European Commission presents first-ever EU strategy on combating antisemitism

European Commission presents first-ever EU strategy on combating antisemitism
The restored synagogue in Zamosc, Poland

The European Commission presented on Tuesday an EU strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life in Europe against the backdrop of rising antisemitism in member states fuelled by conspiracy theories during the coronavirus crisis and outbreaks of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The strategy is described as the first ever of its kind, with a clear commitment and comprehensive response in EU’s fight against antisemitism, which continues not only to be a burden of the past, but also a present, dreadful threat in today's Europe.

It comes in the form of a Communication to the other EU institutions and follows previous action plans and statements on fighting antisemitism. Less than a year ago, in December 2020, the European Council welcomed a declaration on mainstreaming the fight against antisemitism across policy areas and making it a priority.

“Today we commit to fostering Jewish life in Europe in all its diversity,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the college meeting adopting the Communication (5 September). “We want to see Jewish life thriving again in the heart of our communities. Europe can only prosper when its Jewish communities feel safe and prosper.”

The strategy was presented at a special press briefing by Margaritis Schinas, Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, who described the background to the strategy and outlined its new elements.

Himself a native of the Greek port city of Thessaloniki (Salonika), called the “La madre de Israel” and once home to the largest Sephardic Jewish community in Europe, he referred to the tragic fate of the Jewish inhabitants in the city. The Jews had settled in Salonika after escaping the Spanish inquisition 500 years ago.

He grew up in a city where Jewish tombstones were used as building material after the Holocaust. During the Nazi occupation, the Jews were segregated from the rest of the population and 50,000 people were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz.

“Preserving their legacy, ensuring that their stories remain alive and are accurately retold, finding new forms of remembrance is a responsibility that our generation now has to live up to – and a key component of this strategy,” he said. “We owe it to those who perished in the Holocaust, we owe it to the survivors and we owe it to future generations.”

But there also other factors, besides Holocaust remembrance, which compelled the Commission to act. The Vice-President referred among others to a recent survey which showed a resurgence of centuries-old conspiracy myths fuelling new forms of antisemitism and an explosion of antisemitic online content in French and German on Twitter, Facebook and Telegram during the pandemic

Especially worrying is that a majority of Jews experience that antisemitism has increased in their country and many of them consider emigrating because they do not feel safe in today's EU. He described the strategy a not only as a reactive and protective shield for the Jewish communities, but also as a proactive approach that would allow Jewish life to thrive in the EU.

Strategy on three pillars

As other EU strategies, the strategy on combatting antisemitism is structured around three pillars: Preventing and Combating, Protecting and Fostering, and Educating and Researching.

Under the first pillar, the Commission will support the creation of a Europe-wide network of trusted flaggers in cooperation with Jewish organisations to remove illegal online hate speech. It will also support the development of narratives countering antisemitic content online.

The Commission will also cooperate with industry and IT companies to prevent the illegal displaying and selling of Nazi-related symbols, memorabilia and literature online.

Jewish communities and civil society organisations have had to assume disproportionately themselves the costs of their own security, according to the Commission. Under the second pillar, the Commission will provide EU funding to better protect public spaces and places of worship. The next call for proposals will be published in 2022, making available €24 million.

To foster Jewish life, the Commission will take measures to safeguard Jewish heritage and raise awareness around Jewish life, culture and traditions.

An issue that worries the Jewish communities in the EU but which is not directly addressed  in the strategy is the future of ritual slaughter (schechita). The strategy mentions that it is part of Jewish religious  life and refers to the recent ruling of the European Court of Justice, which upheld a Belgian ban on animal slaughter without stunning for Jews and Muslims.

The court acknowledged that member states may adopt different rules based on the domestic context by striking a fair balance between respect for the freedom to manifest religion and the protection of animal welfare .

Currently, one European in 20 has never heard of the Holocaust. Under the third pillar, the Commission will support the creation of a network of places where the Holocaust happened, but which are not always known, for instance hiding places, shooting grounds and deportation points that are all over Europe.

The Commission will also support a new network of Young European Ambassadors to promote remembrance of the Holocaust.

The Commission is already funding the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure. It will now propose the creation of a European research hub on contemporary antisemitism and Jewish life, in cooperation with member states and the research community.

Despite the long-standing presence of Jews in Europe, people have remarkable little knowledge of Jewish life, traditions and Judaism. To highlight Jewish heritage, the Commission will invite cities applying for the title of European Capital of Culture to address the history of their minorities, including Jewish community history.

The EU will also strengthen EU-Israel cooperation in the global fight against antisemitism and promote the revitalisation of Jewish heritage worldwide.

The borderline between antisemitism and legitimate criticism of Israel and its government is often blurred and has become politicized. A majority of EU member states have adopted the non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism employed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). What is its role in the strategy?

“A red line is crossed is when the existence of Israel is questioned,” Vice-President Schinas replied. Referring to the examples in the IHRA definition, he mentioned denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination and stating that the very existence of Israel is racist. “All this is antisemitism. It’s known and the strategy doesn’t depart from it.”

The fight against the antisemitism requires a specific response considering the legacy of the Holocaust and the alarming figures today, Schinas summarised. He added that islamophobia in the EU is also a problem which needs to be tackled. “We won’t tolerate singling out any religious community in the EU.”

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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