At Davos, conversations about antisemitism take center stage

A panel at the World Economic Forum on Thursday will focus on the rise in global antisemitism

Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt speaking at the Anti-Defamation League National Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C.

Why is this World Economic Forum different from all other World Economic Forums?

For Jewish and Israeli leaders attending the annual conference in Davos, Switzerland, the answer could not be clearer: Conference organizers have scaled up efforts to include conversations about antisemitism and Israel at the weeklong gathering.

Earlier this week, an Israeli delegation held a screening of footage of the Oct. 7 terror attacks. Last night, Palantir CEO Alex Karp hosted an event with family members of hostages as well as some of the released hostages. On Thursday afternoon, a panel of Jewish and Israeli thought leaders will take the main stage at Davos — for the first time in the World Economic Forum’s history — to discuss the rise of global antisemitism and the varied responses to it.

Speakers include Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, Israeli First Lady Michal Herzog, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt and Abrahamic Family House Special Interfaith Adviser David Rosen. Author and professor Timothy Snyder will moderate the session.

In between events, Greenblatt chatted with Jewish Insider’s Melissa Weiss about the atmosphere at Davos.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Jewish Insider: Jonathan, you’re in Davos. What is the atmosphere this year? 

Jonathan Greenblatt: Davos has been, as always, quite interesting. There are a few things. The theme this year is “Building Trust,” which is an admirable thing. But I think the prevailing theme, I would say, is uncertainty. Uncertainty about the Middle East, uncertainty about Ukraine and Europe, uncertainty about the U.S. with the elections around the corner. So I think the thing that I’m hearing the most from people is uncertainty. So “Building Trust” is a good theme and all, don’t get me wrong. I think people are nervous about the state of the world, and just unsure how things are going to turn out on a couple fronts.

JI: That feels pretty understandable.

JG: There’s also the China thing I didn’t mention — uncertainty about the U.S. relationship with China, and where that’s headed, some concern that that might go in the wrong direction.

JI: Yes, I was watching the Blinken interview when it came up. I was wondering kind of how much that’s playing into the sidelines conversations, versus, the big-picture things that we all read in the news.

JG: I think it’s playing in a lot. I think this is the dominant theme that I’m hearing about. So some years, it’s been, I would say more optimistic. This year, it’s a lot of anxiety. Uncertainty is really the word — uncertainty. There are other themes here. I don’t know how familiar you are with this place. Have you been here before?

JI: I have not been there before.

JG: It’s a ski town. It’s a little bit like Sundance, have you ever been to Sundance?

JI: You know, I don’t get out very much, Jonathan.

JG: Well, the street, it’s got all these little shops and restaurants on it, and they’re all taken over by the various companies and organizations that are sponsoring Davos. There’s a lot of big tech. Big tech is everywhere. Every other house is ‘something dot AI.’ Everything is AI. And the Gulf countries have a big presence. There’s several different Saudi houses. There is an Emirati house. 

JI: You are participating in a session tomorrow that’s dedicated to antisemitism. I can’t ever remember there being a session dedicated to antisemitism in the past. How did this come about? And what’s the hope for holding one this year? It’s very high level — you, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, Israeli First Lady Michal Herzog.

JG: That’s right. And Tim Snyder, who has written so much about authoritarianism genocide. He wrote that important book, Black Earth. He’s a very important historian of contemporary Europe, and he’s moderating it. If you follow Davos, you know there are different kinds of programs here. So there may be programs that are off-site, or unofficial, like a panel at the Google pavilion or something. And then there are breakouts where you have all these breakout rooms with lots of content. And then there’s the main stage. Not only is this, to the best of my knowledge, the first time they’ve ever done anything on antisemitism, it’s literally happening on the main stage. So that is a steep increase over where we were before and how they’ve treated the issue. But I think the reason why is because it is on the minds of so many of the participants. People are trying to make sense of this moment. And in many ways, that’s what Davos is about, trying to make sense of the moment. Whether the moment is about the things we were discussing a few minutes ago: the geopolitical shocks, climate change, technological progress. And this issue of hate, but specifically antisemitism, is on the minds of a lot of people. We’re trying to make sense of this explosion of anti-Jewish intolerance in America and around the world.

JI: Have you had any conversations with [WEF founder] Klaus Schwab about the inclusion of conversations on antisemitism? 

JG: I have had conversations with Klaus this year about including it as a topic. I’m really glad that he made that decision.

JI: Like we said, these are very high-level speakers who are coming to talk about that. To me, that underscores the degree to which they’re taking it very seriously at the World Economic Forum.

JG: You’re right. The high-level speakers, putting it on the main stage — those are indications of the level of priority that they are giving this. I think, for Klaus and the organization, which haven’t tackled this before, if there was the time to do so, this is the time. But I will certainly tell you in my conversations with different attendees, and I’ve been coming for a few years, I have heard many people come up to me and say, ‘What is going on in the United States?’ or Americans saying, ‘What happened with those university presidents? What’s going on on these college campuses? What is going on in the media?’ I’ve had a number of conversations just like that.

JI: It’s fascinating to me that the questions you get are about what’s going on in America and no longer what’s going on in Israel because I feel like for the first couple of months [of the war], that’s all anyone wanted to ask about. But it really seems as though the more immediate concerns and worries are now happening stateside.

