Europe still haunted by antisemitism

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 23/01/2014
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Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

More than 70 years after the Holocaust, antisemitism is growing in Europe. While official statistics are missing in many countries, research shows that deeply ingrained hostility continues to threaten Jewish people’s security and human dignity across Europe.

Today’s antisemitism finds its way into “traditional” as well as modern venues. Just over a year ago, a call in the Hungarian parliament for making lists of Jews who “posed a threat to national security” brought back haunting memories of Nazi policies. In December the Romanian authorities fined a public television channel in Romania after it aired a Christmas carol with antisemitic lyrics. However, more “contemporary” manifestations of antisemitism also abound. Last July, Twitter provided the prosecutors in Paris with data that may enable the identification of users who posted antisemitic messages on line. The French authorities also recently took a strong stand against incitement to hatred targeting Jewish people by a former comedian turned militant. A growing problem in many European countries is the use of antisemitic chants or salutes at football games.

States must combat the trivialisation of antisemitism

Last year the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) published the results of a survey undertaken in late 2012 in eight EU Member States (Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden and the United Kingdom). It showed that 76% of the Jewish respondents perceived that antisemitism has become more acute in their countries over the past five years. However, the majority did not report on the experienced antisemitic incidents, many considering that nothing would have changed or that such incidents happen all the time. In addition, only half of the EU member states collect data on reported antisemitic incidents.

State authorities must guard themselves against the trivialisation of such manifestations and be fully aware of the danger posed to democracy by actions aimed at denying equality, freedom of thought, conscience and religion. They should not forget that antisemitism has served and still serves as a pretext and justification for discrimination and the use of violence, including murder. The attack against the Jewish Ozar Hatorah School in the French city of Toulouse in March 2012, which is one of the most violent antisemitic attacks to have happened in Europe in recent years, is a striking example.

An effective response is needed

European countries must genuinely address and combat antisemitism. In the absence of effective measures individuals subjected to antisemitic attacks will continue to suffer without turning to the authorities and such offences will remain uninvestigated and unpunished.

Most importantly, national political leaders should vigorously condemn antisemitic speech and attacks when they occur, sending a clear signal that such hatred is unacceptable and will be resolutely punished.

National authorities should systematically collect and analyse data on antisemitic incidents. They need to ensure that the antisemitic motive of hate crimes, including hate speech, is recorded and taken into account throughout proceedings, in line with the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights.[1] The special protection needs of victims of antisemitic crimes must be adequately responded to.

States which have not done so yet should reinforce their legislation to ensure that the intentional, public condoning, denying or trivialisation of the Holocaust are punishable by effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties, including in the case of acts perpetrated by legal persons. As the Strasbourg Court noted in 2003 in the case of Garaudy v. France, “[d]enying crimes against humanity is…one of the most serious forms of racial defamation of Jews and of incitement to hatred of them. The denial or rewriting of this type of historical fact undermines the values on which the fight against racism and anti-Semitism are based and constitutes a serious threat to public order.”

In this context, EU member states are encouraged to transpose and effectively apply the Council of the European Union Framework Decision 2008/913/JHA of 28 November 2008 “on combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law”. National authorities should prosecute and effectively sanction any political party or group which puts forward antisemitic arguments in its discourse and activities.

States should take a comprehensive approach

European countries should abandon piecemeal approaches to combating antisemitism and focus on measures which can have wide-ranging and lasting effects. State institutions, representatives of the Jewish communities, and other civil society organisations should be involved together in identifying these measures, which should be integrated into national strategies and action plans aimed at combating intolerance, racism, xenophobia and antisemitism.

In light of new technological developments, states should address the growing concerns posed by online antisemitism. The Council of Europe “No hate speech” campaign represents a valuable opportunity to prepare young people for dealing with this phenomenon. In this context, member states could also usefully be reminded of and check to what extent they have effectively implemented the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers Recommendation No. R (97) 20 on “hate speech”.

Last but not least, national authorities must intensify their efforts to fight ignorance and intolerance within current and future generations through systematic, on-going education, which should include the accurate teaching of the Holocaust. The Holocaust prompted many to vow “Never again”. Recent antisemitic incidents should evoke not only a dismayed “Not again!”, but vigorous action by states to combat the prejudice, discrimination and violence affecting Jewish people.

Nils Muižnieks

Useful documents

[1] See, inter alia, Nachova and Others v. Bulgaria, judgment of the Grand Chamber of 6 July 2005, §160.