Leadership & engagement in times of crisis

No doubt, the pair of high profile conferences set the tone of the discussion on fundamental rights in Europe and placed antisemitism at the center.

June 18, 2019 20:05
3 minute read.
Leadership & engagement in times of crisis

Vienna students fight antisemitism. (photo credit: TIMO MULLER)


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Antisemitism in Europe is on the rise, is deeply rooted and is widespread. Many argue we should be engaging with the broadest possible audience, raising awareness and educating the public at large. These are important and necessary steps.

However, it is impossible to engage locally without a clear message from the highest policy levels on what precisely constitutes antisemitism in the 21st century, and why it is so important to talk about this.

Since 2018, the rotating Austrian and Romanian presidency of the EU has succeeded in placing antisemitism high on Europe’s agenda. In that year, outgoing Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz hosted a first of its kind conference on antisemitism in Vienna. Kurz stated that “Austria has to take responsibility for looking not only at the past, but also at the present and to the future, and must take sustainable steps in the fight against antisemitism and anti-Zionism, so that Jews in Austria, Europe and beyond can live in security.” This sends a clear message that the fight against antisemitism is an EU matter of highest priorities.

Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila hosted a similar conference at the EU in early 2019 under the banner “The Fight Against Antisemitism: A Common Approach to Better Protect Jewish Communities in Europe – from Policy to Action.” The conference emphasized the need to go one step further and to look for solutions and practical measures to combat antisemitism.

No doubt, the pair of high profile conferences set the tone of the discussion on fundamental rights in Europe and placed antisemitism at the center.

From attacks on synagogues, assaults on individual Jews for wearing a kippah and media articles and campaigns accusing Israelis of poisoning Palestinian wells or blaming Jews in Europe for policies of the State of Israel – European decision-makers will have to learn to adapt policies to the various ugly strains of today’s antisemitism.

Like Austria and Romania, member states must show strong leadership at home and in Brussels in order to ensure cross-party support for fighting antisemitism. So far, this was crucial in getting the European Parliament to adopt the International Alliance Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition on Antisemitism (IHRA), a formulation which seriously addresses anti-Zionism and how it is classified as antisemitism, and serves to unmask the antisemitism often hidden behind attacks and campaigns against the State of Israel.

The New York Times’ blatantly antisemitic cartoon featuring the American president and prime minister of Israel evoked strong emotions and reactions globally and is a perfect example of this phenomenon. The cartoon was removed with an apology, and ultimately the Times decided to stop publishing political cartoons altogether. In all likelihood, were the IHRA definition adopted and more widely applied, this unacceptable incident and its far-reaching consequences would have never happened.

Promoting the IHRA working definition is the most important step that policy makers can take to address these issues, yet the path is not smooth.

Months of headlines chronicled the UK Labour Party’s internal struggle with the definition’s adoption. The European Parliament’s efforts to adopt the definition also met with intensive lobbying efforts seeking to prevent such a move. The Geneva-based World Council of Churches also continues to reject the IHRA working definition. Many of these counter-efforts make the false claim that IHRA harms an open debate on Israel.

The IHRA definition should serve as the international consensus around which more pragmatic approaches should be adopted. Policy makers should focus on using it to educate institutions and the broader public on what constitutes modern antisemitism. The debate should focus on practical ways of applying the working definition as the ultimate way to combat antisemitism on ground. This is equally important for member states as well as on the EU level.

This week, Romania hosted another high profile meeting in Bucharest. It focused on future strategies to prevent and fight antisemitism. We should maintain high expectations of the EU, Austria, Romania and other countries, but we should also stop for a moment and praise those European leaders who send a clear message that antisemitism is one of the most important battles for the old continent. As the famous French-Jewish thinker Raymond Aron said, “Having political opinions is not an ideology, the ideology is to take political decisions in changing circumstances.”

Olga Deutsch is the Vice President of NGO Monitor. Nuno Wahnon Martins is the Advisor on EU Affairs to MEP Fulvio Martusciello and a Fellow at Centre for European Democracy Studies.

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