Europe must take action to combat rising anti-Semitism

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

File photo. Dozens of people take part in a human chain during a rally against anti-Semitism and Hate outside the New Synagogue in Berlin, Germany, 20 October 2019. [Felipe Trueba/EPA/EFE]

COVID-19 has fuelled anti-Semitism in Europe. We need to take it seriously or risk losing the Jewish community, writes Michael O’Flaherty.

Michael O’Flaherty is the director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA)

Seventy-five years after the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp, anti-Semitism is alive in Europe. The Coronavirus pandemic has fuelled even more open manifestations of hatred against Jews. And the stakes are high: if Europe keeps on failing its Jewish community, it risks losing it. Then the entire European project will have failed.

Blamed for creating and profiteering from the Coronavirus, attacked in person and harassed online as a result, a rising number of Jews is again considering leaving Europe. With them, an important part of our history and culture would be gone.

This should be a wakeup call. Jews are at home in Europe, they are part of our diverse societies. The current anti-Semitic wave sweeping across the continent shows that we need to step up our efforts to combat against hate and prevent its malign influence on young people.

A first step is to understand the real magnitude of the problem and how it affects Jewish people across the EU member states – and that’s a problem on its own because we lack the necessary data to do so.

The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) contributes by conducting its own unique surveys on Jewish people to record their experiences, fears and aspirations. Moreover, we collect and collate the scattered official and unofficial data on anti-Semitism across the EU.

On Thursday (10 October), we released the 16th annual update of this collection. Not much has changed in these 16 years in terms of monitoring anti-Semitism.

Each EU country still collects different types of data and uses different methodologies, preventing direct comparison between countries. Some of them do not collect any official data at all. And few have adopted national strategies or action plans against anti-Semitism.

The result? We know that we have a serious problem but we do not know how big it really is. That is one of the reasons why responses have so far not been effective.

At the moment, the only comparable data come from FRA’s EU-wide surveys among Jews and the European Commission’s Eurobarometer survey of anti-Semitism among the general population. This evidence, taken together with civil society analysis, points to a number of important considerations:

First, it appears that anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in European societies. Survey data shows that large shares of people in many European countries would not feel comfortable having a Jew as a neighbour.

Second, there is a significant discrepancy between the perception of anti-Semitism among the general population and Jewish people themselves. While the recent Eurobarometer shows that 36% of the general public think that anti-Semitism is increasing, in FRA’s survey of Jews almost 90% of Jewish respondents are of this view.

Third, there is gross underreporting of anti-Semitic incidents. If attacks, harassment or discrimination are not reported, they will not be investigated, prosecuted or punished allowing offenders to escape with impunity.

Fourth, the pandemic has fuelled conspiracy theories often intertwined with anti-Semitism globally. Tel Aviv University said that the pandemic had sparked an 18% rise in anti-Semitic hate speech, especially online. The World Jewish Congress has warned about the proliferation of conspiracy theories blaming Jews for creating or spreading the virus. It also raised alarm about anti-Semitic videos popular on social media.

The EU and its Member States have done a lot of good work in recent years to combat anti-Semitism and we welcome and support the efforts of the European Commission. But we cannot stop there.

At today’s conference on “Working together to fight anti-Semitism in Europe: Structures and strategies for a holistic approach”, we will have the opportunity for some much-needed discussion on what further action is needed. This will include ways to improve reporting of anti-Semitic incidents and the establishment of proper data collection tools.

We need to encourage reporting and investigation of anti-Semitic incidents.

We need to collect comparable data on anti-Semitism to guide policies and measures.

We need to invest in education to counter negative attitudes and myths.

Effective combatting of anti-Semitism is key for the vitality of the European project. If our society is ever to be united in its diversity, we must repudiate once and for all this repugnant hatred. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights stands ready to support this effort with its data, analysis and expertise.

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