Time to adopt an international convention on anti-Semitism

The recent spate of violent acts of anti-Semitism in the United States, together with the alarming renaissance of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, should be seen as a rude wake-up call from the curious and lackadaisical state of hibernation in which the Jewish world seems to have naively ensconced itself.

Emergency personnel on the scene after a gunman killed 11 people and injured four others at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018. Source: Screenshot.
Emergency personnel on the scene after a gunman killed 11 people and injured four others at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018. Source: Screenshot.
Alan Baker (JCPA)
Alan Baker
Amb. Alan Baker is director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Who can blame the international community at large for sidelining the phenomenon of anti-Semitism when the Jewish world, whether out of a naïve sense of political correctness or merely resignation, seems to have accepted it as a permanent and indelible phenomenon to be tolerated and suffered, rather than to be dealt with and combatted?

The recent vile events that occurred at the end of October 2018 are nothing new. Anti-Semitism has existed for thousands of years, reappearing in many and varied forms, adapting itself to whatever circumstances exist at any given time and utilizing the available cultural, social and technological means to propagate itself among the public.

The Oct. 27 Pittsburgh murderer shouted, “All Jews must die!” while killing 11 worshippers. In August 2017, Charlottesville American Nazis, during their “Unite the Right” rally, shouted “Jews will not replace us” and “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers,” while displaying swastikas on banners and posting calls to burn the synagogue on their Nazi websites.

Similar recent instances of anti-Semitic acts include:1

  • In the United Kingdom, 727 anti-Semitic incidents, an average of more than 100 per month, occurred during the first six months of 2018, fueled inter alia by the widely publicized phenomenon of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. In fact, 34 anti-Semitic incidents during the first six months of 2018 may be explicitly referenced to the U.K. Labour Party.2
  • In the Netherlands, in 2016 and 2017, windows of two Amsterdam kosher restaurants were smashed.
  • In France, the 11th anti-Semitic murder over the past 12 years occurred in March 2018 in Paris, when an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor was stabbed 11 times by her Muslim neighbor who set her ablaze in her apartment.
  • In Germany, in April 2018, two men, thought to be Jewish, were assaulted in Berlin in broad daylight by a Muslim attacker who whipped them with a belt. Similar incidents included the anti-Semitic bullying of a Jewish schoolgirl in Berlin by her Muslim classmates, and even the murder of a German Jewish 14-year-old.
  • Following the adoption of a libel law criminalizing those alleging Polish involvement in the Holocaust, Poland is witnessing an outbreak of anti-Semitic rhetoric. The Polish Jewish community took the extraordinary step in February 2018 of issuing an open letter, saying “Polish Jews do not feel safe in Poland” due to “the current wave of anti-Semitism [which] arose in response to” the libel law.
  • In Sweden, firebombs were thrown at the Gothenburg synagogue and an anti-Semitic demonstration was held in front of the Malmo synagogue.
  • In Russia, anti-Semitic posts regularly appear on Russian social media, using the classic blood libel accusing Jews of responsibility for murders as a means for acquiring blood for Passover matzah. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that Jews and other minorities may have been behind the meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections.
  • In Canada, incidents of anti-Semitism have been on the rise for a fifth straight year, including 1,752 incidents over the past year of harassment, vandalism and violence. Anti-Semitic graffiti was daubed on walls at schools north of Toronto, several “Hitler was right” messages scrawled on Toronto-area highways, and a threatening anti-Semitic message was left for a Jewish family in Winnipeg on New Year’s Eve 2018. A menacing photo was mailed to 13 synagogues during Hanukkah, 2017, which carried the message “Jewry must perish!”3
  • In the United States, the Pittsburgh massacre was followed by acts of violence and vandalism in Brooklyn and California.

While the current situation of anti-Semitism is of prime concern to us today, nothing has really changed since the same anti-Semitic tropes and acts of violence that triggered the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms of Eastern Europe, the Holocaust and other tragic paroxysms of anti-Semitism.

Steps can be taken to counter anti-Semitism

So, aside from political statements of sympathy, shock and disgust by international leaders, the question remains what, practically, can and should be done to deal with anti-Semitism worldwide?

