Conversation with Author Georgette Bennett on the Rise of Anti-Semitism and Religicide
I had the opportunity to interview author Georgette Bennett about her new book, Religicide: Confronting the Roots of Anti-Religious Violence, and her thoughts about a range of topics from Syria to the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States.
Our conversation, conducted via Zoom and edited only for content, is below.
For my readers, could you go over your background?
I have a rather diverse professional background, but let me start with my academic background since that’s simple to do. I’m a sociologist by training. I have a PhD in sociology. I also have an advanced degree in banking, which I think is an illustration of just how diverse my career is because, in the 20 years between the time I got my PhD in sociology and my degree in banking, there were several careers in-between. So, I have worked as an academic but was never really happy in the ivory tower.
I had a burning need to get behind the headlines and go where the action is. And that really has been the through line in my entire career, which has ranged from the academic and the first 20 years or so of my career as a criminologist. I have worked in government. I have worked in banking. I have been a management consultant.
And then in 1992, I got very deeply involved in interreligious relations because it was then that my late husband, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum died. I have also been a broadcast journalist, starting with NBC News. But at the time that Marc died, I felt that there was nothing more important than building on his work. He was a pioneer in the whole field of interreligious engagement and a well-known human rights activist. He also had a special commitment to refugees, and that becomes relevant later in my career.
So, when Marc died, I was in my eighth month of pregnancy. He died seven weeks before our only child was born, but he left me with more than a son who was the blessing of my life. He also left me with a legacy of confronting hate and building bridges between communities. And because at the time of his death, there were at least 50 conflicts being waged around the world that was based, at least in part, on religion. I decided that I was going to commit the rest of my career to focus on those issues. And that, in fact, is what I’ve been doing for the past 30 years.
Could you describe what multifaith is? Does it envision finding common ground between Muslims and Jews?
Well, common ground is certainly a part of it, but I think even more important is learning to respect differences and to be comfortable with differences. But the kind of interreligious work that I’ve been doing through the organizations that I’ve founded, the first of which was the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. We’re not focused on interreligious dialogue as many of the organizations operating in this space are, [but] we’re focused on very practical kinds of ways to get people to work together and to change their behavior.
It’s not so much about changing attitudes, although it’s a bonus when that happens, but it’s about changing behavior. And we do that in several ways at the Tanenbaum Center. One is through education, curricula, and teacher training programs that we’ve developed. The next is through the workplace, which is really important because that’s where people make their livings. So, there’s a lot of leverage there. We really pioneered that whole area of the religious dimension of workplace diversity. We also do it in healthcare settings, the religious dimension of patient-centered care, since that has such an impact on medical outcomes and then the role of religion and, and conflict resolution. So that’s what I mean by it.
Has the Tanenbaum Center had any tangible successes on the ground with conflict resolution?
Well, I think so. I mean, we’ve been at it for 30 years. Our education programs have been designated international best practices, and our network of religious peacemaker practitioners operates in conflict zones around the world. And we work with dozens of major corporations in terms of dealing with religious issues in the workplace.
And this led you to start the Multifaith Alliance?
Yes. In 2013, I founded the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, and people often ask me what led me to get involved with the Syrian crisis, because it’s a very counterintuitive thing for a Jewish child of the Holocaust to get involved with. After all, isn’t Syria our enemy? Don’t most Syrians want to see every Jew dead and Israel driven into the sea? You know, Syrians are indoctrinated that way. They’re indoctrinated to believe that Israelis want to kill them and drive them off their land, that they have to first kill them before they kill Syrians.
So, it seems very counterintuitive, but in looking at my background, it’s not counterintuitive at all because I’m a refugee myself. I resonated deeply with the plight of displaced Syrians. And when I saw the destruction of Aleppo, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the bombed-out city of my birth, Budapest.
