An op-ed by David Harris
Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee
El Pais, November 29, 2013
The European Union has had its share of daunting challenges.
From sluggish growth to punishing austerity, from high levels of unemployment to fears of brain drain, and from volatile political environments to relentless migration, there are more than enough issues to keep EU and national leaders focused 24/7. And while some countries are more at risk than others, the ties that bind the 28 member states mean that no one is entirely immune from the gusty winds and storm clouds.
Now, there is another issue to add to the list. Earlier this month, the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) issued a comprehensive study on the experiences of Jews in eight of the 28 nations – Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom—whose Jews comprise 90% of the EU’s total Jewish population. Nearly 6,000 respondents took part.
Confirming the findings of earlier surveys done by outside groups and local Jewish communities, it raises serious concern. That concern should not be limited to Jews, since when Europe’s Jews feel at risk, the EU as a whole is endangered in two ways.
First, the EU’s laudable commitment to protecting the human dignity of each of its citizens is jeopardized.
And second, the history of anti-Semitism demonstrates that, ultimately, those who target Jews usually have democracy itself, including the rights of minority groups, in their crosshairs. In other words, bigotry may begin with Jews, but it rarely ends with them.
Here are some of the disturbing findings from the just-published FRA report:
Two-thirds of Jewish respondents consider anti-Semitism to be a problem today in their countries.
Three-fourths believe the problem has gotten worse in the past five years.
One-third fears a physical attack against themselves, as Jews, within the next 12 months.
More than one-half claim they personally witnessed an incident where the Holocaust was denied, trivialized, or exaggerated.
Twenty-three percent say they at least occasionally avoid attending Jewish events or visiting Jewish sites because of safety concerns.
And more than 40 percent of those surveyed in Belgium, France, and Hungary indicate they have considered emigrating because of the situation.
Equally troubling, to quote the study, is the following result: “A majority of the victims of anti-Semitic harassment (76%), physical violence or threats (64%), or vandalism of personal property (53%) did not report the most serious incident, namely the one that most affected the respondent, in the past five years to the police or to any other organization.”
In other words, if the majority of victims of anti-Semitic incidents are not even reporting them to the authorities, then they do not have confidence in the system, fear retribution from the perpetrators, are unaware of where to go for help, or have somehow come to accept the bigoted behavior as part of the “price” of being Jewish.
Whatever the explanation, it is unacceptable. Going forward, EU governments should strive mightily to ensure not only a dramatic decline in the number of anti-Semitic incidents, but also that those that do occur are reported to the proper authorities. Citizens of a democratic society should never have to feel helpless or abandoned.
And it should make no difference if the anti-Semitic act comes from extreme-right, extreme-left, radical Islamic, or other sources. Targeting an individual because of his or her specific group identity – in this case, as a Jew – is a potential hate crime, and should be treated as such.
AJC has devoted many years to developing response strategies to bias incidents, whether against Jews, Christians, Muslims, homosexuals, Africans, or others, and certain things are clear.
First, attitudes of tolerance or intolerance, respect or lack of respect, are formed primarily at home and at a young age.
Second, political leadership counts. Either governments act against bigotry, both symbolically and substantively, or, too often, they end up countenancing or rationalizing it. Neutrality is not an option.
Third, education, if utilized properly, can help teach respect and appreciation for difference. Otherwise, it is a lost opportunity.
Fourth, religious leaders can promote interfaith dialogue and friendship or, conversely, religious obscurantism and triumphalism. Which will it be?
And finally, the police and judiciary must understand the specific nature of hate crimes, collect proper data, and treat cases with the seriousness they merit.
The EU’s FRA report is a wake-up call. Sleeping through it, or pretending not to hear it, is not an option.