As the world commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp 71 years ago, European Jews no longer face a single, continent-wide regime seeking their destruction.
Nonetheless, today, 71 years after liberation from Hitler, they face a rising anti-Semitism across European societies. From denying the Holocaust to threatening another Shoah, from painting Nazi swastikas and scrawling death threats on synagogues and graves, to taunting, accosting and assaulting Jews in religious garb, Jew haters are revealing themselves through word and deed.
This rise has diverse sources, including jihadists, neo-Nazis and members of political organizations. All of them share a propensity to use bigoted words, imagery and stereotypes drawn from Europe’s ancient legacy of hatred of Jews.
The problem is clear. The question is what governments, officials and others are doing about it.
Unfortunately, in Eastern Europe, some governments and political parties are doing worse than nothing. While some are denying or downplaying the rise in anti-Semitism, others are fueling it by displaying pro-Nazi sympathies and tolerating Holocaust revisionism among their members and supporters.
Fortunately, in Western Europe, governments and officials largely admit that anti-Semitism is real and is growing.
They acknowledge that since the turn of the century, anti-Jewish graffiti increasingly has appeared in Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Malmo, London, Rome and other cities. They admit that there have been repeated threats and acts of violence. They agree that since World War II, Jewish citizens have never been more afraid to wear or display religious articles — from skullcaps (yarmulkes) on their heads to mezuzahs on their doorposts — revealing themselves to be Jews.
But in practice, the governments or political parties of some of these same leaders still fall short in at least two ways.
First, in an ironic twist, rather than allaying the fears of some Jews to don religious garb or engage in familiar religious practices, some are adding to these fears by supporting legal bans or restrictions. France and Belgium bar some students and government workers from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols, including yarmulkes. At least four countries — Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland — ban kosher slaughter. In Norway and Germany, efforts have been advanced to ban infant male circumcision.
These restrictions and bans also affect members of other religious groups. For instance, Christians confront limitations on wearing crosses, and Muslims face restrictions on donning head scarves and bans on halal slaughter. Behind these infringements on religious freedom is an ideological impetus to sweep the public square clean of religious expression or practice, confining such expressions and practices to homes and places of worship.
Second, when haters attack Jews, criminal justice systems in Europe often fail to deem the perpetrators anti-Semitic.
Earlier this month, a court in Wuppertal, Germany, upheld a lower court’s ruling in the 2015 sentencing of three Germans of Palestinian descent to probation for setting fire to a synagogue in July 2014, the same synagogue the Nazis had burned in 1938 during the Kristallnacht pogroms. The court concurred that since they were incensed about Israel’s actions in the Middle East, their act of arson did not constitute anti-Semitism.
Similarly, in a speech titled, “Combating Global Anti-Semitism in 2016,” Ira Forman, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, noted that, according to Jewish leaders in Sweden, police in Stockholm classified recent graffiti with swastikas as “actions against Israel,” not anti-Semitism. He quoted a leader as saying, “If you are hurt wearing a kippa [yarmulke], it is classified as anti-Zionism. …”
In these instances, criminal justice systems were confronting two phenomena — anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. While rightly affirming one can oppose Israeli policies without automatically being anti-Semitic, they wrongly denied the obvious:
Deliberately targeting Jewish property, or demonizing or attacking people simply for being Jewish inescapably is anti-Semitic. These actions should neither be excused nor minimized, rationalized nor redefined, but called out and condemned.
It is time for nations to deal forthrightly with the problem. Holocaust denial must be confronted and refuted. Religious freedom must be honored by protecting Jews from violence and removing restrictions on peaceful religious practices. Jews should be free to live as Jews and as citizens of their respective countries, and to speak, write, assemble and associate without fear or intimidation.
And as Europeans confront anti-Semitism, so must people everywhere reject hatred and embrace dignity and humanity. There is no greater lesson from the Holocaust. While the attempt to eradicate the entire Jewish people was horrifyingly unique in planning, effort and intent, the mindset of hatred extended to others. From the Roma to the mentally and physically disabled, it degraded, dehumanized and destroyed the lives of millions more.
And so, as we mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and its U.N. theme this year, “Educating for a Better Future,” let us stand against all forms of hatred and bigotry.
Clifford D. May and Tenzin Dorjee serve as commissioners at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.