And when I saw starvation being used as a weapon of war in Syria, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Budapest in which my own mother lost a pregnancy, lugging a sack of rotten potatoes home because there was nothing more to eat. When I saw the emaciated and eviscerated corpses of Syrians in Damascus prisons who had been victims of torture, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Mauthausen concentration camps, where so many members of my own family literally went up in smoke. And those who didn’t became walking skeletons like the corpses that I saw in the photographs of those Syrian prisoners. So, if “never again” was going to mean anything to me, “never again” had to also include Syrians.
And the other thing that motivated me to start the Multifaith Alliance was that the silence of the world and the face of the Syrian crisis was absolutely deafening, just as the world had been silent during the Holocaust. And then finally, it’s because I’m a Jew that I felt I had to do something.
Leviticus 19:16 kept reverberating in my brain: “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.” And that’s also where I got the title of my book about the Syrian crisis called, Thou Shalt Not Stand Idly By: How One Woman Confronted the Greatest Humanitarian Crisis of Our Time. In the Hebrew scriptures, there are no fewer than 40 references to caring for the stranger. There’s only one reference to loving your neighbor as yourself. And that’s because it’s very easy to love someone who’s like yourself. It’s much more difficult to love somebody who’s different.
So that’s what led me to start the Multifaith Alliance. I’m extraordinarily proud of the work that we’ve done. When we talked about the Tanenbaum Center a couple of minutes ago, you asked about whether we have had some success. Well, the successes of the Multifaith Alliance are very easy to measure. Quite simply, we have been able to deliver more than $270 million worth of aid, most of it directly into Syria, benefiting more than 3 million Syrians. And for two years, the work that we did on the ground helped to stabilize an entire region, but the most gratifying part of it, here you’ll see how the dots start to connect, in terms of the various parts of my career, the most gratifying part was the fact that so much of this work was done with Syrians and Israelis working in partnership. They’ve been sworn enemies since 1948.
The Syrian conflict has been largely forgotten. How do we get the world to pay attention again?
The world never paid much attention to it. The only times when the world paid attention to Syria were when a toddler washed up on shore. And then another, there was a photograph of two young children, two Syrian refugees, but almost from the beginning, the world didn’t pay attention, and huge foreign policy mistakes were made as a result of that.
Leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu and Ali Khamenei feed a narrative that Iran and Israel are headed toward a religious apocalyptic war. How do we promote the voices that preach moderation?
Well, you know, I’m a sociologist, and one of the things you learn in Sociology 101 is that the most effective way to debunk stereotypes, prejudices, and misconceptions is through contact and communication. And that’s why the work that the Tanenbaum Center does, or the Multifaith Alliance does, is so important.
Shadi Martini, the executive director of the Multifaith Alliance, is a Syrian refugee who was indoctrinated the same way all Syrians are indoctrinated. It’s not their fault. This is something that is just built into their education system. And as you said, it really begins with the government and the kinds of misinformation and disinformation that are perpetuated.
And then one day, Shadi was introduced to the head of an Israeli NGO that wanted to help him provide humanitarian aid. He had to flee Syria. He was the director. He was a hospital administrator in Aleppo, and he had to flee when the network that he had set up to treat wounded Syrians was discovered, and he was going to be arrested.
So, from outside Syria he continued to want to deliver humanitarian aid. And this Israeli wanted to work with him to help. And he was enormously suspicious, you know, he said, “who is this person? Um, is she mad? What does she want with me?” And as they spoke, he realized she had no other agenda than to help. And gradually all of these beliefs that he had about Jews and about Israel just disappeared. And he’s now been to Israel a number of times.
He’s very comfortable there. He is an executive director of this multifaith organization, and it’s a wonderful example of the difference that contact and communication can make, especially when you coalesce around a common goal and act together. Now, that’s certainly individually transformative.
On a broader scale, I think that it’s important to use the same tools that are used by the demagogues and the autocrats. The tools of social media doing counter-propaganda, doing counter-messaging. You know, there is so much demonization of refugees, for example, which is completely unfounded. So, one needs to use the same media to counter that kind of hate stuff as the bigots are using. But you know, what I found is that generally behind great hate, there’s great fear. And it’s important to do deep listening and find out what that fear is about what’s behind the hate, so that one can address the fear, because that then provides some hope that that hate can be turned down or transformed.
