Identifying the trend: the changing face of antisemitism and implications for Europe and Sweden
Special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism Hannah Rosenthal
Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm, Sweden
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for welcoming me here today. I would like to thank the Institute of Security and Development Policy for hosting this forum on the Changing Face of Antisemitism and Implications for Europe and Sweden. Thank you also for inviting me to speak and share my thoughts on this important topic. As the United States’ Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat antisemitism, I am also honored to present alongside my esteemed colleagues, Dr. Henrik Bachner, Dr. David Hirsh, Dr. Mikael Tossavainen, and Professor Jean-Yves Camus. Also, thank you Minister Birgitta Ohlsson for your introduction.
This visit, while brief, is extremely important and timely. The world was shaken last month when an attacker murdered one adult and three children outside a Jewish school in Toulouse, France—just days after murdering three French soldiers of North African descent in the nearby city of Montauban. While we are decades removed from the Holocaust, antisemitism remains a serious problem in Europe. There are still many urgent lessons that we must learn from Hitler’s genocide of the Jewish people. One of these lessons is, however, about the human capacity for courage and strength. This year, the governments of Sweden and Hungary officially designated 2012 as the “Raoul Wallenberg Year” to honor and commemorate the courage of this young Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazi killing machine in Hungary.
Let me begin by explaining that the Obama Administration is unwavering in its commitment to combat hate and promote tolerance in our world, including in the United States. The President began his Administration speaking out against intolerance as a global ill.
Over the past three years, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made human rights and the need to respect diversity an integral part of U.S. foreign policy—from the human rights of LGBT people to women’s rights, to international religious freedom. Recently she was in Tunisia where she declared: “The rights and dignity of human beings cannot be denied forever, no matter how oppressive a regime may be. The spirit of human rights and human dignity lives within each of us, and the universal aspirations have deep and lasting power.”
President Obama and Secretary Clinton have honored me with this appointment, and have elevated my office and fully integrated it into the State Department.
As a child of a Holocaust survivor, antisemitism is something very personal to me. My father was arrested on Kristallnacht, the unofficial pogrom that many think started the Holocaust – and was sent with many of his congregants to prison and then to Buchenwald. He was the lucky one – every other person in his family perished at Auschwitz. I have dedicated my life to eradicating antisemitism and intolerance with a sense of urgency and passion that only my father could give me.
Over the past two and a half years, my staff and I have diligently reported on antisemitic incidents throughout Europe, following and tracking developments in new and old cases. We have classified these incidents into six trends, which provide a comprehensive framework from which we can analyze antisemitism in Europe.
First of all, antisemitism is not History, it is News. I run into people who think antisemitism ended when Hitler killed himself. More than six decades after the end of the Second World War, antisemitism is still alive and well, and evolving into new, contemporary forms of religious hatred, racism, and political, social and cultural bigotry. According to reports done by the governments of Norway, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, there is a disturbing increase in antisemitism in those countries.
According to a recent ADL survey, antisemitic attitudes remain at “disturbingly high levels” in ten European countries. The survey found that antisemitic attitudes in Hungary have risen to 63 percent from 47 percent in 2009, and in the United Kingdom, to 17 percent from 10 percent in 2009.
Although a separate study found that the number of reported antisemitic crimes decreased from 250 to 161 from 2009 to 2010, government officials nonetheless recognized that antisemitism was a problem in Sweden, especially in the city of Malmo.
The statistics are troubling, and stem, in part, from the fact that the first trend, traditional forms of antisemitism are passed from one generation to the next, and sometimes updated to reflect current events. We are all familiar with hostile acts such as the defacing of property and the desecration of cemeteries with antisemitic graffiti. Between June and December of 2011, we saw desecrations to Holocaust memorials, synagogues, and Jewish cemeteries in Croatia, Czech Republic, Greece, Lithuania, and Poland. There are still some accusations of blood libel, which are morphing from the historic accusations dating from the Roman Empire and other ancient cultures, repeated later by some Christians and Muslims, that Jews killed children to use their blood for rituals, or kidnapped children to steal their organs. Most recently, a Hungarian parliamentarian from the far-right Jobbik party invoked a centuries-old blood libel case in the Hungarian parliament. The Hungarian government quickly condemned the speech – the right response to such hate speech – although the impact of such horrible statements, even when refuted, remains.
