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.
The dust has settled, and final votes are in.
First off, the good news: Election participation was over 50 percent, the highest in over 20 years, and the much-feared landslide victory of far-right and Eurosceptic parties has been, at least in part, avoided. Only Great Britain, France and Italy saw them take the lead. Young people, especially, overwhelmingly voted for pro-European parties.
Overall, there was no clear winner, no comprehensive E.U. picture for the total of 751 seats in the European Parliament: Germany, Austria and Greece saw Christian democratic parties in the lead. Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Sweden saw the resurgence of social democratic parties. National-conservatives won elections in Belgium and Poland, and liberal parties won Estonia, the Czech Republic and Denmark. The Greens were able to gain significantly overall and increase their seats in the European Parliament to 69, as did the liberal parties.
At the same time, the Christian-democratic and socialist center lost a combined 80 seats. The consequent loss of the overall combined majority of their respective political groups, the European People’s party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), in the European Parliament is historic and will make the obligatory approval by vote in the European Parliament of either one of their commission presidential candidates, Weber or Timmermans, that much more difficult. This makes the stronger Greens and Liberals the kingmakers in the upcoming path to staff not only the office of commission president, but also other top E.U. institutional posts, such as foreign affairs high commissioner, parliament president and individual commissioner posts.
The new big coalition of far-right national parties, such as France’s Rassemblement National or Germany’s AfD, which had already been proclaimed during the election campaign, could make them the third-strongest group inside the European parliament, with up to 112 seats. If the existing conservative and Eurosceptic party ECR were to join, the new power group could reach up to 171 seats, thereby overtaking the EPP and S&D, which would be a serious game-changer. Fortunately, this is highly unlikely to happen.
When it comes to Jewish topics, both Timmermans and Weber would be good candidates and proven partners for the commission’s top job. Weber has been strongly dedicated to the fight against anti-Semitism as EPP group leader, even launching his current election campaign in Auschwitz to emphasize his commitment and historical responsibility to Holocaust remembrance and combatting anti-Semitism. Timmermans himself was responsible, as first vice president of the European Commission, for creating the crucial position of the E.U.’s Anti-Semitism Coordinator Katharina von Schnurbein, who was appointed by and reports directly to him.
But both might not make it, despite representing the two biggest political groups in the parliament, due to the lack of a combined majority. The current European commissioner for competition, the Danish Margrethe Vestager, who was also the lead candidate for the Liberals, has already started to strongly lobby and negotiate herself.
The impact on foreign policy, especially in regards to Israel and the Middle East peace process, but also Iran and the nuclear deal, is tough to predict at this point as well. There was overall strong support for Israel from right-wing conservative parties during the last mandate, and an often very critical, sometimes highly problematic position from Liberals and left-wing parties, including Greens.
The growth on both sides of the political spectrum could mean a further polarization on this subject matter. The Green Party, for example, has been pushing some troubling pro-BDS rhetoric and events during the last years. The only voices of reason within the group were often the group’s German members, who prevented these topics from tilting even further into one-sided bashing. The doubling in size of German members in the Green group gives way to hope that increased German representation will further affect the group’s Middle East agenda in a positive way down the road.
But ultimately, this is just the beginning of months-long backroom castings and negotiations between heads of states for the top E.U. jobs. Their predecessors will be officially replaced only at the end of October at the earliest.
Until then, we will see significant change in the political group landscape, with the Liberal Group ALDE being joined by Macron’s En Marche, and the far-right groups forming their new coalition. The question is whether the Hungarian Fidesz party will stay in the EPP group, or if the U.K.’s Eurosceptic UKIP party will be joining the new right-wing coalition. Both parties were the election winners in their respective countries, and their decisions about which groups to join could further significantly alter the outcome and fragile power balance.
All of this will further impact the distribution of not only the top commission jobs, but also the parliament president and relevant committee chairs, who can heavily steer the agenda-setting and legislation themselves.
