In very recent memory, American Jewry had to urge Europe to take antisemitism more seriously. European nations eventually heeded that call and appointed special envoys focused on antisemitism across the continent. On Tuesday, the wheel came full circle, as several European antisemitism envoys came to Washington to brief the Biden administration on how to combat rampant Jew-hatred in America.
The White House had announced plans in December to form a government-wide approach to combat antisemitism. The discussion on Feb. 28, brokered by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), was closed to reporters. But JNS caught up with some of the envoys before a panel discussion that evening.
Katharina von Schnurbein, European Commission coordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life, told JNS that the European Union adopted its first strategy to combat antisemitism and foster Jewish life in 2021.
“It has almost 100 specific initiatives, and we’ve so far started to get the ball rolling on 55,” she said.
Asked what best practices she shared with White House officials, von Schnurbein noted that her recommendations centered on “the whole range of antisemitism—online education, Holocaust remembrance, security.” Fostering Jewish life is central, she said, “to make sure that Jews in Europe can go about their lives in line with their religious and cultural traditions, and also free from fear.”
Douglas Emhoff, the Jewish husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, welcomed the envoys, who came from the E.U., the Organization of American States, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Norway. He delivered opening remarks, according to the AJC and the White House.
Also present were U.S. Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt, White House Liaison to the Jewish Community Shelley Greenspan and executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Melissa Rogers.
“It was good to see how much we are aligned and how great the willingness is here to make sure that this national action plan against antisemitism will be effective and will go in the right direction,” von Schnurbein told JNS.
‘Facts help generate a discussion’
At Tuesday’s panel discussion at the AJC’s Washington offices, Andrew Baker, the AJC’s director of international Jewish affairs and a rabbi, said that Europe initially failed to see or refused to admit it had an antisemitism problem.
“Europe has stepped forward. I don’t want to say we became smug in America, but now we find ourselves seeking their help,” he said. He noted the twist that American Jewry is turning to Europe for guidance on this issue.
Felix Klein, the German commissioner for Jewish life, said that he learned quickly after his appointment in 2018 that he couldn’t remain only in Berlin and successfully fight antisemitism.
“We had to build fields of action and a remembrance culture. That means involving football clubs, businesses and families—not just politicians,” he said. “We appointed antisemitism commissioners in every prosecuting office in Germany because we found so many reports of antisemitism were falling below the threshold of crime and therefore being discarded.”
Klein’s role has been not just “a Jewish exercise, but one of all of society,” he said.
Just a few years ago, 20% of the German public thought antisemitism was a threat to democracy. Today, that number has tripled to 60%.
Oystein Lyngroth, Norway’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief and head of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) delegation in Norway, said that his country has developed two action plans to combat antisemitism despite its very small Jewish community.
“We’ve found that we have not been successful in mainstreaming quality education in schools. Teachers tend to be reluctant to enter into discussions on antisemitism,” he said. “They don’t feel comfortable and feel a lack of knowledge.”
Still, negative attitudes toward Norway’s Jews have become less prevalent, even as stereotypes remain, he said.
“Facts help generate a discussion. Many Norwegians have never spoken to a Jew,” said Lyngroth. “There needs to be a promotion of the visibility of Jewish life.”
‘A crucial part of their identity’
Attendees with name tags identifying them as representatives from the Croatian, Greek and Estonian embassies in Washington were visible taking notes at the panel.
John Mann, advisor to the UK government on antisemitism, told JNS that he has focused his efforts to curb Jew-hatred on university campuses. He thinks his experience is of particular use to colleagues in Washington given the rising antisemitism recorded on American college campuses.
“The strategy is firstly to have a clear identification of what antisemitism is a benchmark. That is the IHRA definition,” Mann told JNS.
The second part of his strategy is to be clear that no “negatives” can be assigned to Jewish students.
“Let every Jewish person, every Jewish student, be themselves, including those who identify as Zionist as a crucial part of their identity. With no negatives,” he said. “It’s a simple ask, and that’s what we’re building. That’s what I’d recommend to every American university.”
Mann, a panelist, said it’s not his prerogative, nor anyone’s, to try and define for Jewish students how they identify.
Through his efforts, all but three British universities have adopted the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, he said. Each political party and all but two members of the British parliamentary House of Commons have endorsed the definition, which suggests the right tone can be set through government action, he added.
Every Premier League club has also done so, affirmed Mann, echoing Klein’s sentiment that sport can and should be an avenue through which to tackle antisemitism.
The White House has given no indication of when it will release a governmental plan to combat Jew-hatred. Emhoff hosted a roundtable discussion on the topic in early December, followed shortly thereafter by a Biden administration announcement of the formation of an interagency task force to deal with the issue.
That group held a principals meeting in early February with more than 30 governmental agencies and bodies represented.
Tuesday’s visiting envoys, who also met with members of Congress, largely said that European progress fighting antisemitism is replicable.
“I’m pleased to see that the efforts that we have undertaken in the last seven or eight years in Europe—after we had seen terrible lethal attacks and this rise of antisemitism that is so dangerous for Jews and for our democracy—are showing some results,” von Schnurbein told JNS.
“That progress is in terms of trust from the side of the Jewish community,” she explained, “but also the understanding in the wider public of what antisemitism is, how poisonous it is and how important it is to really address it, build the necessary structures and build political consensus around it.”
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