In Sweden, antisemitic incidents have included threats, verbal abuse, vandalism, graffiti, and harassment in schools. I am particularly concerned about the situation in Malmo, which is not just serious but acute. In Malmo, the synagogue, which is a place for the community to gather and worship, has become a site of antisemitic slurs and vandalism. The synagogue heen fortified to be not just bullet-proof, but according to local Jewish community leaders, rocket-proof. But even with enhanced security including security guards, passersby still shout slogans like “Heil Hitler.” And the Rabbi of Malmo has been assaulted almost two dozen times in the past two years. In the fall of last year, the Swedish government increased its funding to provide security for the Jewish community. We appreciate this action but more must be done to reverse the trend.
Conspiracy theories unfortunately have traction with some groups, such as supposed Jewish control of the U.S. media and the world banking system, or that Jews were involved in executing the September 11 attacks. The recent ADL survey confirmed that some Europeans believe Jews have too much power in the business world and in international financial markets.
Conspiracy theories are present in Sweden as well. In August at the government’s request, the state-run Living History Forum published a report that found conspiracy theories target Jews for alleged attempts at global and financial domination.
A second trend is Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial is being espoused by religious and political leaders, and is a standard on hateful websites and other media outlets. Holocaust denial still remains a challenge in some of diplomatic engagements with countries that are trying to come to terms with their moral responsibility to prosecute Nazi war criminals and denounce the past crimes of their citizens. As the generation of Holocaust survivors and death camp liberators reaches their eighties and nineties, the window is closing on those able to provide eyewitness accounts.
A third, disturbing trend is Holocaust glorification – which can be seen in events that openly display Nazi symbols, in the growth of neo-Nazi groups, and is especially virulent in Middle East media – some that is state owned and operated – calling for a new Holocaust to finish the job. Truly bone-chilling. Following a March 2011 commemoration in Latvia, a notorious neo-Nazi made blatantly antisemitic statements, including incitements to violence against Jews, on a television talk show.
Satellite TV is sometimes exploited by hate-mongerers to propagate antisemitic views. Some Middle Eastern satellite channels integrate antisemitic rhetoric into programming that reaches into Europe. Such broadcasts can have a negative impact on European citizens and residents who are already predisposed to antisemitic beliefs. Some of these programs, mostly out of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are seen by tens of millions of Europeans.
A fourth concern is Holocaust relativism – where some governments, museums, academic research and the like are conflating the Holocaust with other terrible events that entailed great human suffering, like the Dirty War or the Soviet regime.
No one, least of all myself, wants to weigh atrocities against each other, but to group these horrific chapters of history together is not only historically inaccurate, but also misses opportunities to learn important lessons from each of these historic events, even as we reflect on universal truths about the need to defend human rights and combat hatred in all of its forms.
The Holocaust is trivialized when spiteful politicians compare their opponents to Hitler. History must be precise – it must instruct, it must warn, and it must inspire us to learn the particular and universal values as we prepare to mend this fractured world.
The fifth trend reflects new forms of antisemitism which blur the lines between opposition to the policies of the State of Israel and antisemitism. What I hear from our diplomatic missions, and from non-governmental organizations alike, is that this happens easily and often. I want to be clear – legitimate criticism of policies of the State of Israel is not antisemitism.
All democracies should welcome differing positions, but we do record huge increases in antisemitic acts throughout Europe whenever there are hostilities in the Middle East. During the 2008-2009 conflict in the Gaza strip, antisemitic violence increased in Malmo, and in December 2008, antisemitic violence broke out against the Jewish community during a peaceful gathering in support of ALL the victims in the conflict. In 2010, leaders of the Swedish Jewish community received threatening messages and calls in conjunction with the Gaza flotilla incident.
