to castigate Israeli policy, as well as an increasing rate of academic departments engaging in sponsorship of anti-Israel programming.
More than two dozen anti-Israel programs received endorsements or sponsorship from academic departments, most notably a series of anti-Israel events at Brooklyn College in February and November. Anti-Israel activism on campus was also increasingly focused on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Student senates at nearly a dozen universities considered and voted on non-binding resolutions that called for divestment from multinational companies that do business with Israel. Five of these resolutions passed, though they had no practical impact on university investments. In addition, two academic associations, the Association for Asian American Studies and the American Studies Association, approved resolutions calling for academic boycotts against Israel institutions.
Anti-Semitism Declines in U.S., but Concerns Remain
The level of anti-Semitic attitudes reached historic lows in the United States. A 2013 ADL survey of the American people found that 12 percent of Americans harbor deeply entrenched anti-Semitic attitudes, marking a 3 percent decline from a previous poll in 2011 and down significantly from a benchmark poll conducted in 1964, which found that 29 percent of Americans then harbored anti-Semitic views. Anti-Semitic incidents were reported to have declined as well. Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center Survey of Jewish Americans found that only 15 percent personally had been called offensive names in the past year, and a solid majority worried more about discrimination against other minority groups than against Jews.
Nevertheless, concerns about the lasting power of anti-Semitism persisted. A lawsuit filed by a national public interest law firm alleged that several Jewish students in the Pine Bush, New York school district suffered egregious anti-Semitic discrimination, harassment and bullying at the hands of a number of other students. The lawsuit made national headlines and raised concerns that some schools and communities were not doing enough to address anti-Semitic stereotyping, bullying and scapegoating.