Ira Forman, an expert on the rise of global anti-Semitism, will give a lecture at the Jewish Community Center on Tuesday, Feb. 20. As an author, activist, educator and former U.S. diplomat for the Obama Administration, Forman brings his considerable expertise to share with Louisville.
Insider spoke with Forman by phone, and the discussion was edited for length and clarity.
Insider Louisville: What are you going to address in your lecture on anti-Semitism?
Ira Forman: First, I do some kind of analysis — what is the nature of it, what are its implications. Part of the nature is it’s complex. If someone tells you in a sentence or two what anti-Semitism is about, they probably don’t know what they are talking about, at least worldwide, or they are just lying to you.
Forman: It depends on where it is, and what country, and what context. So we need the complexities. It’s important to be able to say, then, “What can we do about it?”
Insider: What can we do about it?
Forman: There are some things to do, some important stuff, and some of it our U.S. government does. Although I would say if one wants to rely on even the U.S. government, with all its resources, one is going to fail.
This is something that’s got to be much bigger than one country, or one community like the Jewish community — it’s not a Jewish problem, it’s a human rights problem.
And I should say, it’s not a matter of a problem we “solve.” We handle the problem, we ameliorate the problem. We don’t solve it. That’s just realistic.
There aren’t simple answers, there’s lots of complexities. Often one has to hold two very different and competing and seemingly contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time when you want analysis.
Insider: Are there things that get in the way of our attempts to lessen it?
Forman: One of the things we all have to avoid, including myself, is never let your ideology — we have all have it, political ideology — never let that get in the way. This is one of the very few issues I saw in Washington that was never partisan, or almost never. And I see some ideology in almost everything else in society creeping in.
I’m on the center left, and if I go out and say anti-Semitism is all about the right-wing, that’s just not true. There’s plenty on the left. And if I was on the right of center and I wanted to say it’s all on the left, that’s not true either.
Insider: How do you talk to people about the complexities of the issue?
Forman: I think people are hungry for stories that illustrate things. It’s one thing to talk theory, and those things are nice, but we learn often through stories as much as anything else. There are lots and lots of stories out there. In a story, you can often illustrate the complexity.
Insider: Is anti-Semitism on the rise worldwide? Or just more out in the open now?
Forman: I’ve spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about this stuff, and if you look overseas, primarily but not exclusively Europe, and in terms of Jewish populations that are being affected by this, there’s a lot of ways to look at it, including anti-semitic propaganda. And often that’s coming out of places with no Jews, or very few Jews.
If you’re looking at this worldwide, as opposed to the United States, it’s not like it’s been hidden or it’s been under the surface. It’s very hard to say, “Oh, anti-Semitism began rising on, you know, Jan. 14, 2002.” We have lots of different data sources. If you just look at one, you could try to say it’s peaking or not peaking. None of those sources are perfect — there’s lots of anecdotal evidence.
I will tell you that I don’t think, in the last five or six years I’ve been working on this, that anyone would dispute that a rough pivot point is the 21st century. anti-Semitism worldwide has gotten worse in the 21st century in terms of violence to Jewish communities.
Insider: What about here in the United States?
Forman: Going back to the United States, there are certainly, both online and in terms of people saying things in public or having incidents with the extreme right, like Charlottesville, people talking about this in other media … sure, the last couple of years we’ve seen a peak.
Does that mean there are more incidents in the United States than there were 10 years ago? That’s a harder question.
I can show you the hate-crime data; the Anti-Defamation League tries to do a list of incidents. If I looked at that data, I would tell you anti-Semitism is climbing in the last two or three years in the United States. But if I go back in that data 15 years, it was higher then. What does that tell us?
Unpack more of the complexities on Tuesday, Feb. 20, at 6:30 p.m. “Hate Affects Us All: Confronting Worldwide Anti-Semitism” will be hosted by the Jewish Community Center, 3600 Dutchmans Lane. Tickets are a suggested donation of $18.