Turning to domestic U.S. politics. Donald Trump had his Thanksgiving dinner with avowed Hitler fanboy Kanye West and a well-known Holocaust denier. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in America. How dangerous is it to give these guys oxygen or attention?
Well, it’s very dangerous. And as we hear, you know, a lot of pundits on the news shows use your term, it gives them oxygen, it legitimizes them, it normalizes them, and it frees them up to spew the garbage that they are spewing. But I think it’s important to do a bit of a deeper dive into what’s behind all of this. What creates this mindset? And I would posit that it’s a form of group narcissism. The idea is that one’s own religion or one’s own group holds a monopoly on truth.
Because once you begin to believe that you then engage in apocalyptic thinking, where you divide the world into the children of light and the children of darkness. And that’s where othering begins. That’s where scapegoating begins. And once you’ve identified a group that represents the children of darkness, in this case, the Jews, you start to engage in hate speech and verbal violence, you dehumanize the target of your othering. And once they’re dehumanized, then it’s a very short step from verbal violence to physical violence.
And that’s the kind of thinking that we need to address. It’s very important to monitor language because language provides clues to the likely type of future violence. And it also means that if you’re monitoring language, then you can intervene early, and intervening early is very important here. You know, there was an epidemiologist who studied gang violence in Chicago, and he noticed that gang violence, like HIV/AIDS, was an epidemic, and that violence can be treated like a growing epidemic and stopped with early intervention. And that early intervention, usually occurs or should occur at the hate speech level.
In confronting anti-Semites or people who sympathize with certain viewpoints, a Holocaust museum offered basketball star Kyrie Irving a private tour, but it only resulted in anti-Semite attacks targeting the museum. Does trying to educate people who have espoused certain viewpoints help? Or are their views just baked in?
No, I think it’s very helpful, and this is something that I learned from my late husband. I don’t know how old you are, but I suspect you’re too young to remember when Jesse Jackson and the whole “Hymietown” scandal erupted.
It was in 1984.
He referred to New York City as Hymietown, which of course was code for Jews. This caused a huge scandal because it was perceived as an anti-Semitic comment. My late husband who was very quick to call out anti-Semitism was also very slow to accuse somebody of being an anti-Semite. He really saw this as a teaching opportunity and a way to build bridges. And the way he responded to Jesse Jackson was to invite him to share a program with him, a kind of debate. And they did that. It was at Queen’s College in New York City. Queen’s College had this very popular program and that was the platform on which Jesse Jackson and my late husband met.
And what came out of that was an affirmation of the connections between the African American and the Jewish community. So, you know, rather than calling Jesse Jackson an anti-Semite, which my late husband could have done because he had a very big media platform, he was always in the papers. He was the person reporters would go to for comments. So, he could have done that very easily, which only would’ve caused further alienation, but he turned it into a teaching moment and an opportunity to build bridges rather than to further burn them.
Your book, Religicide: Confronting the Roots of Anti-Religious Violence, which you co-authored with Jerry White, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, came out last month. What led you to write the book?
Absolutely. I am a product of anti-religious violence. I spoke earlier about the Holocaust. But as I also mentioned earlier, I was a criminologist for the early part of my career, and I became very interested in the link between religion and violence.
That was what came out of my criminology background. And my Holocaust background got me interested in the question of what is it about religion that inspires so much hatred. Now, even though I know it doesn’t feel that way, other forms of violence have been decreasing. But anti-religious violence is the fastest-growing form of violence today. And there’s a particular form of anti-religious violence that has gone unnamed, unabated, and unprosecuted. And the name that we give that form of anti-religious violence is religicide. Religicide is the systematic targeted attempt to wipe out an entire religion.
And that includes its followers, its home, and its entire cultural heritage. It goes beyond war crimes. It goes beyond crimes against humanity. It goes beyond genocide, and it goes beyond ethnic cleansing. And the reason that I mentioned those four particular kinds of human rights violations is that those are the four kinds that are currently recognized by the United Nations. Ethnic cleansing is not recognized under international law, but it has been cited by the International Criminal Court.