Benjamin Nägele was named director of E.U. affairs for B’nai B’rith International in 2015. In this capacity he focuses on promoting EU-Israel relations and advocates for Jewish causes at the European institutions in Brussels. He previously worked as an EU affairs officer for B’nai B’rith International and as a policy advisor at the European Parliament. Click here to read more of his work.
The upcoming European Parliament elections will be crucial.
Amidst the chaos and confusion of Brexit, the established political parties, such as the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D), are predicted to lose a significant amount of seats and, with them, their combined majority in Parliament.
Years after the so--called migration crisis, the established parties have still not found an answer to rising far-right, populist and anti-European movements that have significantly grown among almost all EU member states, taking the lead in polls in at least three: Italy, Poland and France.
This trend will have significant impact on the new European Parliament, which is being elected from May 23rd to May 26th across Europe and will have its constituent session in July of this year.
In addition to S&D and EPP losing their combined majority, far-right and nationalistic groups are predicted to double their seats yet again. It was just announced that some of these groups are planning to form a new coalition with parties ranging from the German Alternative for Germany to the Danish People’s Party to the Italian 5 Star Movement that will significantly increase their influence in the EU Parliament.
To make matters worse, the biggest group, EPP, is shrinking further, having just suspended Victor Orban’s Hungarian Fidesz party due to its anti-European and anti-Semitic campaigns, which might also put into jeopardy the nomination of Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber as new commission president.
With the election campaigns just starting, politicians from centrist parties are calling for a doomsday vote, hysterically reiterating the importance of this vote as the year of destiny that will make or break the European Union. But one cannot ignore the strange feeling of having seen and heard all of this before:
The slogans and warnings were the same in 2014 during the last elections, when the campaign promises from the various parties were almost identical to the current ones.
The only thing that seems to have changed, besides the increased urgency of the surge in right-wing populist movements, is the fact that the political groups in the EU Parliament spent yet another five years unable or unwilling to address the urgent issues and present a proper alternative to rising populism, nationalism and, with it, also the terrifying rise of anti-Semitism across Europe.
It might look as if the EU has done quite a lot in the time between the 2014 elections and today, including creating the position of a special coordinator on combatting anti-Semitism, implementing a code of conduct with IT companies to tackle hate speech and anti-Semitism online, adopting an EU Parliament Anti-Semitism Resolution in 2017 and Council Declaration in 2018 and making combatting anti-Semitism a priority in the last two EU Council presidencies of Austria and Romania.
But despite all of these efforts, the phenomenon of anti-Semitism has nevertheless escalated across Europe. The 2018 EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency Report on Anti-Semitism is the undeniable proof for this devastating failure.
The fear is that this further shift to the right after the elections will also significantly threaten the already too-little and too-ineffective efforts against anti-Semitism on the EU level and in its member states.
The political power shift will have direct implications for the European Parliament committee chairs and the Parliament president and vice-presidents as well as the nomination and confirmation of EU commissioners.
Imagine what will happen if the relevant European Parliament committee for fundamental rights and combatting anti-Semitism, the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home affairs committee (LIBE), is chaired by a far-right nationalist member of parliament. Imagine having a xenophobic, populist justice commissioner a few months from now.
This is not doom-mongering, but is unfortunately a possible scenario that already exists in EU member states such as Austria, where all ministries relevant to Jewish issues are in the hands of the populist far-right FPÖ, a party with which the Israelite Community of Vienna rightfully refuses to engage.
And to complicate matters even further, the European heads of state have just decided in a special council meeting in Brussels that the U.K. will get yet another extension until Oct. 31, 2019, to sort out the messy Brexit negotiation gridlock, including full membership rights and obligations that will make them participate in the EU elections as well as negotiations for the upcoming EU budget and composition of the new EU commission should they be unable to leave beforehand by agreeing to the existing deal.
