by Thomas Siurkus
January 27 marks the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. But even as people across the globe pay their respects, anti-Semitism—particularly in Europe—is on the rise again.
Katharina von Schnurbein was appointed in December to the European Union’s newly created post of coordinator for combating anti-Semitism. This month, in a presentation in Prague, von Schnurbein laid out her strategies for addressing Europe’s spike in anti-Semitism, which include enforcement of a Holocaust denial ban, adoption of an EU-wide definition of anti-Semitism and cracking down on Internet hate speech.
Von Schnurbein has worked for the EU since 2002 in several roles, including coordinating dialogue between the European Commission and religious communities. Moment spoke with her about her new role, anti-Semitism in Europe and her agenda.
European Jewry, as well as the State of Israel, has been calling for this position for some time, given the recent rise in anti-Semitism. The European Commission wanted to set a clear sign of its determination to fight anti-Semitism effectively in order to ensure that Jews can live in Europe without fear. So, in October 2015, the European Commission appointed a coordinator for combating anti-Semitism, and also one for anti-Muslim hatred.
The United States has had a coordinator for combating anti-Semitism for many years. Why did it take so long to establish the position in Europe?
We are not starting from scratch in terms of fighting anti-Semitism. We’ve had effective policies in place for a long time. For example, the Europe-wide Framework Decision on racism and xenophobia bans, among other things, Holocaust denial. However, only 13 out of 28 member states have currently correctly transposed this European legislation into national law. Legislation is only as good as its application on the ground. We are currently in procedures with EU member states to ensure just that. We have also focused on hate speech, inciting violence and recently in particular on the Internet. A lot has happened over the years in terms of education and Holocaust remembrance. We have training for our own staff in terms of what civil servants’ role was leading up to the Holocaust.
All these things have happened, even without a coordinator. But given the current situation, it was necessary to make a clear statement and reinforce our efforts.
There is a law against Holocaust denial in the EU, but it hasn’t been implemented in every member state. Will it be?
It has to be. It has been adopted at the European level and member states have to implement the law on national level. At a certain stage, the European Commission acquires the enforcement. This happened in December 2014. Immediately, we started a dialogue with the different member states to see whether they will change their legislation in accordance with European law. If they don’t, we will launch infringement procedures and eventually have to take them to court.
In the United States, there is no law against Holocaust denial, because it would be in conflict with the right to free expression. Do you see this as a conflict?
The European courts have clearly decided in the past that Holocaust denial is an exception to free speech. This is the legislative basis here in Europe and this is what we stick to.
What are your main duties?
The first and foremost responsibility is to very closely liaise with Jewish communities in the different member states and listen to their concerns and also their suggestions for solutions. Since I started some weeks ago, I’ve met with directors of the European Jewish Communities, I’ve met the Conference of European Rabbis, I have met several Jewish communities locally as well as the American Jewish Committee—just to mention a few. I will see the International Auschwitz Committee this week, and visit the Jewish community in Paris and Berlin soon to listen to their concerns and suggestions for solutions.
Have you received much feedback yet from Jewish organizations?
There are a lot of very worrying concerns. Their number one concern seems to be security at the moment, paired with a fear of segregation, given that Jewish children move from public to Jewish schools. Not everything can be solved at the European level. But we definitely want to listen to these concerns and will speak to the member states.
How do you see your German citizenship in connection with your new position?
As a German you have a specific awareness of all these issues. I always had an interest in German-Jewish relations and the role of Jewish society today. Even before my recent position was on the horizon, I decided to learn Hebrew a year ago at a local Jewish community center.
Is it useful for your position now to know Hebrew?
I got the idea to learn Hebrew while I was at a conference of European rabbis, because when the rabbis are among themselves, they usually speak Hebrew—their common language. I think that by learning a language you also learn something about the culture and learn to understand the culture better. When I was in Prague, I learned Czech. My new position is not a position about European-Israeli relations. It’s about the Jewish people in Europe. So the role of the language in that aspect is a bit different. But understanding a bit of Hebrew can’t hurt.
When did you deal with the topic of anti-Semitism for the first time?
Somehow, the topic has accompanied me my whole life. I remember Jewish friends from Israel coming to my home in the Bavarian Forest, which is a very remote place in Germany. The day before, not linked to this visit, someone sprayed a swastika on the street. My mother called the local authorities and urged them to remove it, which they immediately did. I was probably 10 years old at that time. The fact that you have to be alert and responsible as a citizen is something that has been part of my entire life.
A rabbi from Belgium recently said that he doesn’t see a future for Jews in Europe. What are your thoughts on this statement?
That was wrongly reported. I asked him about it, and he explained that he had said that “some Jews feel” that they don’t have a future in Europe. We recognize that feeling and we are aware of the fears that come with the threats. Look at the discussion in France, about whether it is safe to wear a kippah on the street. We are very much aware of these fears. But he would be the last one to say that there is no future for Jews in Europe. That must be clear. Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders and community leaders have joined our efforts, up to the ministerial and EU level, to make sure that we tackle the very important issue of anti-Semitism together.
You recently said that “when the canaries don’t sing anymore, Europe is in a crisis.” Is Europe already in a crisis with rising anti-Semitism?
We are facing a very serious situation. What we are experiencing right now was not the idea of the founding fathers of the European Union. This European community is built on the ashes of World War II and the Shoah. What they wanted to create was a society of equality and non-discrimination. A place where everyone could feel at home, in particular the Jews. In that sense we are very worried at the moment.
The contrast to 1938 is that today we have instruments in place to tackle anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and incitement by means of criminal law. We have education, we have an awareness of the history of the Third Reich and all the different reasons that can lead to anti-Semitism. So we are much better equipped nowadays—also thanks to the creation of the European Union. But European values such as democracy, rule of law and equality are not a given. They have to be defended, cherished and taught.
How closely do you work with the coordinator for combating anti-Muslim hatred?
Very closely. While the two phenomena—anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred—are very different in origins, history and manifestations, they have in common a worrisome increase in the number of hate incidents directed against the two communities. We know that Muslims are also perpetrators, but the majority of Muslims coming here are peaceful and they did not escape violence in their home countries to experience it here. It is very important to understand that we do not want any type of racism and xenophobia in our European society.
What’s on your agenda?
One of the priorities now is to tackle online hate speech. We recently initiated a European dialogue with IT companies. Then we will ensure the enforcement of existing EU legislation, which includes the Holocaust denial ban We will also work closely with NGOs that are helping to prevent and combat, among other things, anti-Semitism through projects. We currently have an open call for 5.5 million euros to tackle hate crime and hate speech. We will also look at the question of education in general—not only Holocaust remembrance but also European values and the way we want our society to live together in Europe.