Many times in the recent and distant past, history has witnessed examples of
tolerance being one of the first victims of any economic downturn. It has been
argued by historians that many of the most extreme ideologies of the 20th
century acquired power specifically at a time of national or international
depression and recession.
Unfortunately, on too many occasions over the
years there has been a tendency for racist, anti-Semitic and intolerant forces
to find greater interest and popularity on the back of a nation or a region’s
The economies in certain European nations have become
dangerously untenable, and riots and demonstrations have become a feature in
many of the continent’s capitals. However, beyond the headlines of the debate
over solutions to the economic crises we are already witnessing a rise in
intolerance toward minorities in Europe.
A recent national commission of
experts in Germany presented a report to the Bundestag showing a disturbing rise
in anti-Semitism, not only in extreme right-wing, left-wing and Islamic
extremist circles but also in mainstream society.
Since the economy
started spiraling downward in 2009, many prominent European officials have felt
the freedom to express very troubling anti- Semitic views. These include former
German Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin in his book on immigration issues,
Karel De Gucht, European Commissioner for Trade, in an interview with a local
radio station, and the Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus, a Greek Orthodox Church
leader, who blamed his country’s financial problems on the Jews.
termed this phenomenon “respectable anti-Semitism,” and this form of intolerance
has become more prominent even as an atmosphere that has relaxed the borders on
acceptable discussion has become more pervasive.
atmosphere is not confined to Jews, or confined to mere words, as the number of
recent attacks on Roma; Muslim and African immigrants have also
Recent research on far-right groups in Europe showed that almost
two-thirds were aged under 30, three-quarters were male, and most tellingly, more
likely than average to be unemployed.
Even more troubling is the rise and
success of extremist political parties in Europe on the back of the economic
decay. In France, Finland, Switzerland, Denmark and Austria, to name but a few,
xenophobic, racist and intolerant parties have made considerable political gains
in recent elections or are rising in opinion polls ahead of upcoming
Perhaps most disturbing is the inclusion of parties with
problematic views and platforms into government.
Most recently, after
former Greek prime minister Papandreou’s government collapsed under the weight
of economic austerity, the new government includes the extreme right-wing party
LAOS, headed by Georgios Karatzaferis, who has made outrageous statements about
the Jews and questioned the historicity of the Holocaust.
WHILE NONE of
these events or attitudes is comparable to the ascent of the Nazi Party in 1933,
we can not afford to be anything less than vigilant.
Giacomo Leopardi once suggested that, “No human trait deserves less tolerance in
everyday life, and gets less, than intolerance.”
To defeat intolerance,
xenophobia and racism, we need to show it no lenience and certainly no
Outbreaks of intolerance must be judged severely and we need
now more than ever tough laws and punishments against those who target
European Union and European nations need to strengthen
existing legislation against racism and anti- Semitism even at this time while
the focus is on rescuing or saving their economies, dealing with rising
unemployment and austerity measures.
In 2008, the EU Commission called on
all EU member states to adopt model legislation to combat hate and intolerance
in their own legal systems.
However, three years later none have done
In many ways this will be a great test for the European Union to
demonstrate whether the unification of Europe is based on moral and just grounds
(and will therefore succeed in its mission), or whether it is merely a
commercial union (and as such will not stand the test of time).
great debate in Europe is today over the future of the Eurozone, a debate on the
future of the European Union should be based on its common purpose as set out in
the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights which took on full legal force
at the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009.
The charter’s preamble opens with its
self-defined mission as being “founded on the indivisible, universal values of
human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity” before laying out the legal
prohibition against discrimination based on race, ethnicity or
It is time for European leaders to deal with these phenomena,
because while their economies will eventually be restored, Europe’s soul may
The writer is president of the European Jewish Congress and
co-chairman of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation.