March 11, 2019 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
Angst over threats against Jews has markedly risen over the past two years. So the announcement, a couple of hours before the State of the Union address, that Elan Carr had been appointed to fill the critical post of US special envoy to combat and monitor antisemitism was very welcome news.
Established by Congress in 2004, the special envoy’s office aims to project American leadership in confronting this unrelenting scourge. Given historical and current trends of antisemitic activities globally, Europe has been a top concern for the State Department office Carr now heads. Several European countries created high-level government offices to combat antisemitism during the tenure of his two predecessors.
Yet the potency of antisemitism – as evidenced in annual statistics compiled by European governments and Jewish communities, as well as in recent surveys of both Jews and the general population – strongly suggests that current approaches are not working as envisioned. A reality check on strategies and tactics is needed.
“We are still swimming upstream,” Rabbi Andrew Baker told the OSCE Conference on Combating Antisemitism, in Bratislava in February. “There is greater recognition of the problem, but we need to do a better job of employing the tools we have or developing new ones.” Baker, American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs, has served since 2009 as the personal representative of the OSCE chairperson-in-office on combating antisemitism.
French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged the shortcomings of his own country’s efforts, in his address to the annual Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF) dinner last month.
“For the first time in many years, antisemitism is killing people again in France,” said Macron, adding that French authorities “did not know how to react effectively.”
The annual joint report of France’s Ministry of Interior and Jewish Community Security Service, released before the CRIF dinner, showed a stunning 74% increase in reported antisemitic incidents in 2018, compared to the previous year. In 2014, France was the first European country to create a senior-level government position, the interministerial delegate to fight against racism and antisemitism, and a year later a comprehensive government plan.
Still, Jews suffered 55% of all racially motivated physical violence committed in France last year. And, with a new spate of attacks occurring just ahead of the CRIF dinner, Macron used that setting to endorse the international definition of antisemitism adopted three years ago by the 31-member International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Significant as the IHRA action was, implementation still requires each country that is a member to take appropriate action as well. It’s been a painfully slow process. France is only the 12th IHRA member to endorse what was collectively agreed upon in 2016.
In the United Kingdom, the Community Security Trust reported a 16% increase in 2018 over the previous year, which is the highest since the group began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1984.
Palpable angst among French and British Jews had already been confirmed in the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights 2018 survey of Jews in 12 European countries. That comprehensive survey found that 95% of French Jews and 75% of British Jews think antisemitism is a serious problem in their respective countries.
On a positive note, Jews are not alone in recognizing the magnitude of the problem. The European Commission’s Eurobarometer report on perceptions of antisemitism in all 28 EU member states, issued in January, found that 72% of the French think antisemitism is a problem in their country.
Furthermore, 78% of French citizens said Holocaust denial is a problem; 80% think antisemitic graffiti or vandalism of Jewish buildings or institutions is a problem; 83% think physical attacks against Jewish people is a problem; 74% think antisemitism on the Internet is a problem; and 73% think antisemitism in schools and universities is a problem. Moreover, 51% of them said that antisemitism in France had increased since 2013.
Among the British, the Eurobarometer survey found that 62% think antisemitism is a problem, and 44% think antisemitism has increased over the past five years.
American Jews do not share the kind of angst prevalent among Jews in Europe. But there are ill winds in the US as well, where antisemitic incidents are also on the rise. In the most recent annual FBI report on hate crimes, which covers 2017, 58% of all religious-bias hate crimes targeted Jews. The 2018 report, which will come out toward the end of this year, most likely will show Jews topping the list again, with another increase in the number of incidents.
US efforts to press European governments to take firmer action to confront the sources of antisemitism might encounter some resistance or pushback. After all, Europeans are watching current debate among members of Congress, the White House, the media and advocacy organizations over what antisemitism is.
That political leaders in the US, as well as in Europe, are actually debating what constitutes antisemitism is unfortunate. Clearly, an opportunity has arisen to make fighting antisemitism a priority issue on the transatlantic partnership agenda.
Redoubling efforts to identify concrete measures to effectively confront this menace and to begin to reduce the numbers of antisemitic incidents must be a joint and urgent US-Europe priority.
The writer is the AJC’s director of media relations.