Dr. Rumyana Christidi discusses issues of Bulgarian antisemitism at a Bar-Ilan University conference in Ramat Gan, June 12, 2023. Photo by Eitan Elhadez-Barak/TPS.
Dr. Rumyana Christidi discusses issues of Bulgarian antisemitism at a Bar-Ilan University conference in Ramat Gan, June 12, 2023. Photo by Eitan Elhadez-Barak/TPS.

Fighting antisemitism: Bulgaria’s optimistic lessons

Prof. Rumyana Christidi discusses the fight against Jew-hatred in her country.

At first glance, prospects for the battle against antisemitism appeared gloomy as international scholars and activists gathered at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan to discuss the age-old prejudice.

But one speaker offers reason for hope. Ahead of Monday’s “Global Perspectives on Antisemitism” conference, Professor Rumyana Christidi, who heads the Jewish studies program at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, discussed why Bulgaria has one of the lowest rates of antisemitism in Europe.

Around 3,000 Jews live in Bulgaria.

“We all have information about our own countries and our own regions, but we often miss the global picture. So apart from presenting what’s happening in Bulgaria, the message I’d like to convey to the conference is that there are positive examples. This is the example of Bulgaria,” Christidi said.

The rise of antisemitism in other areas of the world, she stresses, could be otherwise, and we should explore how to make it otherwise.

Christidi said she would present to the conference a 2022 survey of Bulgarians that was carried out at the request of the country’s Foreign Ministry.

“The relations between the Jews and Bulgarians from both sides are good and very good. Eighty-two percent of the Jews and 73% [of respondents] from the general public said so. This enables conditions for integrity and a sense of security,” she explained.

According to that survey, 83% of the general public has a positive attitude towards living with Jewish neighbors, while 82% view the Jews as well-integrated into Bulgarian society. The researchers also surveyed the Jewish community; 91% said they feel well-integrated into society and 88% said they feel safe in their daily lives.

“I don’t want to present just a rosy picture. But I’d like to say that at the same time, one should not overlook the fact that the concerns of growing antisemitism in Europe and fears of such a wave in Bulgaria increase the feelings of anxiety among the Jewish community. That’s why 88% feel safe but 43% of the Jews only say they feel safe to a certain extent,” Christidi stressed.

“It reflects escalating manifestations [of antisemitism in Europe]. Bulgaria’s also not immune to them, and therefore the commitment of state institutions to counteract antisemitism as an ideology is a very important task.”

The canceled neo-Nazi march

The Bulgarian state’s commitment manifested itself when authorities canceled the annual neo-Nazi Lukov March in February 2020 and again in February 2023.

The Lukov March is a torchlit procession that has been taking place in Sofia annually since 2003 to mark the anniversary of General Hristo Lukov’s assassination by two Communist partisans in 1943. Lukov, a popular military commander and former minister of war, was known for his close links to the Third Reich and his leadership of the fascist pro-Nazi Union of Bulgarian National Legions.

Lukov was one of the most prominent advocates of antisemitic ideas in Bulgaria.

“The problem with the Lukov March in Bulgaria is not that there are so many followers or people who take part. The problem is that it happens in Bulgaria and it happens every year,” Christidi said. Moreover, the march attracted neo-Nazis from all over Europe.

“The authorities here, for example the mayor of the city, for each year has issued an order to prevent it, but the court always cancels this order because the law is such that there is no mechanism to not formally allow this march,” she said. But this time was different

“It was a combined effort of different institutions,” Christidi explained. “It was, first of all, the prosecutor general who decided to take over this issue and to mobilize in court. She coordinated this with the mayor, city hall, the police, with the national security agency, the gendarmerie and other relevant institutions. Although the march was not formally forbidden, it was prevented from happening.”

And because Bulgaria’s State Agency for National Security was involved, neo-Nazis from abroad were prevented from entering the country.

“They couldn’t do it this year,” Christidi said of the march.

But she warns that the march could still take place next year. “It’s very important to work on a legal approach mechanism, amendments in the legislation, because we cannot rely on the goodwill of the officials. We may have officials in the future who don’t pay attention or consider this a big issue. Since the law allows [the march], we cannot be sure we will have the same positive results.”

Defining antisemitism

Christidi is also a member of Bulgaria’s delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an intergovernmental organization based in Berlin that seeks to strengthen Holocaust education. The organization released a widely-adopted, non-binding Working Definition of Antisemitism in 2016.

The definition cites 11 examples, including, “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” and “Applying double standards by requiring of it [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Bulgaria adopted IHRA’s definition in 2017 and became a full member of the organization the following year.

Asked how the IHRA definition has impacted Bulgaria’s fight against antisemitism, Christidi said the results will be seen years in the future.

“Antisemitism is not an issue in Bulgaria—for example, people are much more sensitive to issues with the Roma community,” she explained. “But it’s important in the higher education institutions, in the state institutions, for decision-makers, for people who work in this field.

“I see the practical impact on my students. When we discuss this definition, they see how many aspects of antisemitism there are. The practical results and impact of IHRA will be in the future, especially among the young people, students and people who will work in state institutions.”

Although Bulgaria was an ally of Germany during World War II, none of the country’s 48,000 Jews were deported. “People carried in them good morals of knowing the difference between good and bad. It was this attitude that actually saved the Jews during the war, or didn’t allow them to be murdered,” Christidi said.

“I cannot say what would be in Bulgaria if we had the same circumstances today. But the results of the survey and my personal opinion from working with the community, the students and institutions give me hope,” she added.

“We might not be the most modern, developed European country, but I think modernity’s not necessarily a sign of more humanism or higher morals. I hope in Bulgaria we still keep at least to a certain extent these moral values,” she said.

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