Bar Mitzvas and Barbed Wire: the troubled waters of Jewish Europe

4 mins read

By Margareta Barabash

11th of December 2018. Just hours before Islamic terrorist Cherif Chekatt opens fire at the Strasbourg Christmas market, an unpleasant discovery is being made at the Jewish cemetery in Herrlisheim, 20 kilometres north of Strasbourg. Several tombstones have been defaced with swastikas and antisemitic slogans. The vandalizers had painted the numbers 14 and 88, which are references to the sentences “Heil Hitler” and “We must secure the existence of our people and the future for white children”. The graffiti also read “CRIF = ZOG”, which is a reference to the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, respectively “Zionist occupation government”, a term frequently used by white supremacists.

This is not the first time the Jews of Herrlisheim are facing such an attack. For the past two months, vile graffiti targeting the Jewish community has been reported four times. And that is just in the Alsace region.

In December, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) issued a survey in which they asked over 16.000 Jews in 12 different European countries about their recent encounters with antisemitic attacks. The result was, mildly put, alarming. Almost 90% stated that online antisemitism was a problem. 47% worried about verbal insults and harassment. Every third person had experienced either verbal or physical assault and almost 40% were considering emigration due to safety concerns. In France, which holds the highest Jewish population in Europe with over half a million people, antisemitic attacks have increased with over 69% over the past year and 95% of French Jews view antisemitism as a serious problem.

France is not the only country that has failed to protect its own citizens. The Jewish voices of Sweden, the UK and Germany tell us the same story, where over 80% stated that they view antisemitism as a greatly increasing problem. These are also the countries that have seen the sharpest rise of antisemitism within the past few years. Considering the drastic increase of neo-nazism as well as Islamist and radical left activity in these countries, this is not a difficult riddle to solve.

2018 left many startled by the ugly face of antisemitism. The violent riots that followed President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The exposure of antisemitism in the core of the Labour Party in the UK. The synagogue mass shooting in Pittsburgh. The slaughter of 85-year-old French Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll. The assault on an eight-year-old boy wearing a kippah on a Parisian street in broad daylight… the list keeps on going.

Despite the disturbing findings in FRA:s report, the reaction from government officials has been weak at best. The EU Council has, since the official release of the report, agreed upon a statement calling on member states to cooperate in order to develop “a common security approach to better protect Jewish communities and institutions in Europe”. The statement calls for reinforcement of protection of Jewish communities, and encourages the introduction of training in recognizing intolerance and hate crimes. However, it is not a legally binding document. Rather, it serves as a guideline for the member states.

Just days prior to the release of the report the EU justice ministers endorsed a working definition of antisemitism, introduced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016. The definition, originally created by the IHRA Plenary in Bucharest in 2015, is as follows:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

But this is once again not a legally binding agreement and the member states have no actual obligation to fulfill it. Besides, several member states already have judicial definitions of what constitutes as a hate crime, meaning that adapting this specific definition of antisemitism could quite frankly be considered a waste of time and resources within the legal system.

The vice president of the European Commision, Frans Timmermans, is the only prominent EU official who has made a public statement in regards to the report. During the press conference that followed the report launch he claimed that the EU stands in solidarity with the Jews of Europe. He spoke of the measures that the EU has been taking in the past few years: appointing a coordinator on combating antisemitism in 2015, adapting a resolution on antisemitism by the European Parliament in 2017 and endorsing the IHRA:s definition of antisemitism. Overall he urged the member states to disavow historical barbarity and encouraged them to invest in education on different cultural aspects of Europe.
Frans Timmermans: Anti-Semitism pervades European life, says EU report

When reading the EU Council statement or listening to Mr Timmermans’ one immediately asks oneself whether this is a genuine attempt to raise awareness or yet again, grand words but empty promises. Because despite decades of photo shoots with Holocaust survivors and the annual “Happy Chanukah!” on the Commission’s website, things just do not seem to move in the right direction. So is this something that is being addressed because elected officials feel forced to, or is the driving force genuine empathy?

One thing however is clear: in order to truly make a difference the working framework for the member states must be legally binding. Until it is, the member states have no actual incentives to change their way of handling the situation. Especially the states who lack proper regulations for protecting minorities’ rights.

But here yet another issue arises. Within the EU:s institutions, it can take years between the birth of an idea and the design of formal legislation. The very same processes that from the beginning were created in order to prevent ill-informed decisions become obstacles when immediate action is required. So the question is as follows: will the EU:s bureaucratic machinery work fast enough in order to stop the violence before it is too late?

Throughout the course of history, life behind security fences has not been an unfamiliar concept to Jews. But when states who claim to carry the banner of basic human rights miserably fail to protect the very same rights, we understand that something is not quite right. Concrete action needs to be taken, not only by elected officials but also by the civil society. Because no congregation should have to spend the majority of its income on fences and security guards. No child should be assaulted on the streets of Europe. And no tombstone should be defaced with symbols of hatred.

Enough is enough.


The full report can be downloaded here.

Margareta Barabash studies political science at Stockholm University. Her main areas of interest include Middle Eastern politics, (counter)terrorism and religious extremism.

Cover photo: silent march in memory of Mireille Knoll, March 28th 2018, Strasbourg. By Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons – cc-by-sa-4.0

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