I had the privilege of participating recently in the 10th Israel-EU Bilateral Dialogue on Combating Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia at the invitation of the Israeli Foreign Ministry (MFA) in Jerusalem earlier this month. The forum was established to allow Israelis and representatives of the European Commission—the government of the European Union—to discuss their ongoing work in combating antisemitism, exchange experiences and compare best practices. Participants included high-ranking European Commission and Israel Foreign Ministry officials, experts and practitioners in the field of education and social media.
The meeting occurred after the failed attempt by the 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to adopt the long-awaited Working Definition of anti-Semitism. Researchers, lawmakers and law enforcement practitioners have long complained that the lack of a generally agreed-upon definition of anti-Semitism—even if not legally binding—has helped confound efforts to combat the issue. So long as there was no definition, one man’s anti-Semitism could arguably be another man’s legitimate, albeit judgmental, opinion about Jews or Israel.
READ: A Potential Breakthrough in Defining Anti-Semitism
The definition proposed to the OSCE—only one sentence long with no mention of the State of Israel—goes on to provide 11 illustrative examples, most of which reference different manifestations of anti-Israel prejudice as forms of anti-Semitism: “Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust;…Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor; Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis; Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis...” – while adding the clear caveat that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
The definition was adopted in May by the 31-member International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (encompassing European states plus the U.S., Canada, Argentina and Israel), but due to an obstructionist role played by a single member, the Russian Federation, the definition did not pass muster at OSCE, leaving states wanting to do utilize this new tool in the fight against anti-Semitism to adopt it individually as local legislation. The UK’s new prime minister Theresa May has committed Great Britain—faced with an alarming 61% increase in anti-Semitic crime over the past year—to being the first country to formally adopt the definition as law.
Despite the palatable disappointment at the OSCE vote, the Israel-EU dialogue provided a useful opportunity for officials to restate the Union’s commitments to counter anti—Semitism. Daniel Braun, the deputy head of cabinet for Věra Jourová, the European Union's commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, declared that combating anti-Semitism is not the responsibility of the Jewish community alone but an assault on fundamental rights that affects all people and not only minorities. Paul Nemitz, director for fundamental rights and rule of law, said that the Holocaust is part of European citizenship and that everyone, not only Jews, suffer from the effects of anti-Semitism, adding that the dialogue on combating the issue must continue irrespective of the state of the political dialogue between Israel and the EU.
The dialogue also provided a platform for an exchange of views on best practices, latest research and technological advances in combating anti-Semitism and also for a reality check on the efficacy of some long-held axioms.
For example, the EU has put much hope—and funding—into education and youth action as a means of tackling radicalization and anti-Semitism. Indeed, the concluding sentences in the extensive 10-year review on anti-Semitism in the EU, published last month by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, states that “Education is essential to prevent intolerant attitudes. Through education that fosters socialization, tolerance, universal values and encourages critical thinking, children and young people can bring change to their families and communities, and ultimately to the broader society.” This was reflected in the message of Katharina Von-Schnurbein, coordinator for combating anti-Semitism, who said that to change attitudes in the long term, EU member states need to tackle hate through education by working among teachers and principals. Braun also said that tolerance education must involve the whole spectrum of Jewish history in Europe, not just the Holocaust, which has been the focus of EU efforts until now. He was concerned by reports of anti-Semitic acts in schools and universities in Europe, adding that newcomers to the continent are bringing anti-Semitic attitudes with them and that it is Europe's responsibility to inculcate its basic principles of respect and tolerance into these newcomers.
But putting this approach into question, Dr. Eyal Kaminka, director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, argued that in the current hyper-charged atmosphere at many schools across Europe today, it is doubtful that meaningful change could be affected in schools since, as reported by many of the European teachers his school trains in methods for teaching the Holocaust, they are unable to implement any Holocaust curriculum in the face of student’s raucous objections, fanned by attitudes of Holocaust denial at home. Kaminka called on the EU officials to review the telling testimonies he has compiled of teachers across Europe that reflect the true face of intolerance and anti-Semitism in the classroom.
Perhaps the most hopeful news at the dialogue came from reports on implementation of the new Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online reached this May between the Commission and four major IT platforms: Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Social media is widely recognized as the principal platform for the promotion of anti-Semitic attitudes today. Under the Code, the IT companies must put in place a clear and effective process to review notifications regarding illegal hate speech on their services so they can remove or disable access to such content. Von-Schnurbein said that the Code establishes that the internet is no longer a legal black hole—, as it has been since its inception some 15 years ago, but that standards of incitement and illegal hate speech apply there too as it does in the print and broadcast media, terminating the privilege IT companies had claimed until now that they are not responsible for 3rd party content.
Although much hope was put in the Code, Von-Schnurbein expressed disappointment at the findings of the first review of implementation undertaken in October that indicated that only 28% of flagged entries have been removed by the platforms, a percentage she admitted did not meet expectations. When the fact that the flaggers are all vetted and paid for by the IT companies themselves, the percentage of takedowns pales even further (takedowns of flagged offensive material from non-vetted sources is even lower).
This led a number of participants in the dialogue to express incredulousness at the IT company's continued insistence on using manual flagging while objecting to the institution’s use of more uniform and reliable technological solutions for automatic removal as they already do to generate individualized advertising and content. As reported recently by Digital Trends, Google recently made improvements to its algorithm that will prevent Holocaust denial websites from appearing in search results. This improvement in the algorithm was made after Google came under fire for enabling neo-Nazi and Holocaust-denying websites to rank high up in search results for questions such as: "Did the Holocaust happen?"
Some of the most advanced technology available to cleanse the web from hate speech has been developed in Israel. One of these is Spot.IM—a fully automated tool that monitors the comments sections in online media outlets for hate and verbal violence, identifying individuals who prowl the internet hoping to spark violent discourse or aggravate them. The platform, now used by over 5,000 active news sites and online magazines in the U.S., Israel and Europe—automatically filters their activity up to and including blocking them and deleting their entire comment history.
Israel is also in the process of falling in line with the U.S., Canada, Australia and the UK after a new legislation, the Removal of Terror-Inciting Content from Social Media bill, dubbed the “Facebook bill,” passed first muster last week in the Cabinet. Under the bill, courts will be empowered to order social media companies to remove posts that the authorities consider “a criminal endangerment to personal, public or national security." Although in the past year, 71% of 1,755 requests made by the Justice Ministry to providers to remove content were met, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that while internet companies were cooperating with the government in cleansing the web of content that violates defamation, adoption, Holocaust denial, incitement and anti-terrorism laws, "it is important that this cooperation be required, and not according to their whims.” The bill would apply to posts that “call for an act of violence or terrorism" and demands that posts are removed from visibility in Israel.
The Jewish community in general and B'nai B'rith in particular, along with other watchdog agencies, have a responsibility to ensure that the Commission keeps up pressure on the providers to make the Internet and social media a safer environment. In fact, speakers at the dialogue expressed that the dedication and commitment exhibited by Jewish interlocutors on this issue could be duplicated among other targeted minorities in Europe. This is a distinction I believe many of us would be only too happy to concede.
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B'nai B'rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B'nai B'rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.