Defining Anti-Semitism: A Conversation With the EU Coordinator on Combating Anti-Semitism

June, 28 2017

On June 1, the European Parliament adopted a working definition of anti-Semitism for the first time. The definition, borrowed from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, serves as a politically important descriptor of the phenomenon. “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” the definition reads. “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.”

The resolution calls on EU member states to individually adopt and apply the definition. So far, the U.K., Romania and Austria have formally incorporated the definition into their legal codes as a way to identify anti-Semitic attacks. Katharina von Schnurbein, the appointed EU commission coordinator for combating anti-Semitism, says the definition is not legally binding: “While anti-Semitism as such is not criminalized, it states clearly what is anti-Semitic and what is a legitimate criticism of Israel.”

The adopted definition provides various examples of anti-Semitism hiding under political criticism. “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” is one such example. For von Schnurbein, this is crucial when it comes to targeting “anti-Semitism that hides behind anti-Zionism.”

This distinction has been hotly contested as evidenced by the fallout from a 2014 firebombing of a synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany by three German Palestinians. A regional German court ruled that it was a criminal act, but not an anti-Semitic one. The firebombing was ruled a political expression of the perpetrators’ political opinions on Israeli policies. EU and U.S. officials expressed disapproval about the decision, including Holly Huffnagle, from the U.S. State Department Office of Religion and Global Affairs. “We believe that when a Jewish house of worship is firebombed in response to Israeli policy, it is anti-Semitism,” Huffnagle said according to the Times of Israel.  “What does a synagogue in Wuppertal have to do with the conflict in the Middle East? Nothing,” von Schnurbein says. “It’s a complete conflation.”

The EU Parliament appointed von Schnurbein in December 2015 in response to calls from the European Jewish community and the State of Israel. Von Schnurbein has held different positions within the EU since 2002, including working as a spokesperson for the Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities branch of the European Commission for six years. She was appointed alongside a coordinator for combating anti-Muslim hatred, David Friggieri. Their positions arose at a period of rising nationalist sentiment in Europe. “The rise of populism has created an atmosphere where hatred not only towards Jews, but towards minorities in general, has increased,” von Schnurbein says.

As a child growing up near the remote Bavarian Forest of Germany, she saw a swastika spraypainted on the street—an image that stuck with her. She told Moment in January that “somehow, the topic [of anti-Semitism] has accompanied me my whole life.” Since her appointment, von Schnurbein says her “main aim has been to liaise closely with the Jewish communities and really listen to their concerns,” to obtain a detailed picture about the situation across the EU member states and help strengthen policy responses to anti-Semitism. 

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