This cannot be, it must not be our Europe!

Anyone who knows anything about our history knows that anti-Semitism is Europe’s most pernicious disease. It is the red line that we must never, ever cross.

By FRANS TIMMERMANS
May 4, 2016 13:17
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Spray-painted swastika (illustrative). (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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THERE IS a book that’s been on my mind for months now. I re-read it in June. It’s by one of my favorite writers, a German author, Erich Maria Remarque. I keep going back to it, it’s called Liebe deinen Nächsten, he wrote it in 1939. It tells about the reality of exile through the eyes of German Jewish refugees drifting across Europe, a grim, matter-of-fact story of stigma, fear, indifference everywhere – and casual cruelty.

We never learn.

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Until recently, such stories would make us think: “Never forget: it should not happen again, but it could.” Today – and it saddens me beyond words – we find ourselves explaining to our children: “Look around you: it is happening again.”

Back in December last year, my two youngest children celebrated Hanukka for the first time. And last weekend, when telling them about my coming visit to Berlin, this conference and the refugee center I’ll be visiting this afternoon, I showed them a picture from last December here in Berlin, when Syrian children and local Jewish children lit, in the darkness of winter, a giant menorah at this most symbolic of places, the Brandenburg Gate.

This brings to mind another event that happened recently in my home country, in The Netherlands. Mosques received pamphlets with Nazi symbols, threatening to hurt them, and a Molotov cocktail was thrown against the wall of a mosque. It was a Jewish community that spoke up first to condemn this.

The Jewish community in the Netherlands understood first that if one minority is a target, the other minorities will soon follow.

There is no pitting one minority against the other in society. We all suffer under this attitude of singling out minorities and scapegoats, something we have done so often.



But I have to say there has been tremendous solidarity, tremendous compassion for refugees fleeing war these past months, and nowhere more so than in Germany. And even after last night’s election, I want to say this for me is not a reason to despair, it gives me hope. Because there is so much untapped solidarity in our society that we can still mobilize. Our biggest enemy is indifference, much more than anything else.

Let’s pledge to each other that we will not be indifferent.

Some of the most poignant calls for compassion came precisely from Europe’s Jewish communities. It lifted my heart, and I want to pay them particular tribute – because I appreciate what it takes to step forward and say “We know what it was like to be refugees once, to be demonized for seeking safety” at a time when your own community is itself again fearful for its own security, again feeling a target.

It’s especially courageous, it’s a special show of leadership that the Jewish community shows solidarity with another community, even if some members of that community are sometimes hiding behind anti-Zionism to show some of the worst expressions of anti-Semitism that we see in Europe today. Now that is true greatness: not stigmatizing a whole community for the behavior of some parts of it, despicable behavior though it is.

It is happening again – Jewish children leaving public schools for fear of harassment, teachers no longer daring to teach the Holocaust in a multicultural classroom, synagogues heavily guarded, students warned to hide their kippas beneath baseball caps for fear of being knifed on the streets.

This cannot be – it must not be – our Europe! Anyone who knows anything about our history knows that antisemitism is Europe’s most pernicious disease. It is the red line that we must never, ever cross. Yet we see ageold naked anti-Semitism on the far right, we see anti-Semitism that often hides behind anti-Zionism on the far left of the political spectrum, and sometimes, sadly, even among anti-racism movements, and we see the deadly anti-Semitism of religious extremism, in particular from Islamist extremists.

As we saw in the terrorist attacks in Paris in November – it starts always with the Jews, but it never stops there.

Many of us have been saying it for a long time, incident after incident for years now.

We have to recognize that as societies we have been too timid, we have been too silent.

We’ve allowed a huge sentiment of loneliness to develop among European Jews.

DENOUNCING ANTI-SEMITISM is a collective responsibility, just like anti-Muslim sentiment needs to be denounced by society as a whole. I mention two phenomena, clearly distinct phenomena, where the effect can be exactly the same. A boy in Amsterdam, who is attacked for wearing a kippah, has exactly the same feeling of insecurity and loneliness as a girl in Amsterdam who is spat at for wearing a headscarf. For them, there is no difference, both are discriminated not for something they do, but for who they are.

Politicians have a very strong responsibility to be the first to speak up, to keep awareness of these issues high, and make clear that there is no tolerance whatsoever toward such hatred, that nothing can explain, and nothing can excuse hatred of this kind in our countries today.

