Europe deserves a culture of inclusive tolerance

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

The New Synagogue in Berlin. [Tim Gage/Flickr]

Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe, and it is up to community, religious and political leaders to counter racist and hateful discourse and lead by example, write Frans Timmermans and V?ra Jourová.

Frans Timmermans is First Vice-President of the European Commission and V?ra Jourová is EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality.

A Jewish school in Toulouse in 2013; the Brussels Jewish Museum in 2014; a kosher supermarket in Paris last January; a synagogue in Copenhagen in February. These attacks bring home the sad reality that antisemitism still exists on our continent and that new forms of antisemitism are rearing their ugly head. In the wake of these events, Europe’s Jewish communities are asking: are Jews still safe in Europe today? Should they think about leaving?

A 2013 EU Fundamental Rights Agency survey highlights the extent of these fears. One in two Jewish respondents saw a significant increase in antisemitism in the last five years. Across Europe, 25% of respondents said that they occasionally avoided visiting Jewish sites or events because they did not feel safe, while one third considered emigrating for security reasons. Finally, 75% of respondents felt that online antisemitism – commonly expressed by denial or trivialisation of the Holocaust – is a widespread phenomenon.

The European Commission takes these concerns very seriously.

Security and the fight against radicalisation

Our most immediate concern is the safety of Jewish communities. We must address the fact that racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic crimes and hate speech go unpunished in some countries, and the problem of politicians who trivialise or ignore the seriousness of hate speech and hate crime.

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the EU acted fast to formulate a European Security Agenda which will notably focus attention on disrupting terrorist networks, disabling terrorism activities and addressing radicalisation – offline and online. While security and counter- terrorism have traditionally remained under the responsibility of individual EU countries, the European Union supports and complements actions geared at neutralising the threat posed by terrorism.

Fighting hate speech and hate crime

Incidents of racist hate crime and harassment need to be addressed decisively. It is paramount that law enforcement and courts across the EU promptly investigate and prosecute racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic hate speech and hate crime. The Commission has called on those EU countries that have not yet fully implemented EU legislation on combating hate speech, hate crime and more specifically the denial of the Holocaust, to bolster their laws and to prosecute these offences. We intend to step up cooperation with information technology companies to work more closely with us in promoting counter- narratives to hate speech and terrorist propaganda online. They also have a key role to play.

Racist and xenophobic attitudes expressed by opinion leaders often contribute to a social climate that condones racism and xenophobia. We cannot stress this often enough: political leaders should not be complacent when faced with racist political discourse. Instead, they should lead by example in condemning all forms of racism and hate speech.

The Commission is actively engaged in awareness-raising. It supports member states in monitoring incidents of hate crime and hate speech, and provides funding for training of public officials and for actions against racism and xenophobia. Moreover, EU legislation is in place to ensure that victims of hate crime get the help, support and protection they need.

A culture of tolerance and respect

Martin Niemöller, a protestant pastor in the German resistance who survived the concentration camps, is probably best remembered for his quote: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out – I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Whatever its root causes, there is only one possible response to anti-Semitism today: never again. Never again should we tolerate anti-Semitic or racist discourse. Never again should European and other Jews feel that they have to emigrate.

The first EU Colloquium on Fundamental Rights – dedicated this year to the theme “Tolerance and Respect: Preventing and combating anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hatred in Europe” – will take place in October 2015 in Brussels. Together with a host of stakeholders, we will reflect about the underlying reasons for the increase of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents in Europe and look at the role of the EU and international institutions, member states, local authorities, civil society, community and religious leaders, the media, education and employment in addressing these phenomena and developing a culture of inclusive tolerance and respect in the European Union. Discussions will draw upon several meetings and events that took place in the EU since the beginning of the year and the outcomes of a public consultation carried out by the Commission for the purposes of the Colloquium. Around 60 organisations contributed, clearly confirming current concerns, engaging with the perceived causes and providing a wealth of concrete proposals to address the variety of challenges.

Europe deserves a culture of inclusive tolerance and respect. Much will depend on education, and in this respect, we fully support the unanimous declaration of EU Education Ministers in Paris shortly after the January attacks on promoting citizenship and the values of freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination through education. The people of Copenhagen showed us what tolerance and respect means. Forming a ‘ring of peace’, civil society, Christians, Muslims, Human rights activists and others stood up for the Jewish community. Beyond the crucial role of international organisations, EU institutions and national governments, it is also the responsibility of parents to teach their children and of teachers, religious, political and community leaders to lead by example. Together, we have a duty to act before it is too late.

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