Published earlier in Social Action, Vol 54, April-June 2004
Shortly after the World Social Forum (Mumbai 2004) I came across an article by Cecilie Surasky, an American Jew, posted on a discussion list by a friend from Amsterdam. The article was startlingly entitled “Anti-Semitism at the World Social Forum?” and naturally invited one to read it immediately. It transpired that the author was the Communications Director of an organization called “Jewish Voice for Peace” that works for a peaceful and democratic resolution of the Palestinian problem and is therefore, also anti-Zionist. She was writing from within the specific context of a well-known but disturbing trend in Jewish politics, particularly in the US. A glimpse of this troubling context is provided by the fact that important voices among Jews, the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) in particular (which has been known for its important work in hunting down Nazi criminals worldwide), has been portraying the World Social Forum (WSF) “as one of the centers of the ‘new anti-Semitism'”.
Surasky further reports that “these charges have been picked up by various journalists as evidence of a dangerous new trend on the left.” The SWC had described the atmosphere at the third WSF in Brazil the previous year as “anti-Jewish”, according to her. She therefore landed up at Mumbai to check out first hand: “I have come to the WSF to be loudly and visibly Jewish…and to see for myself this purported new tidal wave of hatred of Jews from the rest of the global left.” The actual event of course, turned out to be something entirely different and if anything, Surasky ended up making some of the most moving friendships with many Arabs. Her account of these friendships in the article is quite touching in itself. What was most amazing for her, however, was that on return she found that the SWC had published an article on the WSF in the Jerusalem Post, entitled “Networking to Destroy Israel”. It further claimed that the WSF Mumbai event had been hijacked by “anti-American, anti-Israel forces”. As Surasky puts it, it became clear that many of these propagandist accounts made practically no distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism or in fact, any criticism of Israel.
The important thing about the WSF however, was that it provided a space to some one like Cecilie Surasky, a “come out” Jew, as she puts it, to meet, exchange notes and make friends with people from the Arab world. So did it to the innumerable others who have so far only known about the ‘Other’ through representations by propaganda machines like the Simon Wiesenthal Center and their Arab counterparts – or through the US media. This is of course, one small episode in the big event called the WSF. But the WSF is actually made up of literally thousands of such episodes. It was an occasion where the displaced Tibetans – supporters of the Dalai Lama – could move about prominently, distributing their literature, making friends and allies from different parts of the world. It was an occasion where the Dalit groups of India could make their voice heard before a vast gathering of people who were all fighting for their own liberation from oppressions of different kinds.