Conference on Jewish Life and Anti-Semitism in Contemporary Europe

Ira N. Forman
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Budapest, Hungary
October 2, 2013

Remarks as prepared

This conference couldn’t come at a better time, as we see Jewish communities grappling with rising anti-Semitism in Europe. Why now? What is fueling this ongoing hatred? And what can we do to address it? That’s the beauty of a conference such as this one: we can move beyond just narrative alone and explore positive and hopeful ways to move forward.

While we must work with imperfect data when we try to evaluate the state of anti-Semitism around the world, recent Pew statistics confirm what anecdotal evidence and intuition have been telling us: anti-Semitism is on the rise in 75 countries despite official attempts to address this growing hate.

Here are a few statistics worth noting. In the year ending December 2011, Jews experienced social harassment in 63 countries around the world and endured social harassment in 69% of the European countries. These statistics are particularly startling when one understands the relatively small number of countries in the world that have large Jewish populations.

In the same period, Jews faced government harassment in 28 countries in Europe, with government harassment of Jews occuring in 22% of the European countries.

While this last number is low compared to harassment by individuals and groups in society, it actually represents a fivefold increase in the number of countries where governments have harassed Jews. These numbers speak volumes.

Extremist parties have been gaining popular support throughout Europe. Political parties espousing anti-immigrant and racist views have won seats in the parliaments of Austria, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, and Ukraine.

I wish the numbers were different. I wish we could speak of anti-Semitism as a historical phenomenon.

So what can we do about this rising anti-Semitism?

Obviously, the Lantos Institute conference is a part of the response. Through such conferences, we bring together concerned and interested parties to explore together where our efforts to combat anti-Semitism stand and our next steps.

Tom, as we all know, was the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in the United States Congress.

Congressman Lantos was instrumental in crafting and passing the legislation that created the position of U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, the position I have held since May of this year.

Secretary of State John Kerry clearly is committed to the issue. As he has stated, “We all of us have to join in a common resolve to stand up, speak out, and act against anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred, whenever and wherever they occur.”

The individual who holds the Special Envoy position has a number of tools he or she can utilize. In Washington, I meet with NGOs, academics, and Jewish organization representatives to hear their stories and concerns, and to hear the latest research concerning anti-Semitism. In Washington, I also meet with foreign government officials to express our concern regarding anti-Semitic actions taking place around the world.

Through regular training modules and talks, I educate our diplomats on what anti-Semitism looks like in the 21st century and how diplomats can combat such hate when they encounter it at their postings overseas.

Since assuming this position I have made it a priority to travel to a number of European countries to supplement our offices’ understanding of the depth of anti-Semitism. I’ve traveled to Belgium, Germany, Norway, Poland, France, and now Hungary where I engage with government and civil society on intolerance against Jews. I will soon be traveling to Ukraine, and more travels will follow. Wherever I go, I advocate for understanding of the issues facing Jews around the world and how to combat anti-Semitism.

The terrible events of the Holocaust remain an open wound in much of Europe, and it is important that all nations involved come to terms with their roles. But we must also recognize those who opposed the Nazi plan to eradicate Europe’s Jewish people.

In my first week on the job, I went to Poland, where I joined a group of imams and Muslim scholars from around the world to visit Nazi concentration and death camps and speak with Holocaust survivors.

The reactions of the individual Imams were powerful to witness.

Of course, they were the horrified by the stories of the survivors and the bundles of hair and piles of baby shoes. But even more memorable were the conversations at the end of the trip when, one after another, they agonized about what they could do to make the world aware of what happened, and what we can do to make sure it never happens again.

Touched by what they had seen and heard, my Muslim colleagues decided to sign a joint statement condemning such hate.

This trip convinced me yet again of the good we can accomplish when we unite with one voice across religious divides.

Although there is no magic solution to stop hatred, we must keep looking for answers. We want to shine the spotlight on best practices and models that work—such as this Imam trip.

I also want to highlight The March of the Living Foundation here in Hungary. Each year, this group organizes hundreds of Hungarians--mostly young people, students--to travel to Auschwitz to join thousands of others to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. This march started 10 years ago with a mere 300 participants, and has grown into an annual event that attracted nearly 30,000 people this year. The Foundation’s focus on the youth of Hungary ensures that the next generation remains cognizant of the past and vigilant toward the future. Never again. 

May we hear about more such positive ways forward in the sessions to come!

