In April 2017, Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Jewish woman, was beaten and thrown out the window of her building in Paris in a shocking anti-Semitic murder. The suspect claimed insanity and was hospitalized. For a long time, French authorities refused to recognize the anti-Semitic nature of the attack. They were eventually forced to do so by a court ruling later in 2018.
Looking back, the Halimi case seems to be the first of a long series of abhorrent anti-Semitic attacks that were covered extensively in the media and gave expression to the 74 percent statistical rise in anti-Semitic incidents from one year to the next reported by French police.
In March 2018, Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, was stabbed 11 times in her home in Paris by two neighbors. In February 2019, 96 graves in a Jewish cemetery in the town of Quatzenheim, north-east France, were desecrated and covered in swastikas. Just days later, a monument at the site of the Old Synagogue of Strasbourg, which was burned down by Nazis, was itself destroyed. The yellow-vest protests, initially working-class protests against rising fuel taxes, became a repository of anti-Semitic sentiment from across the political and ideological spectrum, bargaining in globalist conspiracies and financial domination tropes. As recently as a few days ago, on Dec. 3, in Westhoffen, Alsace, more than 100 graves in the Jewish cemetery were defaced and covered with swastikas.
These chilling incidents did not pass without public outcry and strong declarations by leading political figures, public protests and marches of solidarity - comforting signs for a Jewish community seriously contemplating leaving France.
Yet there seemed to be a manifest reluctance toward taking one of the most basic steps in the fight against this blooming hatred: defining the problem. More precisely, there seemed to be no traction in adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, the gold standard in the field. So obscure was this idea that even the Jewish community did little by way of demanding the definition be adopted.
I submit that three main unspoken arguments hid behind this reluctance: the freedom of speech argument, a perceived competition of victimhood and the omnipresent concerns about Israel-speak.
The freedom of speech argument. In the country of some of history’s greatest thinkers, in a place that arguably fetishizes debate and deliberation, any sniff of the stifling of freedom of speech is viewed with much skepticism. To answer this criticism, one must emphasize that the working definition is a legally non-binding tool that allows us to have an informed discussion about what constitutes anti-Semitism. It does not ban one from speaking in anti-Semitic terms; it merely helps us identify and flag the speech as such.
The perceived competition of victimhood. “If we adopt a formal definition of anti-Semitism, each minority community will demand the same,” goes the argument. On one hand, to this one must say: Yes, we must strive to understand each form of discrimination thoroughly, in all its complexity. On the other hand, we must acknowledge the difficult situation that France’s political leadership finds itself in. The country is home to the EU’s largest Jewish and Muslim populations as well as many other large minority groups - ethnic, religious and otherwise.
The Nov. 10 March Against Islamophobia highlights a worrying competition of victimhood: photos surfaced of Muslim activists wearing yellow stars, suggesting the circumstances of Muslims in France today are equatable to those of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. A bewildering implication, but one that highlights real sentiments among large swaths of France’s population. However, such pervasive realities make the definition - and, generally, action against anti-Semitism - all the more necessary.
The right to criticize Israel argument. Of course, one of the most prevalent arguments used against the IHRA definition is a concern with limitations on criticizing Israel. Now, the definition clearly outlines the following instances related to Israel as being anti-Semitic:
Thus, as much as the definition curtails demonization of Israel, it in fact takes explicit steps to ensure criticism of Israel may be leveled.
Alas, in the midst of escalating anti-Semitic incidents, on the Feb. 20, 2019, at the annual dinner of the CRIF - the federation of French Jewish organizations, President Emmanuel Macron had little choice but to announce that his government would adopt the definition. Months later, MP Sylvain Maillard submitted a piece of legislation that had the definition as a centerpiece (however, without its important examples made explicit) in front of the National Assembly, the French Parliament. The review of his proposal was postponed multiple times and eventually put to a vote on Dec. 3. Ahead of the vote, a broad campaign against the proposal surfaced on the Internet, brochures making the case against the IHRA definition emerged and there was real concern the proposal wouldn’t pass.
Fortunately, it has since been voted for - with a solid majority. Now, France has an important and absolutely necessary tool in its portfolio to tackle anti-Semitism. It shouldn’t have taken so long, it shouldn’t have been so hard, but the effort was certainly worth it.
Alina Bricman is the Director of EU Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) from 2017 to 2019 and worked for the Representation of the European Commission in Romania and for the Median Research Centre, a Romanian civil society NGO focused on civil engagement and combating xenophobia. She studied political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest and at the Central European University in Budapest.
The European Commission - the European Union’s powerful executive body, responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding E.U. treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the E.U. - is being confirmed this week by the European Parliament. Earlier in July, former German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen was appointed commission president. Over the summer, she assembled a team of 27 commissioners nominated by the E.U.’s member states to be put forward to Parliament for approval. The U.K., currently in the midst of Brexit, has opted not to nominate a commissioner.