JG: Well, I do think a number of people have approached me to talk about the Israel-Hamas war as well. People have asked questions about, you know, ‘What are you hearing? What do you think of Israel’s approach? Are you concerned about what the day after will look like?’ I’m hearing a lot of that, too. But definitely antisemitism is simply front and center. Look, in prior years, Israel is always on the agenda. I’ve seen prime ministers and presidents here. I’ve seen other members of the Israeli diplomatic and business elite here at Davos. But the conversations were, if I could use the term, somewhat Abrahamic before. As in how’s it going with UAE, and where are we going with Saudi? But now it’s much more focused on: ‘What’s the state of the war? How will it be resolved, what is the day after going to look like?’

JI: You attended the screening of the footage of the Oct. 7 terror attacks last night, right?

JG: I did.

JI: I’m curious what the reaction was to the film last night.

JG: So pretty much everyone walked out of the room either crying or just shell-shocked and silent. Nobody spoke as they filed out of the room. I think people were just overwhelmed, and just stunned. I mean, you’ve seen it so we don’t have to elaborate on it, but it is so graphic and it is so terrible.

Eyal Waldman [whose daughter was killed at the Nova festival], he kind of introduced it, and kept his composure, talked about his daughter. And we talked a lot about the litany, the chain of events, really the litany of mistakes and misses. And it was hard to hear. And so you heard that and then we saw the footage. I think what really gripped people was the level of celebration, the celebratory nature of these Hamas terrorists while they cut off heads, while they shot children, while they stepped on corpses, while they mutilated bodies. The ‘Allahu Akbar’ and the other chants, the audio recordings of them calling back to Gaza in a jubilant, sort of gleeful way. That hit all of us very hard. By the way, these are a group of very high-level people in the room.

JI: Last week, we covered the ADL report that came out that found a significant uptick in antisemitic incidents. But in a change this year, you folks also started counting demonstrations for the first time and so I’m curious what drove that change.

JG: We’ve looked at this issue for years and years and years. And sometimes a slogan or a phrase may appear in a certain context, in a certain setting, maybe used in a certain way which is benign, but chanting in front of a Hillel ‘From the river to the sea,’ which is a Hamas slogan, is intended for one purpose and one purpose only: to intimidate Jewish people, to terrorize people inside that Hillel. So, you know, again, you can talk about ‘Free Gaza’ in certain contexts, and certain scenarios and certain settings, and it’s not a problem. But vandalizing a business owned by a Jewish person with the words ‘Free Gaza’ is intended for one purpose — to terrorize Jews. So again, there can be the use of the term ‘intifada’ in a certain context or scenario or the setting where it was a description of the events that took place in the late ‘80s and the early 2000s. And it isn’t an issue. However, when you chant, again, at Jewish students banging on the windows of a building in which they are sort of barricaded out of fear of physical violence and you chant ‘Intifada, revolution is the only solution.’ These are not benign. These are not expressions of some abstract idea. These are actions and we should call them actions. They are not statements. These are actions that are intended to terrorize Jews. And so that’s why we call them out as we did, and that’s why we will continue to call them out. … There may be people who say, in a certain context, ‘I wasn’t trying to be racist.’ We don’t define racism necessarily by the intent of the person who made a comment, right? We define it by the felt impact of the people who hear that or read that or experience that. And so again, what we’re talking about here is this indisputable impact that these words and actions have when they are weaponized, with the intent of intimidating and polarizing Jewish students.

JI: The ADL has been operating on college campuses for many years. But what we’re seeing now is unprecedented. Between the resignations of President Liz Magill at UPenn and President Claudine Gay at Harvard, do you think we’ve crested and the worst has passed? What are the challenges that really lie ahead?

JG: The resignations of these presidents and the statements by the universities, these are just moments in time. We’re going to judge these institutions based on not what they say but what they do. And so whether it’s how they update and expand their DEI programming, whether it’s how they apply consequences to student organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace or Students for Justice in Palestine, that seriously violate their codes of conduct and target and intimidate and threaten Jewish students, whether it’s ensuring that those Jewish kids or Israeli kids don’t experience discrimination. There’s some deterrence created by applying consequences when that happens. So we will judge these institutions based on, again, what they do, not what they say.

JI: I’m glad you brought up the DEI programming, because one thing that we’re seeing now in the wake of October 7, is this push by the organized Jewish community to not necessarily get rid of DEI but to reform it. And that was an interesting choice, because it feels like the community has really railed against DEI, but has made the decision that rather than burn the whole thing down, to try to reform it from the inside. You think that there’s a chance of being successful?

JG: I think the question is, how do we move through the scenario and ensure that there are environments created where Jewish people, and Israelis as well, are treated fairly, where their issues are well understood. And that the people who again, use intolerance or you know, use hate to discriminate and intimidate them are dealt with accordingly. And so, DEI is here, and, you know, at ADL we believe that diversity education is really important. We live in the most heterodox, multicultural society in the world. Understanding your peers, your colleagues, your employees — understanding them, knowing their histories, ensuring that you can approach the issues from a more informed perspective, I think that makes you a better peer or a better manager or a better leader. You are able to demonstrate empathy. But if DEI perpetuates not diversity, equity, inclusion, but the exclusion of Jews and Israelis, we have a problem. So my hope would be that we will see the change that will ensure that Jewish people are going to be treated it with decency that are treated fairly and that are treated in the same manner as all others.

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