Combating Global Anti-Semitism in 2016

Ira N. Forman
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
Berlin, Germany
March 16, 2016

On January 27, 2016, President Barack Obama made a powerful statement on fighting anti-Semitism at the Embassy of Israel. “Anti-Semitism is a distillation,” he said, “[it is] an expression of an evil that runs through so much of human history, and if we do not answer that, we do not answer any other form of evil.”

So how do governments effectively “answer” and strongly combat rising anti-Semitism?

The office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism at the U.S. Department of State has been tracking the rise of anti-Semitism around the world and witnessing its alarming presence and growth in Europe and beyond.

We know Jewish communities in Europe have faced an upsurge of anti-Semitic incidents, including violence in Western Europe over the past few years. Jewish communities are anxious about their safety and future. Sadly, if present trends continue, the viability of some of the smaller European Jewish communities will come into question due to anticipated emigration and/or assimilation.

To best protect Jewish communities and combat anti-Semitism, the U.S. Department of State has encouraged European states to appoint Special Envoys or other senior officials to focus on anti-Semitism.

In Berlin, in November 2014, at the 10th Anniversary of the OSCE's Conference on Anti-Semitism, Ambassador Samantha Power stated, “One way to ensure sustained attention to anti-Semitism is to appoint a high-level envoy… Governments who appoint high-level officials to coordinate whole-of-nation efforts to combat anti-Semitism, and give them the political backing and resources they need, will see the difference it makes.”

We all welcomed the appointment of an EU Coordinator on Combating Antisemitism, Katharina von Schnurbein, and we look forward to future collaboration. This position is an important first step. Ideally, individual European governments will establish a point person to combat anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism is evolving into new, contemporary forms of hatred, racism, and political, social, and cultural discrimination against Jews. One virulent aspect is the relation of conflating Jewish communities with Israel, using criticism of Israel as a pretext for anti-Semitism. As government leaders we cannot ignore this phenomenon.

Being in Berlin, I am reminded of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent statement urging the need to specifically address anti-Semitism among youth from countries where hatred of Israel and Jews is widespread.

We have witnessed instances where anti-Israel demonstrations have taken on anti-Semitic tones such as in Malmö, Sweden, when protestors shouted, “Slaughter the Jews!” And we have seen in Toulouse and Marseilles how Jews have been targeted by terrorists who reportedly said they were protesting the situation in Palestine.

In our work, we engage with Jewish community leaders in Europe. We have heard from the Dutch Jewish community that “any criticism toward Israel is considered ‘anti-Zionism’ [in the Netherlands], but people know this and they shout ‘Zionist!’ when they mean ‘Jew’ so they won't get in trouble.”

Jewish leaders from Sweden also noted how anti-Semitism can be covered by anti-Zionism. Recent graffiti with swastikas was not classified as 'anti-Semitism' by police in Stockholm, but as actions against Israel. And I quote, “If you are hurt wearing a kippa [in Sweden], it is classified as anti-Zionism, which is legal.”

And then there is an ongoing case in Germany, which many of us know of, when in the early morning hours of July 29, 2014, anti-Israel protestors in Wuppertal threw Molotov cocktails at the main synagogue. Last year, the judge determined these actions “anti-Israel” and not “anti-Semitic.” Although this decision has recently been challenged, we have to be aware of the correlation.

This is why it is especially important to define anti-Semitism clearly to more effectively combat it. My predecessor Special Envoy Hannah Rosenthal said it best, “Opposition to a policy by the State of Israel [can morph] into anti-Semitism …This form of anti-Semitism is more difficult for many to identify – but if all Jews are held responsible for the decisions of the sovereign State of Israel [or if] governments call upon and intimidate their Jewish communities to condemn Israeli actions…this is not objecting to a policy–this is anti-Semitism. Our State Department uses Natan Sharansky’s framework for identifying when someone or a government [can] cross the line – when Israel is demonized, when Israel is held to different standards than the rest of the countries, and when Israel is delegitimized.”

While we understand the complexities of this issue and the importance of context, we are concerned about those instances where the line is crossed between legitimate opposition of Israeli government policies into rhetoric that questions Israel’s right to exist and targets Jewish communities outside of Israel.

Thus we encourage European governments to adopt a working definition of anti-Semitism, ideally, one which would include a section on how anti-Semitism relates to Israel, to improve the safety and well-being of Jewish communities in Europe.

We should also note that we are very careful to use this definition appropriately and object to its misuse as part of efforts to silence the legitimate criticism of Israeli policies. It is important to be as accurate as possible and not overstate or understate the problem. Unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism motivated by ideological or political aims distract from and are counterproductive to good-faith efforts to combat anti-Semitism.

For example, when one of the strongest opponents of anti-Semitism today—Pope Francis— is accused of taking an anti-Semitic stance, those unsubstantiated accusations make it more difficult to identify and address actual incidents of anti-Semitism. The Catholic Church has made impressive strides in speaking out against anti-Semitism and condemning intolerance.

The United States government deeply appreciates the Church’s critical voice. In October 2015, our office had the opportunity to meet Pope Francis and Vatican officials and thank them for the Church’s continuing efforts to combat anti-Semitism, and encourage them to continue. Indeed, in 2015 Pope Francis told the media “anyone who does not recognize the Jewish people and the State of Israel — and their right to exist — is guilty of anti-Semitism.”

All of us are here because we believe that democratic governments should proactively combat anti-Semitism. But governments cannot combat anti-Semitism alone. If we are to beat back the tide of anti-Semitism, we need to strengthen and enable civil society, in Europe and wherever anti-Semitism arises, to raise its voice and speak out.

Everyone needs to understand that anti-Semitism is not just a “Jewish problem.” Anti-Semitism and religious intolerance are fundamental threats to democratic societies; religious intolerance leads to the loss of rights for other minority groups, threatening social cohesion and fundamental freedoms. Civil society, governments, and religious leaders all have a responsibility to act against all forms of intolerance, including against religious or ethnic minorities.

As many of you know, at the end of 2015, the U.S. State Department led an international effort that helped prevent a statue from being erected in Hungary to honor a notorious World War II-era anti-Semite, Balint Homan. We worked with members of Congress, U.S. and international NGOs, Hungarian groups, Jewish community leaders, and European government leaders—including several of you here –to send the message that anti-Semitic acts will be strenuously opposed.

We believe there is a significant role for legislators and parliamentarians to play in speaking out against anti-Semitism. The U.S. Congress, for instance, played an important role in our efforts in Hungary, and we are appreciative of their leadership in combating anti-Semitism.

We also believe governments should make it easier for civil society and religious leaders—who are often closer to the dynamics and issues on the ground and within their communities—to access their governmental leaders, meet with them, share information, and continue to receive funding for projects and programs that combat anti-Semitism and intolerance of any kind.

In Hungary, because Hungarian civil society—Jews and others—felt empowered after the success in December, plans to unveil another statue honoring another anti-Semite last month were foiled. Because we expect these issues to persist, civil society and governments must remain vigilant and continue to coordinate efforts to confront these anti-Semitic actions.

As parliamentarians we need to encourage civil society to speak out, to build coalitions and bridges with diverse communities, and to educate in terms of citizenship and democratic values.

With a robust civil society in Europe that is both encouraged and aided by governments, hopefully, together, we can turn down the faucet of anti-Semitism. I often use this metaphor of a faucet. We may not be able to turn it totally off, but we can certainly turn it down.

Thank you.