The team is gender-balanced, has an average age of 55.9 years and is mostly derived from Europe’s three largest political families (conservatives, social democrats and classical liberals). However, the proposed commissioners are not without controversy: At least four candidates are facing corruption allegations, and two of them, the Hungarian and the Romanian candidates, have already been rejected by committee in the initial rounds of hearings.
With eye-catching figures, murmurs and rumors in every corner, the question to keep in mind is, what does this mean for the issues important to us?
In short, three takeaways stand out. Two are good news, while one is not:
But before jumping to the implications of the new makeup of the commission, let’s open a bracket and look at the inventory the outgoing commission leaves for the new team.
The E.U.’s feeble, reluctant and occasionally one-sided involvement in the Middle East Peace Process was an object of criticism in the last mandate. Outgoing High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini has been herself a strong supporter of the Iran Deal, has withstood calls to add Hezbollah in its entirety to the list of terrorist organizations and has, consequently, often been deemed by Jerusalem as anti-Israel.
Beyond E.U.-Israel relations, though, much work has been done on combating anti-Semitism at the domestic level. While one could justifiably argue that it’s hard to speak of one thing without the other, the outgoing commission does deserve props on this front. Under the auspices of its first vice president, Frans Timmermans, and overseen by Jourova, Coordinator for Combating Antisemitism Katharina von Schnurbein, was appointed in late 2015 and since then has moved from success to success. Among other things, she pushed for the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti--Semitism, brought about the second and largest-ever survey of perceptions and experiences of anti--Semitism among European Jews and the first-ever report of perceptions of anti-Semitism among young Jews and put in place a Commission Working Group on Anti-Semitism. The working group was mandated by a declaration forwarded unanimously by the 28 E.U. member states in December 2018.
Beyond these necessary and important structural advancements, which signaled a significant change of pace in relation to past efforts, a strong narrative about Europe’s Jewish heritage and the place of the Jewish community in Europe today anchored the work on anti-Semitism.
What to expect next?
As Jourova assumes her role as commission vice president for values and transparency, she will be in charge of dialogue with religious organizations and communities, among her other duties, and thus is likely to continue her work on Jewish issues. She will oversee the Commissioner-designate for justice, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, a friend of the Belgian Jewish community who, by the way, on the day of his nomination attended a B’nai B’rith Rescuers Citation event. If the previous commission is any indication, the topic of antisemitism and the protection of Jewish life in Europe will fall under their purview.
Also of interest: Vice President-designate from Greece Margaritis Schinas, a former commission spokesman, was caught in a storm of criticism about the title of his portfolio, “Our European Way of Life”. While some appreciated the not-so-veiled concerns over migration, others - myself included - were left wondering what this even means, and whether this title included the Jewish way of life and that of all other minorities, or was just meant as reassurance for the right--wing Christian conservatives that form the political home of the new commission president. Vice President Schinas will oversee Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli, who is known in Malta for pushing through marriage equality in one of Europe’s most conservative countries. She will lead the fight against discrimination and thus may also be dealing with issues of antisemitism, although it remains unclear how responsibilities will be split between the equality and justice portfolios. Without much background of work either with the Jewish community or on matters relating to Israel, it seems a clean slate awaits us for both.
On foreign policy, those hoping they could finally sigh in relief over Mogherini’s concluded term ought to think again. Borrell, a former President of the European Parliament, comes in as high representative-designate with decades of experience as an outspoken and often polemic politician, with some troubling baggage regarding Israel and the region.
Although Borrell lived in Kibbutz Gal On shortly after graduating, where he met his first wife, he seemingly holds on to no positive feelings about Israel - at least as far as his foreign policy positions go.
He has spoken with some praise of the progress made by Iran since the Islamic revolution and Iran’s own state propaganda has described him as tough on Israel and fond of Iran, adding that “the Zionist entity is “wary” of the incoming E.U. foreign policy chief.” A keen supporter of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), he warmly welcomed Mahmoud Abbas to Strasbourg in 2006. We can only hope he will continue to hold the flimsy E.U. line on the conflict. It is worth noting that Borrell has met with B’nai B’rith leadership on the side of the U.N. General Assembly, which is hopefully indicative of his future receptiveness to our concerns.
So as the pieces of the puzzle start coming together and final confirmations of portfolios are announced, it’s sure that we’re entering a new chapter of Jewish and Israel advocacy here in Brussels. As the new B’nai B’rith Director of E.U. Affairs, I’m excited to tackle it all head-on.
Alina Bricman is the Director of E.U. Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) from 2017 to 2019 and worked for the Representation of the European Commission in Romania and for the Median Research Centre, a Romanian civil society NGO focused on civil engagement and combating xenophobia. She studied political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest and at the Central European University in Budapest.
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