The legislation is there. It is EU-wide, it is clear. It makes serious manifestations of racism and xenophobia punishable by means of criminal law, but it is still not enforced everywhere, for everyone. Let’s not make this mistake to turn this into an integration issue. This is a penal issue. This is about law; this is about applying the law, and it should be applied more widely in our member states. To take only one example: only 13 out of 28 member states have criminalized Holocaust denial. Only 13 out of 28.

So we are pushing, and we will keep pushing at the European Commission – using all our powers – to make sure that these rules are correctly translated into national legislation and correctly enforced. That is the basic minimum, and on this I count on all of you to help us to achieve that in all of your countries.

Enforcement also means online. This was perhaps the main issue at the colloquium I hosted last autumn on anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred – the main issue for communities on both sides.

The Internet is no legal black hole, no free haven for hate speech. So at EU level, we’ve stepped up our talks with Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft; the setup is partly inspired in fact by the German task-force model.

So far the talks are tough, but encouraging.

What we are asking IT platforms is that when they examine content flagged as hate speech they do not hide behind US law but abide by EU law and national laws that apply. When the alert comes from public authorities or trusted watchdogs, it has already been vetted: there is no reason why hate speech cannot be taken down within hours. Not days or weeks.

Platforms make large profits. They cannot leave the responsibility for countering hate speech to charities, public authorities and taxpayers, so we expect them to shoulder their share in supporting those who flag and develop counter-narratives.

There is one particular aspect that I want to stress and that is absolutely vital: education, education, education. It is still the most important instrument at the end of the day against ignorance, intolerance, indifference.

Education is the only place, it is the only agora our society still has where every child, every person in society needs to meet other persons. We need to use education to make more responsible citizens who are aware of the threats of bigotry, hatred and antisemitism.

OUR HISTORY, OUR VALUES – that democracy and the rule of law are our bedrock, that equality between men and women is non-negotiable, and yes, also that there is zero tolerance toward anti-Semitism – should all be part of all curricula in all educational frameworks across the European Union. We don’t have the power to force this, but we have the power to speak out to try and convince those who are responsible to take this into account.

Integration is going to be a huge challenge, especially for the countries that have seen the biggest influx of refugees – and I know the particular nervousness among Jewish communities.

I have to stress, the solution is not to reject diversity as some leaders in Europe do.

If we reject diversity, we reject the world.

We cannot un-diversify our world. That is impossible. The only way to deal with diversity in a constructive way is to create a common space, a common understanding of what it means to be a responsible citizen: to behave according to the rules and to be corrected if you don’t behave according to the rules.

I still want to say something about Holocaust remembrance – how we keep the memory alive of how it happened, how we keep it connected to our lives and our world today, and our responsibility, too, towards those survivors who are still with us, who deserve dignity in their old age, and the second generation, their children, who carry their memory and the weight that comes with it.

Isn’t it the ultimate revenge against Hitler, that the oldest man in the world living today is a Holocaust survivor living in Israel.

Isn’t that a nice joke on those bigots? Isn’t it wonderful to see that this man has created such a wide family, that this man shows that they will not be ignored or denied or removed by the world.

At the Commission, together with the Wannsee Conference memorial, we’ve set up training sessions for our staff on the role of the civil service in bringing about the Holocaust. I say this as a Dutchman.

110,000 Jews were deported from my country. With great ease. With relatively little resistance. Only a few very courageous people hid children, helped them escape, and hid babies in their houses for years. By and large, the officials in the administration were compliant, registering where people lived so they could be taken away by Dutch police under German responsibility.

I say this today very clearly.

There is no European that can pretend to be entirely innocent if you look at our history.

And every European is responsible for our future. This should be the key message from the Holocaust.

The key message we need to raise high is that individual decisions made a difference then and that they make a difference now. There is no ridding yourself of your responsibility; we all remain individually responsible.

In the words of Elie Wiesel, who survived Buchenwald as a child: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

We should not fail to protest. We will not fail to fight for freedom, for equality, for fraternity in Europe. We will not rest until we have conquered this age-old demon, which perhaps can never be entirely put to rest, but can be kept small enough not to infest the rest of our society. anti-Semitism is part of who we are as a society; it is not denying that there is anti-Semitism that will solve the problem, but making sure that we keep combating it, in order for it to remain too small to infest the wider society. 

The speech was originally delivered at the 3rd Inter-Parliamentary Conference for Combating Anti-Semitism (ICCA) in Berlin in March. The writer, a former Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, is first vice president of the European Commission.

The 28th March of the Living will take place on May 5th.  The live stream of the main ceremony can be seen at: http://motl.org/livestream/

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