There is still so much to do to even slow down the ugly resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. The last thing anyone needs is yet another deterioration of the political status quo in the EU that will make the fight against anti-Semitism even more difficult and might lock down the EU institutions altogether, thereby making them unable to protect what they were established to do: protecting and promoting the European values of fundamental rights for each and every one of its citizens.
Benjamin Nägele was named director of E.U. affairs for B’nai B’rith International in 2015. In this capacity he focuses on promoting EU-Israel relations and advocates for Jewish causes at the European institutions in Brussels. He previously worked as an EU affairs officer for B’nai B’rith International and as a policy advisor at the European Parliament. Click here to read more of his work.
This week, United States sanctions that were lifted after the signing of the 2015 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program began to be reimposed following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal, whose other signatories were Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union. With saber-rattling renewed between Tehran and Washington — but economic stress in Iran prompting some Iranians, if not yet their leadership, to consider President Trump’s offer to negotiate with “no preconditions” — a review of the original deal’s terms and pitfalls is in order.
The 2015 agreement required Iran to give up and limit or suspend a substantial part of its nuclear material and activity: Iran was obligated to eliminate roughly 97 percent of its uranium stockpile, dismantle and put under seal two-thirds of its centrifuges, cap uranium enrichment at levels considerably below weapons grade and remove the core of its plutonium reactor. The deal also required Iran to accept extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and it required Iran to pledge never to obtain a nuclear weapon.
But, of course, the deal was very far from air-tight:
While the IAEA has reported finding no evidence of major Iranian noncompliance with the deal thus far, Tehran has a long record of able deception and of violating commitments — as reconfirmed in the extensive intelligence material recently made public by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, refuting Iran’s claim that its supreme leader forbade outright any pursuit of nuclear weaponry.
One significant and underreported reality about the U.S. pullout from the deal is that it reflected, and solidified, growing Arab-Israeli alignment focused on containing the Iranian threat. This, if nothing else, is a silver lining to the Iranian problem, and the U.S. is a critical partner in encouraging Arab-Israeli reconciliation and cooperation.
At the same time, does the potential unraveling of the nuclear deal help or hurt the most extreme elements in Iran? It isn’t easy to say. The hardline Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which maintains significant power in Iran’s economy, finds ways to benefit from especially difficult times, and the nuclear deal was associated with the relative “moderates” in Iran. At the same time, economic strain in Iran builds pressure against the regime — as seen in the most recent popular protests calling for an end to corruption and an end to the foreign adventurism that has made Iran the world’s leading state-sponsor of terror.
Global observers continue to assess the initial U.S. nuclear talks this year with North Korea. How are those negotiations influencing, and also being influenced by, the Iran experience? Iran has told North Korea that it can’t trust the U.S. to stay in a deal — though American firmness on Iran had at least set a high bar for the North Korean process. On the other hand, North Korea, unlike Iran, is already known to have nuclear weaponry. Will Iran be tempted to follow Pyongyang’s lead in engaging in new talks, or, prioritizing its saving of face, will it refuse to renegotiate the deal of 2015?
In the meantime, primary focus has been on the response by European allies to the U.S. withdrawal. While the Europeans became politically and economically wedded to the deal — and have already now been reeling over separate disagreements with the U.S. over the Paris climate accord, free trade agreements, tariffs, and NATO and other coalitions — European government officials have started acknowledging that it will be difficult to maintain the deal without American participation, since European companies will not want to lose access to the U.S. market by violating Washington’s reimposed sanctions on Iran.
