EESC joins EU efforts on battling antisemitism

With discrimination and hate crime against Jews on the rise in Europe, the EESC is throwing its support behind the first-ever European strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life as an indispensable ingredient of European culture and a prerequisite for the preservation of EU common values

On 10 February, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a debate on the first European strategy which requires efforts from EU institutions, Member States, and at grassroots level, to put a stop to increasing antisemitic incidents in Europe and join forces to promote Jewish tradition and culture as an integral part of European identity, heritage and the future.

The debate took place on 10 February in the context of the EESC's ongoing analysis of the EU strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life, which will be the focus of its opinion scheduled for adoption at its plenary session in March.

Apart from EESC members, the debate saw the participation of the European Commission Coordinator on combating antisemitism, Katharina von Schnurbein, together with representatives of the EU's leading Jewish organisations: the European Jewish Congress and CEJI-A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe.

Opening the debate, EESC president Christa Schweng said: As the representative of organised civil society in the European Union, the EESC sees an urgent need for action to ensure that Jews across Europe can live their lives in accordance with their religious and cultural traditions. Through comprehensive EU policies we should ensure that antisemitism, racism and xenophobia have no place in the EU and beyond. We want a tolerant, non-discriminative and plural society.

However, current figures show that, more than 70 years after the Holocaust, antisemitism has been growing in Europe over the past decade. More than half of Europeans perceive Holocaust denial as being a problem in their country. One in 20 Europeans has never even heard of the Holocaust.

According to a 2018 survey by the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), 85% of European Jews consider antisemitism to be a serious problem in their country and 40% worry about being physically attacked. Some 38% of the FRA survey respondents said they had considered emigrating because they no longer felt safe as Jews in the EU.

The situation took a turn for the worse following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic which triggered the spread of conspiracy theories and hateful rhetoric, often targeting Jews and fuelling new forms of antisemitism, especially on social media.

According to Ms von Schnurbein, a European Commission study from June 2021 showed an explosion of antisemitic content online: a sevenfold increase in antisemitic postings in French and a 13-fold increase in German language online accounts only in the first year of the pandemic.

Ms von Schnurbein said: Antisemitism is a threat to Jews, but it is also a threat to non-Jews. It isa threat to our values, to our society as a whole and to the European way of life. This is why we saw a clear duty to act. Thisstrategy is the first of its kind and it delivers our clear commitment not only to step up the fight against antisemitism, but to put an end to it. We are committed to using all tools at our disposal in a holistic and targeted series of actions addressing antisemitism from one side and fostering Jewish life from the other, across the policy spectrum.

Raya Kalenova, Executive Vice-President and CEO of the European Jewish Congress said: The EU strategy could not have come at a more crucial time for European Jews, as many of them today feel afraid of expressing their identity online and offline. This strategy will contribute a long way towards guaranteeing and preserving Jewish life and culture in the EU and beyond. This makes us optimistic about the future. We no longer feel we are alone.

Ms Kalenova praised the Commission's efforts, adding that the EC had taken into account the concerns expressed by the Jewish community, and included their proposals and recommendations in the strategy.

Robin Sclafani, CEJI's Director, said: Antisemitism, or any other form of hatred, will not be overcome with only one commemoration event, or one political debate, or even through multiple scattered and unconnected ad hoc initiatives. Her organisation is therefore supporting the EU’s call for holistic national action plans, and recognises the crucial importance of educational, social and cultural approaches to prevent and counter negative discourses of Jews and Judaism.

Apart from battling antisemitism, the Strategy therefore also seeks to promote Jewishness as a vital and inherent part of the European identity. However, despite the longstanding presence of Jews in European society, Europeans on average have scant knowledge and understanding of Jewish culture and traditions.

In its opinion, the EESC will place a strong emphasis on education and bringing Jewish culture closer to citizens and the general public. As a bridge between EU decision-makers and the grassroots level, the Committee is uniquely placed to make a difference in the strive for an inclusive and diverse society, speakers stressed.

Through various activities and initiatives, the new strategy will also put the remembrance of the Holocaust at the centre of its efforts to strengthen European democracy and to warn against the dangers of antisemitism and all other forms of discrimination.

Recalling his birthplace Thessaloniki, which (as one of the most ancient Jewish communities in Europe) was also known as "the Jerusalem of the Balkans", and underlining the murder of Thessaloniki Jews in occupied Greece during World War II, EESC member Dimitris Dimitriadis, president of the EESC's External Relations section, stressed that antisemitism is an international phenomenon.

He further emphasized the importance of keeping the memory alive:The future will not be the same if we don’t fight against this phenomenon. The responsibility is on society but also on all of us to fight antisemitism. It concerns us all.

The ongoing opinion was introduced by Tamás Büchler, expert of EESC rapporteur Ákos Topolánszky. Presented in October 2021, the EU strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life will be implemented over the period 2021-2030. The Commission invited the European Parliament and the Council to support its implementation. National strategies should be adopted by the end of 2022 and will be assessed by the Commission by end of 2023.