More than six decades after the end of the Second World War, “old fashioned” anti-Semitism is instilling fear where there should be freedom and is draining Jewish communities of resources they can ill afford to lose. We are all too familiar with ongoing hostile acts such as the defacing of property and the desecration of cemeteries with anti-Semitic graffiti.

In France, in 2012, the Jewish community recorded a 58 percent increase over the previous year in the number of anti-Semitic attacks.

A government study in Belgium revealed a 30% increase from 2011 to 2012 of anti-Semitic abuse and violence.

In the United Kingdom, the Community Security Trust reported 2012 to be “the third worst year on record” for anti-Semitic incidents.

In my own country – certainly not a center of anti-Semitism in the twenty-first century – almost two-thirds of hate crimes committed each year on the basis of religion or belief are committed against Jews.

Nationalistic movements target immigrants, and religious and ethnic minorities – in the name of protecting the identity and “purity” of their nation. In Greece, Golden Dawn won almost 7% of the vote, securing 18 seats in parliament. Promoting an idea that Greece is only for “Greeks,” it has targeted attacks against persons perceived to be illegal migrants, and uses a swastika-like emblem, employs Nazi salutes, and its leaders have made anti-Semitic statements, including denials of the Holocaust. This year, the Golden Dawn called Greece’s Holocaust Remembrance Day “unacceptable.” And in recent weeks we have all witnessed the outpouring of protest over the murder of an anti-fascist blogger.

In Hungary, the rise of the anti-Semitic and anti-Roma Jobbik party is troubling, particularly given that a 2012 poll found that Jobbik is the most popular party with Hungarians less than 30 years old. Members of the Jobbik party have questioned the historical accuracy of Holocaust memorials and accused the Jewish community of inflating the number of Holocaust victims to gain political favor. Last November, one of its MPs in parliament called for a registration of Jews, a move that was widely condemned. And most worrisome of all, in both Hungary and Greece there are para-military operations associated with these anti-Semitic parliamentary parties.

While we welcome commitments by the Hungarian government to take actions to reduce anti-Semitism and to prosecute those who commit abuses, we are concerned by efforts by some in Hungary to minimize its role in the Holocaust and to rehabilitate problematic extremist cultural and historical figures from the interwar period.

Negative attitudes toward Israel often inform or bleed into anti-Semitism. We record increases in anti-Semitic violence whenever there are hostilities in the Middle East.

Throughout the year the State Department monitors these trends and reports the findings—covering 199 countries and territories—in two major annual reports: the International Religious Freedom Report and the Human Rights Report. Our work ensures that countries dealing with rampant anti-Semitism can have access to programs promoting tolerance and mutual understanding.

Let us be clear – all criticism of the policies of the State of Israel is NOT to be conflated with anti-Semitism. We believe that it is essential that the world treat Israel like any other nation-state. But when criticism of Israeli policy includes assumptions that Zionism is an ideology of religious or ethnic superiority, or that Israel is immunized from international criticism because Jews control the media or the banking system, then the speakers – sometimes quite unconsciously – are promoting the same old anti-Semitic attitudes that were around for centuries before the current State of Israel was founded.

The UN and its human rights organs continue to be used as forums for point-scoring in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Israel resolutions at the Human Rights Council generally run under agenda item 7, which is a stand-alone agenda item on the “Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories.” This dedicated agenda item ensures a negative and disproportionate spotlight on Israel during each HRC session. We vigorously oppose all action and mandates under item 7.

Of course, it is vital to emphasize that the United States is concerned about the rights of all religious groups under attack. We are passionately committed to combating all forms of bigotry and intolerance.

I’m reminded of the quote by Martin Niemoeller that expresses our responsibility to stand up for each other and to engage in interfaith dialogue:

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was not one of them, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not Jewish, so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.

The more we work together, the more doors we can open, and the more we increase our odds for finding success and for having our message resonate with a wider audience. Education and interfaith dialogue are two of the tools we have at our disposal to counter hatred and discrimination.

It is clear that governments alone cannot change the attitudes of society. It takes government and civil society working in concert with each other. When different groups come together to work cooperatively, when we share ideas and coordinate efforts, we can effect change.

Let us ensure that the conversations begun here will continue when this week’s conference is over. I trust that program initiatives, and improved networking will come out of our discussions. And, most importantly, I eagerly anticipate working with all of you working toward the goals we share and the vision of a better world to which Tom Lantos devoted his life.