Beyond reaction: The EU’s challenge in tackling antisemitism

Written by Henry Goodwin on . Posted in Current features, Current profiles, Features, Profiles

‘Antisemitism is a seismograph,’ says Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission’s Coordinator on Combatting Antisemitism. ‘If it is on the rise, you know that something bigger is going on.’

Von Schnurbein, who recently joined the EUI from Brussels as an EU Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, was appointed as the Commission’s first specialist antisemitism czar in 2015. ‘My role was created following a spike in antisemitic incidents, which had been growing for some years,’ she said, speaking to EUI Times on a warm September day in Villa Schifanoia’s gardens. The increasing threats Jews were facing, like the deadly attacks of a Jewish school in Toulouse and the killing of four Jews at a kosher supermarket in suburban Paris the day after the Charlie Hebdo attack reinforced the need for the Jewish community ‘to have an entry door into the Commission,’ von Schnurbein explained.

Europe is currently witnessing a resurgence in antisemitism. ‘I have been shocked by the level of fear that some Jewish communities experience,’ von Schnurbein says. ‘Even in countries where there is no imminent physical threat, like Poland, there is still a deep-rooted antisemitism which continues to rear its ugly head.’

Katharina von Schnurbein is the European Commission’s first specialist coordinator for combatting antisemitism.

Earlier this year, research from the University of Warsaw revealed that 37% of Poles surveyed voiced negative attitudes towards Jews in 2016, a 5% increase from the previous year. This pattern is being replicated across the continent. In the UK, the number of recorded antisemitic incidents jumped by 30% in the first quarter of 2017 compared to the previous year. A survey by the Anti-Defamation League in 2014 revealed that 24% of the population in western Europe, and 34% of those in eastern Europe, harboured antisemitic attitudes.

Prosecuting hate speech

The biggest concern, von Schnurbein suggests, is the proliferation of  ‘open’ antisemitism, and the growing sense that society’s middle ground will no longer necessarily contest an antisemitic statement. ‘This is a worrying phenomenon, which has changed in the last decade,’ von Schnurbein said.

Politically, too, there are indications that antisemitism is moving from the fringes of society further towards the mainstream. Accusations of institutionalized antisemitism have dogged Britain’s Labour Party, and France’s Front National – whose leader, Marine Le Pen, made it to the second round of this year’s presidential election – has been frequently accused of espousing anti-Jewish hatred.

In a way, von Schnurbein’s appointment was a tacit admission that the EU must do more to tackle antisemitism from a policy standpoint.

On this front the Commission has thus enjoyed some tentative success, most notably establishing an agreement on a code of conduct with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft to fight illegal antisemitic hate speech online. Under the agreement, the companies have committed to review and, if necessary, remove illegal hate speech from their platforms within 24 hours of being made aware of it.

‘They have shown a willingness to act,’ she said, noting a slight improvement in the time it takes for an illegal post to be taken down. However, simply removing hateful online content is not enough. ‘It must go hand-in-hand with the efforts of the state to address online haters,’ she tells EUI Times. ‘State prosecutors must knock on the doors of those who have posted online, and take them to court.’

While systematically censuring and punishing antisemitic behaviour is undoubtedly important, awareness, prevention and education ultimately hold the key to combatting antisemitism. Not only do children need to be educated about the significance of the Holocaust in creating European identity and the historical origins of the European Union, but teachers, judges, prosecutors and police must also be taught how to recognize, explain and treat antisemitism. ‘We need a paradigm shift if we really want to achieve something,’ von Schnurbein says.

Towards integration

Through her work at the EUI, von Schnurbein hopes to help enact such a shift.

‘Hate cannot be contained in one corner,’ she explains, ‘sooner or later it spreads. It might go against the Jews one day, and Muslims another. That is why combatting antisemitism is not just a job for Jewish people, it is for society at large.’

Over the course of the next year, von Schnurbein hopes to bring together members of the Jewish and Muslim communities, alongside other confessional groups and EUI scholars, to try and forge a set of inclusive policies to help combat antisemitism.

Europe has witnessed a significant spike in antisemitic incidents in recent years.

‘There are plenty of Muslims who fight antisemitism,’ she says. ‘When they understand the significance of the Shoah for Europe, and if they acknowledge that Jews also experience discrimination as Muslims do, integration into European society is much less of a problem. They do not call for Sharia law, they acknowledge equality between men and women, and they recognize the rule of law.’ Efforts to educate Muslims about antisemitism, she adds, must go hand-in-hand with ‘social measures’ – like access to the labour market and welfare.

The ultimate goal, von Schnurbein says, ‘is for Europe to come up with a vision regarding integration, and the society that we want to live in.’ Central to this, she believes, is having a frank discussion about the meaning of secularism in contemporary European society.

‘Many migrants or refugees arriving in Europe come from an environment where religion is simply part of the public space, it isn’t questioned,’ she explains, ‘and they come into a secularized world. Very often, secularism is interpreted as being ‘against religion’; I think it is important to acknowledge that religion is part of the public space and to have an open debate about the societies in which we want to live.’

By July, when her stint as EU Fellow at the Schuman Centre draws to a close, von Schnurbein intends to have a few firm policy recommendations to take back to the Commission. On her return to Brussels, she is hopeful that her suggestions will be met with the political will to implement them, which until now has not always been forthcoming. It is no small task, however she feels that the EUI is the ideal place to come up with solutions to one of history’s most enduring challenges.

‘What is extraordinary here is the breadth of debate,’ she tells EUI Times. ‘You can hear different arguments, read beyond your own script and have discussions. I find it very inspiring.’

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