Shortly after the Pittsburgh massacre, in a statement to an interfaith gathering on Oct. 31, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres hinted at the need for some form of concerted and serious action:

Jews are being again persecuted or discriminated or attacked for the simple reason that they are who they are. We see it in the internet, in hate speech; we see it in the way cemeteries are desecrated. We now see it in this horrendous attack on a synagogue.

I believe it is important not only to denounce, not only to condemn these acts as any other act of xenophobia or racism, but it’s necessary to try to understand why this is happening.4

This was supplemented by a similar statement issued by his office on the actual day of the massacre:

The shooting in Pittsburgh is a painful reminder of continuing anti-Semitism. Jews across the world continue to be attacked for no other reason than their identity. Anti-Semitism is a menace to democratic values and peace, and should have no place in the 21st century.

The Secretary-General calls for a united front—bringing together authorities at all levels, civil society, religious and community leaders and the public at large—to roll back the forces of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hatred, bigotry, discrimination and xenophobia gaining strength in many parts of the world.5

This call by Guterres is instructive in that he goes beyond the accepted assumptions of the international community, and to a large extent among the world Jewish leadership, that views anti-Semitism as just another form of “hatred, bigotry, discrimination, and xenophobia.” In so doing, they equate anti-Semitism with evils of a different kind—racism and Islamophobia—while ignoring its own distinctive characteristics and history that are deserving of separate treatment.

The Secretary-General’s call to try to understand why such horrendous acts of anti-Semitism happen indicates an acknowledgment of the uniqueness of anti-Semitism as an age-old phenomenon, with distinct roots, causes and results that do not necessarily merit its being packaged as just another form of racism or xenophobia.

In addition to anti-Semitism’s long and bitter history, and the depth of evil it has generated, its uniqueness stems from the fact that it is common and proliferating throughout all cross-sections of society among extreme left-wing and right-wing elements, as well as crossing all social and ideological strata.

The fight against anti-Semitism requires a united international front

Indeed, perhaps one of the major lessons to be learned from this recent outbreak of violent anti-Semitism, as recognized by Secretary-General Guterres, is the need for consolidated action—a “united front” as he suggested, to be taken by the international community, against anti-Semitism.

In today’s world, as with any consolidated, international action to counter violence and terror, the fight against anti-Semitism requires a solid legal basis and sanction for action.

However, strangely, and despite the long and sad history of anti-Semitism, the international community has never seriously considered criminalizing it per se as an international crime, standing on its own regrettable merit, whereby its perpetrators, inciters and propagandists, and all those involved in spreading and advocating it would be dealt with as international criminals and would not enjoy impunity.

In 2015, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs endeavored to correct what is clearly a vast international injustice by publishing an “International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Anti-Semitism,” a document intended to universally criminalize anti-Semitism within the world community.6

This draft convention follows the accepted format of other accepted U.N. international conventions condemning and criminalizing genocide, racial discrimination, hostage-taking, aircraft hijacking, terror and other most serious international criminal phenomena.

This proposal comprises the following unique elements, tailored to deal with anti-Semitism:

  • detailed preambular paragraphs documenting the history of anti-Semitism and recalling references to it in international instruments, in statements by senior international figures, and in relevant resolutions of international bodies;
  • an all-embracing definition of the crime of anti-Semitism and its component elements, based upon the various definitions adopted over the past years by various groups and institutions;
  • criminalization of manifestations of anti-Semitism that result in or are intended to result in violence;
  • action by countries to criminalize anti-Semitism in their own domestic law and to prosecute or extradite perpetrators;
  • international cooperation and exchange information on perpetrators and actions taken;
  • establishment by states of appropriate national educational programs to combat anti-Semitism;
  • establishment of an International Anti-Semitism Monitoring Forum for monitoring and coordinating actions by states and international organizations.

With the evident support of the U.N. Secretary-General and the challenge he placed before the international community, this proposal should be brought before the appropriate U.N. legal bodies for consideration, with a view to its being studied, amended and accepted as an international treaty, criminalizing and punishing anti-Semitism.

* * *


The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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