Religicide can be perpetrated by one religion against another. A good example of that is the Islamic State’s genocide against the Yazidis. It can be perpetrated by a state against a religion. A great example of that is the religicide perpetrated against the Uyghurs and the Tibetan Buddhists in China. And it can be perpetrated by a state and a religion simultaneously against a religion. And a good example of that is the religicide perpetrated by Myanmar and its Buddhist extremists against the Rohingya. So that is the issue that we tackle in this book.
When a reader finishes Religicide, what do you want them to walk away with?
Well, this book is really a call to action. We hope that with this book we will mobilize leaders, and grassroots people to act and stop religicide. It’s something that has to happen at multiple levels because religicide falls between the gaps of international law.
If you look at the UN, for example, actually let’s go back further than the UN. It really begins with the failure of the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War between the Protestants and Catholics. And what the Peace of Westphalia failure did was elevated the sovereignty of the state above the rights of the individual. And the way that it did that was that it privatized religion, and that sounds like a good thing on the face of it. But by doing that, it insulated the state against any kind of intervention.
The Peace of Westphalia created an unattended unintended consequence, which was to prioritize the protection of sovereign states and governments over and above the people who live under their rule. So, what that means in practical terms is that the UN charter forbids the threat or use of force against the sovereign state. But when atrocities like religicide happen within the borders of a single state, international action is not allowed because that would be a violation of the sovereignty of the state. And that’s why you can’t do anything about religicide if it takes place within the borders of a sovereign state. There are only two exceptions, and that’s when a conflict spills over into neighboring states. It’s then viewed as a threat to international peace and security, and then it becomes subject to intervention.
But that intervention has to be authorized by the UN Security Council. Now, who’s on the UN Security Council? China and Russia, two permanent members, are the biggest human rights violators in the world. But any member of the Security Council can veto any action. What this means is that the Security Council is crippled in terms of taking any action. That is a fundamental flaw in the UN system.
Do you think the U.S.-led push to include India on the UN Security Council is shortsighted considering the rise of Hindu nationalism? Are human rights secondary to statecraft?
Well, I think there are a couple of ways to look at it. First of all, the UN Security Council is made up of permanent members and rotating members. But you’re right, Hindu nationalism seems to be a big issue right now. And it’s possible that Muslims in India will be the next victims of religicide. And I think we need to watch that very carefully. We need to watch the rhetoric very carefully.
So certainly, the impression I get, and I have no special expertise on India, I just read what everybody else reads in the news. This probably is not the time to reward India with a seat on the Security Council. On the other hand, I had an interesting conversation with a young man whose family is one of the most prominent ones in India. Just to do a reality check, is what we’re reading in the newspapers really accurate, what does it feel like on the ground in India? And I got a very different impression from him, but, you know, that’s not scientific. That’s just talking to one person.
What is your view of the push by some governors in trying to sanitize U.S. history in textbooks?
Well, my view is that it’s time that we gave a realistic account of American history. American history is full of many things of which we can be very proud. And it’s also full of many, many things which we need to make sure never happen again. The U.S. has its original sin of slavery and the treatment of Indigenous Americans. And I think it’s very important for children to learn that history.
Now, at what age do they learn it developmentally, that’s a different question than whether they should learn it at all. And I think the answer to whether they should learn it at all is very clear, yes, they should, which doesn’t mean that it should be used as a bludgeon against them, which doesn’t mean that it should be used to instill intergenerational guilt for something that, you know, a seven-year-old had nothing to do with. Sure. But it should be used to induce sensitivity, to induce understanding, and to induce a determination to be part of helping this country live up to its highest ideals. And you can’t live up to your highest ideals if you’re in denial about the violations of those ideals.
Finally, what would you like my readers to know?
I would like to impart this thought that an attack on any group creates permission for attacks on every group. Therefore, when we see groups being targeted for atrocities, abuse, or hate, that’s something that eventually can come back and bite all of us.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.