This form of antisemitism is more difficult for many to identify, as it is not the objection to a policy of the State of Israel. When individual Jews are effectively banned or their conferences boycotted, or are held responsible for Israeli policy – this is not objecting to a policy – this is aimed at the collective Jew and is antisemitism.
Natan Sharansky, the great human rights activist in the former Soviet Union, identified when he believes criticism crosses the line: It is antisemitic when Israel is demonized, held to different standards, or delegitimized.
The sixth trend is the growing nationalistic movements which target “the other” – be they immigrants, or religious and ethnic minorities – in the name of protecting the identity and “purity” of nations.
Extremist far-right parties have been increasingly gaining popular support throughout Europe. Far right groups have now entered parliaments in Austria, France, Hungary, Italy, and the Netherlands. These extremist parties run and gain popular support through anti-immigration and racist platforms.
In Sweden, Jews have begun to march against these trends and the violent antisemitism that has come to permeate their lives. After Saturday services, members of Malmo’s Jewish community go on walks wearing visibly Jewish symbols. Some non-Jews have joined their walks, also wearing kippot in solidarity with the vulnerable Jewish community.
In June, five young Swedish Muslim men from Malmo organized a class trip to the Auschwitz extermination camp and filmed a documentary about it. Their initiative is a shining example of how we can all strive to counter hate and reverse the dual trends of Holocaust denial and intolerance.
When this fear or hatred of the “other” occurs or when people try to find a scapegoat for the instability around them, it is never good for the Jews, or for that matter, other traditionally discriminated against minorities. The history of Europe, with pogroms, Nazism, and ethnic cleansing, provides sufficient evidence. And when public figures talk about protecting a country’s purity, we’ve seen that movie before.I encourage Muslim and Jewish communities in Sweden and throughout all of Europe to build bridges and work together to refute this trend.
One way to do this is through education. One story that should be taught is that of Sweden’s own Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg was a young businessman when, in 1944, he accepted a diplomatic appointment to Nazi-occupied Hungary on a mission to save Hungarian Jews. By that time in the war, the Allied forces had learned of the Nazi extermination camps. Under diplomatic cover and with the help of colleagues and other individuals, Wallenberg was able to save thousands of Hungarian Jews between July and December 1944. He did so by issuing fake passports and hiding Jews in buildings he rented and declared property of the Swedish government. He did it with the full support of the government of Sweden. Wallenberg’s story is one of courage and selflessness.
Wallenberg’s acts of courage – along with those of other rescuers – should inspire us all to stand up to hate and face it squarely. We may, one day, find ourselves confronted with the same choice. It is not the easy choice. But it is the right one. We can learn from these rescuers about what it means to commit an act that is not easy, not profitable, but moral.
Government leaders play a very important role in condemning and combating antisemitism. They must be sensitive and thoughtful, and they must state—in clear and unequivocal terms—that antisemitism and all forms of hate are destabilizing and contrary to democratic norms. Our leaders must not fall victim to the trends I have just spoken about: they must not hold Jews responsible for Israel’s actions or blame the Jewish people for antisemitism; they must not deny the presence of antisemitic violence and behavior, or fuel inter-religious hatred or discord. Our local and national government officials must confront the root causes of hatred in their societies and protect the victims, rather than vilify them.
So while I fight antisemitism, I am also aware that hate is hate. Nothing justifies it – not economic instability and not international events.
If we educate diverse people about the current trends of antisemitism, if we call out propaganda and lies, stereotypes and myths, if we condemn indifference and intolerance, if we educate, especially young people about what is possible, if we highlight people who did the right thing, if we learn about how Jews lived, not only how they died, if we utilize old technologies and new forms of communication to inform and inspire, if we sensitively instruct and train teaching about the particular universal lessons of the Holocaust, we can move the needle against all forms of hatred.
I would like to thank the Institute for Security and Development Policy for holding this pressing conference and to speak before you. I look forward to our future collaboration, and I am happy to answer any questions you may have.