For operational and structural reasons, the European Union cannot effectively combat anti-Semitism.
The main operational reasons are the absence of an accepted definition of antisemitism and the lack of comparable statistics on incidents among E.U. member states. Structural reasons are the unwillingness of the E.U. to admit that anti-Semitism is part of European culture, and the inability to simultaneously incite against Israel and fight anti-Semitism. The discrepancy between the words of E.U. leaders about their intention to fight anti-Semitism and the need to act against it will thus remain huge.
There has been an explosive growth in anti-Semitism since the beginning of this century in many E.U. countries. Occasionally, European leaders mention that it is a huge problem that has to be fought. In December 2017, E.U. Commission first vice president Frans Timmermans said that anti-Semitism is “disturbingly normalized in Europe, and those who want to defend Christian values should stay well away from [it].” Yet when the E.U. appointed a coordinator to combat anti-Semitism in 2015, the resources given to her were minute.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said on Jan. 27, 2019, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day: “We will not tolerate any form of anti-Semitism, from everyday hate speech, offline and online, to physical attacks. The European Commission is working hand in hand with all member states to combat this menace and guarantee the security of Jewish communities in Europe. Our union was built on the ashes of the Holocaust. Remembering it and fighting anti-Semitism is our duty towards the Jewish community and indispensable to protect our common European values.”
Around the same time, E.U. foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said “the European Union has always been and stays engaged against any form of anti-Semitism, including attempts to condone, justify or trivialize the Holocaust.”
Anti-Semitism is many centuries old. While it has had ups and downs, it has never gone away in these European countries.
In January 2019, E.U. Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Vera Yourova said: “The fact that nine out of 10 Jews in Europe today again perceive a rise in anti-Semitism, as recently stated in a Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) survey, is Europe’s shame.” She listed four areas through which the E.U. commission will work to combat it: 1) security of Jewish communities and premises; 2) education and Holocaust remembrance; 3) increasing awareness of anti-Semitism as a problem by making use of the IHRA definition and by better data collection of reported incidents; and 4) supporting the development of national strategies.
This may sound promising to the uninformed. It is, however, far too little and too late. Yourova noted that a precondition for fighting anti-Semitism is the establishment of an accepted definition. The sole candidate is that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Yourova said she accepted this definition in 2017 as a basis for the work on countering antisemitism. Well and good, but it raises a major question: Why has only this one E.U. commissioner accepted the IHRA definition rather than the entire commission?
The IHRA definition has been accepted for internal use by seven E.U. states: the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. When the definition was accepted by the IHRA in May 2016, approval was required of all its members. These include the great majority of E.U. members.
Much more important than the European Union’s fight against anti-Semitism in past decades is the massive immigration of anti-Semites from Muslim countries, where the percentage of anti-Semitic citizens is among the highest in the world. Among these millions of immigrants the percentage of anti-Semites is also far higher than that of native Europeans.
The E.U. commission cannot claim innocence on this matter. Frits Bolkestein was the Dutch E.U. commissioner from 1999 to 2004. He told me more than 10 years ago, “I twice tried to raise the problem of the multicultural society and the risks of unlimited Muslim immigration. My colleagues … did not want to discuss it. I said to one commissioner that they almost considered me a racist. He replied: ‘Drop the word ‘almost.’ ”
Research should be done on the spread of the word “Jew” as a curse word in various countries, the way Jews are presented in schoolbooks, and so on.
In January 2019, the European Commission published its Eurobarometer 484 study, entitled Perceptions of Antisemitism. This study contains data on perceptions of anti-Semitism among citizens of all member states. The researchers found that 50 percent of respondents think anti-Semitism is a problem in their country. These include 15 percent who consider it a very important problem. There is, however, a huge gap between awareness of anti-Semitism and effectively fighting it.
One further important operational reason why the E.U. cannot fight this growing scourge is that it has no common standards for incidents. Reliable statistics about incidents according to common criteria are needed. There are even countries that do not provide statistics at all. From Yourova’s words one sees that after more than 18 years of greatly increased anti-Semitism, the collection of uniform data on incidents in the E.U. still remains beyond the horizon.
Beyond operational reasons, there are two structural causes that prevent the E.U. from effectively fighting anti-Semitism. Almost nobody in Europe who is not Jewish has dared to state the truth: Anti-Semitism is an integral part of European culture. The history of many E.U. member states is characterized far more by the anti-Semitism interwoven within it than by democracy.
Anti-Semitism is many centuries old. While it has had ups and downs, it has never gone away in these European countries. It’s much older than the values and democracy the E.U. considers to be fundamental: respect for human dignity, human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.
To fight anti-Semitism effectively, the E.U. has to admit this up front. That means it has to order from genuine scholars—and not from whitewashers of anti-Semitism—in-depth studies on the meaning of ingrained aspects of anti-Semitism in European culture and how they are promoted. This includes investigating the level of citizens’ agreement with stereotypes about Jews and anti-Semitic accusations against them. Research should also be done on the spread of the word “Jew” as a curse word in various countries, the way Jews are presented in schoolbooks, and so on.
There is a second major structural reason why the E.U. cannot effectively fight anti-Semitism. One cannot simultaneously incite against Israel—the only country in the world with a Jewish majority—and fight anti-Semitism. As this is the reality, it becomes clear why the E.U. cannot or does not accept the IHRA definition which, inter alia, states that singling out Israel is anti-Semitic.
One cannot simultaneously incite against Israel—the only country in the world with a Jewish majority—and fight anti-Semitism.
The E.U. does commit this singling out. For example, it decided to label goods from the disputed West Bank but not from any territories occupied by a variety of other states.
As jurists Avi Bell and Eugene Kontorovich pointed out: “The E.U. does not have a general set of rules for dealing with occupied territories, settlements or territorial administrations whose legality is not recognized by the E.U. Rather, the E.U. has special restrictions aimed at Israel.” Israel’s Ministry of Strategy has also published data on the transfer of funds by the E.U. to Israel boycott organizations.
The U.N. General Assembly performs an anti-Semitic act every time it singles Israel out for condemnation, as it does in many resolutions. If data were collected on the voting records of many E.U. member states on these resolutions, their major participation in this anti-Semitic process becomes evident.
For the E.U. to effectively fight anti-Semitism, it has first to admit that the problem is ingrained in its culture and also change its biased attitude towards Israel. From there, the way to effectively fight anti-Semitism is still arduous and long, especially since there is no indication that the E.U. is willing to openly admit to the reality. As such, the discrepancy between the words of its leaders and the need to take action remains immense.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is a senior research associate at the BESA Center and a former chairman of the Steering Committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He specializes in Israeli–Western European relations, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and is the author of “The War of a Million Cuts.”
Originally published at BESA Center.