By Larry Gordon
Are Jewish communities in places like Turkey and Greece in trouble? What about France? What are they doing there, who is protecting them, and should they just pick up and make aliyah to Israel?
Mark Weitzman has spent his entire professional career standing up and speaking out for Jewish communities around the world. As director of government affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Mark has traveled extensively and is probably one of the best-informed individuals when it comes to the status of Jewish communities around the world. These are some of the questions he will be answering and exploring this weekend in the Five Towns.
This Shabbos, February 27–28, Weitzman will be the scholar-in-residence at Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence and will be speaking about the state of Jewish communities in places like Turkey, Greece, and other locations around the globe as well as his vital interfacing with ambassadors and world leaders at the United Nations.
I’ve been reporting news in one form or another for nearly four decades, and I cannot recall a time when the topics of Israel—and Jews in general—could be reported on other than in the context of some kind of problem.
And that is still the continuing story today. Jews are torn about which direction Israel should head in politically and what Jews scattered around the world who live in repressive and intimidating environments should do.
When I spoke to Weitzman this week, he related the details of a conference he had recently attended on digital terrorism. Our discussion headed in a number of directions and covered more than a few countries. Terrorism on the Internet is a relatively new yet rapidly growing problem. Digital terrorism, as Mark Weitzman calls it, is not limited to a specific area. It spreads hate in an instantaneous fashion all over the world and knows no bounds. As we’ve seen and read, ISIS or the Islamic State terror group has proven adept at communicating their murderous hateful message over the Internet. The question, Weitzman says, is where does protected speech end and where does inciting violence begin?
In one way, to understand the mission of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, one has to have known, appreciated, and understood Simon Wiesenthal, the fighter for Jewish rights in whose name the organization was founded. Wiesenthal was first and foremost known as a “Nazi-hunter.” As a survivor of the Holocaust, Wiesenthal dedicated much of his later life to identifying and bringing Nazis hiding around the world to justice. Perhaps his most famous case was his exposing former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim for his Nazi past. The revelation came too late to impact on his UN tenure but managed to derail his ambitions to be elected president of Austria.
Vienna is where Wiesenthal lived and where he died in 2005 at age 96. Today a group of leading activists including Rabbi Marvin Hier and Mr. Weitzman carry on in the tradition of Mr. Wiesenthal. Weitzman says of Simon Wiesenthal that aside from hunting down and exposing Nazis, he was a humanitarian who cared deeply about people’s rights and seeing to it that they could live without oppression wherever they chose to.
And that is the mission today, though with the hateful targeting of Jews in so many hot spots around the world—and especially at the UN—that mission has been slightly redefined. Aside from combating hate speech and incitement on the Internet, Weitzman says, the SWC is increasingly active on U.S. campuses, where the organized isolation of Israel continues to grow and where Jewish students are being isolated and targeted by hate groups. Under Weitzman’s leadership, the Wiesenthal Center has introduced a program known as “Combat Hate U” that focuses on campus activities across the country.
Mr. Weitzman travels extensively to visit and hear the concerns of Jewish communities around the globe, and that is another fascinating issue he will be speaking about this coming Shabbos in Lawrence. Amongst the countries he has been active in of late is Greece, where he will be visiting in the next week or so to speak with leaders of the 5,000-member community.
Greece recently elected a new leftist government known for its anti-Israel stance and especially anti-Jewish rhetoric. Amongst the inflammatory things said about Jews in the country is that Jews in Greece do not pay taxes. The story has no basis and serves only to inflame passions and to distract from Greece’s serious economic problems.
Also on the SWC agenda is the matter of Jews living in Turkey. Under President Tayyip Erdogan, that country has gone from an Islamic ally of the state of Israel all the way over to the other side, harboring extreme hostility for the Jewish state. Between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews still live in Turkey. It has the largest Jewish population in any Islamic state. Jews stay there because they consider it their home and they have business interests there. Despite the virulent anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric emanating from Turkish leaders, the country is protective of its Jewish community—for now, anyway. Weitzman points out that last year on the sidelines of the General Assembly meetings at the UN, in a meeting between President Obama and Mr. Erdogan, the subject raised by the president was the anti-Jewish pronouncements emanating from Istanbul and the importance of protecting Turkish Jews from harm.
Which brings us to the UN, where Mark Weitzman—who is based in New York—spends a lot of time working on various countries’ attitudes toward Jews and Israel. He is the first to concede that the UN is a tough environment for us. He adds that the UN is a picnic for Israel compared to what goes on in Geneva.
We might wonder why, with all the anti-Israel resolutions being floated and passed at the UN, does Israel stay as a member nation? Why not just pick up, turn our back on that hostile and counterproductive milieu, and simply move on? Weitzman’s response is that despite the outward face of anti-Israel actions at the UN, there have been many crises and misunderstandings between Israel and other countries quietly dealt with on the sidelines at routine meetings among ambassadors there. So despite the unpleasant environment for Israel there, it is still worthwhile, Weitzman says.
This is just a peek at the expertise that Mark Weitzman brings to the table in understanding the plight of the Jewish people, who are very much scattered around the world in these modern times. He has a great deal to say as well about French Jewry, their vested interest in France, and the French interest in not seeing its Jewish citizens leave en masse to Israel, as suggested by Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Mark, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, has an abundance of anecdotes to tell about various encounters with Arab diplomats at the UN. One that he recalls from a friendly Jordanian diplomat was the suggestion that in the interest of better relations between Israel and Jordan, he “tell his friends from Brooklyn to stop moving to settlements in the West Bank.”
It may sound like a piece of absurd advice, but it is just a small eye-opening look at what those working for the good of the Jewish community around the world have to put up with. It’s a big job that is apparently being handled expertly by Mark Weitzman and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. v
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