“The IHRA definition [of antisemitism] is our benchmark,” said Vice President of the European Commission (EC) Margaritis Schinas. He sat for an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Monday during his visit to Israel.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) categorizes anti-Zionism as antisemitism. Schinas, European Commissioner for Promoting our European Way of Life, said that the EU led efforts to adopt this definition and received full support.
He also expressed his intention to play a key role in the UN conference on antisemitism and to defend adopting the definition, emphasizing the importance of a cohesive international approach, relying on a wide variety of educational methods.
60-year-old Schinas is a Greek politician and former civil servant. He assumed the position of vice president in the Von der Leyen EC in December 2019. He has previously served as a Member of the European Parliament and also served as the chief spokesperson of the EC, holding the organization’s position of deputy director-general for communication.
In 2021, he led The EU’s strategic plan to fight antisemitism. Its document, published by the EC, outlined several strategies proposed or implemented by EU bodies, including the suggestion to adopt the IHRA definition. “I’m very happy and proud to have led this European effort. I had the full backing off of my colleagues; all commissioners and the President [of the EC],” he said.
The White House recently adopted a strategy to fight antisemitism that has been debated by Jewish organizations. Schinas said that Europeans “have a certain advantage over Americans because this was the darkest page in our history. Europe destroyed part of our own heritage, our own DNA. So it was urgent that we do it first, and quickly.”
EU working hand-in-hand with US on fighting antisemitism
He said that the American strategy, led by the US Special Envoy To Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt has “a lot of meat; but there are certain things that are copied [from] our strategy,” Schinas said, laughing, stressing that “it is totally okay.”
Though Schinas was “positively surprised by the high-level political involvement, not only of [US Secretary of State Antony] Blinken but also the Second Gentleman [Doug Emhoff], who was very active. We are working hand-in-hand with the Americans.”
He added that he wasn’t aware of any major differences between the two plans, only that “for us, the IHRA definition is the benchmark.”
The UN was set to hold a conference on antisemitism in Cordoba next week and present the UN Action Plan for Monitoring Antisemitism, but it has since been postponed. The Israeli mission to the UN and a number of Jewish organizations have expressed opposition to it, after discovering that the draft removed the equation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
Schinas said he was invited to the conference, and will make sure “that the EU not only goes, but plays a key role there. I will make sure that the international dimension of combating antisemitism is a cohesive and convergent one. I am against fragmentation.” He added that he will defend the IHRA definition to the UN if need be.
EU continues to work to find a solution concerning ritual slaughter
In October, the EC held a conference on religious slaughter in Brussels. Schinas said it was “probably the most difficult issue in the sense that the EU is not a federation and not a federal state; it’s a hybrid organization. So we cannot ensure that on these issues, we have a uniform way of dealing with it. Ritual slaughter became a relevant threat because of a referral by a Belgian judge in a Flemish court,” he explained, adding that Muslim organizations participated in the conference as well.
“We had a very detailed discussion. The main conclusion was that despite the political, institutional and legal constraints, we should find practical ways to allow Jewish communities to continue with religious practices.”
Asked if concrete solutions were reached, Schinas said “the solution is that the discussions will not stop. We have to find practical arrangements, and there are cases [of member states] that [have] very good practices.”
All EU states to submit antisemitism action plans by end of year
The Post asked Schinas if there is anything to do in order for European Jews to feel safe or secure in the continent amid waves of antisemitism. In his answer, he referred to his speech at the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum in Tel Aviv where he spoke this week. “I told a story of what [former veteran CEO of AJC] David Harris told me when we met. It was something I cannot take out of my mind: ‘For our parents and our grandparents, Europe was hell. Please, do whatever you can so that our children and grandchildren consider Europe the place they are proud to belong.’” Schinas said he is moved every time he repeats this sentence and that he has printed it out and framed it, on display in his office.
“This is my battle. My combat. We cannot allow history to repeat itself and we cannot allow journalists like you to go to Paris and run the same social experiment,” he said, pointing at the author’s kippah in reference to an article, titled “10 hours of fear and loathing in Paris,” which features a video tracking a man on a 10-hour walk in Paris wearing a kippah. It received millions of views.
“Education is the central pillar” of the EU antisemitism strategy, he said. Some Muslim youth who immigrate to Europe come from countries where Jews are portrayed as evil human beings. “We came up with a solution which I think would be more practical and useful: every member state will have a national action plan against those insanities.” He revealed that of the EU’s 27 member states, 14 have already submitted such plans for combating antisemitism “and we expect by the end of this year to have them all. Once we have this, it will be a cornerstone that will allow each member state to advance on what they pledged to do, with education at the heart.”
In October 2021, the EU adopted a first-ever strategy on combating antisemitism. Schinas said that the strategy “is still a toddler. We have the action plans process, we have envoys across Europe,” adding that there is another initiative to create a network of areas and places where crimes were committed during the Holocaust across the EU “not only camps but also railway stations [and] ghettos. We will profile them within the national plans as a trans-European Network of remembrance, which we are now setting up.”
Another network being established is one of “fact-checkers to actively engage in rebuttals online. This is also an area where we met with Israeli experts. We need people who can shoot down conspiracy theories.” This network will be joined by another of young ambassadors that “will go to schools across the EU, train them how to learn about the Holocaust.
“As Europeans, we consider the continent as a beacon of light in the world that is getting darker and darker,” especially in the realm of the state of safety for Jews. “I would advise Jews in Europe to proudly expose their identity. I think that the worst is behind us. But it is an ongoing struggle,” Schinas said, particularly in reference to the recent performances of musician Roger Waters in Europe, where Berlin police investigated the disturbing display of antisemitic tropes.
Waters’ “shameful appearance was a surprise; the unanimous rejection of this was positive and reflects healthy European societies. I think he [Waters] was embarrassed and taken aback, especially to do this in Germany of all places. So I hope that this will be an odd episode rather than the start of a pattern.”
Asked about the current Israeli government and the EU’s relations with it, Schinas said “we consider the State of Israel as probably the most European, non-European, country in the world,” he laughed. “Brussels would work and has worked with all Israeli governments. Our friendship has no conditions and are boundless.” He added that “all democracies have a certain margin for improvement, including our European democracies. And I don’t think that it is insurmountable to complete and overcome these deficiencies.”
Schinas concluded that his dream “is that in the future, the same way we Christians go to our churches, Jews will also be able to practice their religion, go to synagogues or take their children to [Jewish] schools, without police presence, as is the case now in practically all European cities.”