If, in fact, Europe is unable to preserve the economic incentives needed to keep the Iranians themselves in the nuclear agreement, and it collapses, the question is: what happens next? Russia and China would likely veto attempts to reinstate U.N. sanctions. Iran, perhaps just short of provoking outright war, will almost surely make a point of ramping up nuclear activity. Iran will also continue to want to extract a price from Israel for the U.S. pullout —just as it and its proxies such as Hezbollah are already keen to undermine Arab-Israeli partnership and to recoup popular credibility among Arabs, lost in the bloody sectarian war in Syria, by again attacking Israel. And Israel, for its part, has made clear that it will act against the build-up of Iranian military positions in Syria to match those it established in Lebanon along the border with Israel. Russia has reportedly signaled that it will help maintain distance between the Iranians and Israel’s boundaries, although both Russia and Iran have served as critical allies preserving the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Only time will tell whether a more dependable, comprehensive and lasting resolution of Iranian nuclear and other destabilizing activities will be achieved. However, to achieve it, common purpose will be needed. If such commonality can be reached by many Arabs and Israelis, it should be between the U.S. and Europe, as well as India, Japan and others who are being pressed to wean themselves off of Iranian oil. No less, commonality can and must be reached between Republicans and Democrats, who long shared a bipartisan recognition that the Iranian threat is an existential one for indispensable allies of the United States.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
On July 29, 2014 three Palestinians, according to their own testimony, highly intoxicated, filled six bottles with petrol and threw them against the synagogue in Wuppertal. One of the perpetrators was arrested on sight while filming the arriving firefighters and commentating in Arabic.
The district court of Wuppertal sentenced the three young men to suspended sentences for up to two years, largely due to the fact that they did not have a previous criminal record, the marginal damage at the synagogue and the fact that they were apologetic and covered for the caused damage.
More surprising than the verdict and mild punishment itself was the opinion given by the court: The judge ruled and sentenced the accused only for arson, believing the defendants claim that they did not have anything against Jews and just wanted to raise awareness of the war in Gaza, therefore ruling out any anti-Semitic motivation due to lack of evidence.
Unlike many European Union member-states, Germany does not explicitly punish hate crimes as such. But it does allow for hate motivation to be taken into account in assessing sentences.
Following the ruling, an outcry went through the media and Jewish communities, especially the small community of Wuppertal. Most of them of Russian origin, they had escaped persecution and discrimination in the former Soviet Union and came to Germany in the ‘80s and ‘90s in the hope of a better life, now left in shock and traumatized.
The state of Germany and its police and judiciary had, as in many other cases over the summer and during anti-Israel demonstrations, abandoned their obligation to prevent or at least prosecute obvious anti-Semitic attacks and slander.
Once again shouts such as “Jews to the Gas” or “Kill the Jews” could be heard in the streets of major cities, without the police that accompanied the protestors making any attempt of holding the shouters responsible or stopping and prosecuting them.
But what’s even more worrisome and troubling than the misguided and flawed court ruling of 2015 is the confirmation, in second instance, by the higher district court and Judge Thomas Bittner, who ruled on an appeal on points of law by the prosecution. The court only slightly increased the sentence, again on parole, but followed the reasoning of the previous court decision:
“The attack on the Wuppertal synagogue cannot be defined as anti-Semitic, there is simply no proof for an anti-Semitic motivation,” states the official court ruling.
“Can there be a clearer indication for anti-Semitism than trying to burn down a synagogue?” rightfully asks Leonid Goldberg, the Jewish Community leader in Wuppertal, in an interview with German magazine Spiegel.
This was not an Israeli embassy, but a house of God, used by Jewish German citizens, not Israelis, to practice their faith. If one were to make up a textbook definition of anti-Zionism becoming anti-Semitic, this would be it.
The judge also missed out on the opportunity to respond to the summation of the prosecutor Kiskel, in which he stated that the attack was obviously anti-Semitic.
The now legally binding and confirmed regional court decision is a final confirmation of a clear case of German jurisprudence’ surrender towards anti-Semitic hate crimes motivated by a distain for the state of Israel.
A devastating and shocking signal to German Jews, not only due to the fact that a German synagogue was in flames once again (the original Wuppertal had been burned down during the infamous Kristallnacht) but for the incomprehensible court decision that refused to make the shockingly obvious connection between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
But this case just makes the real underlying problem obvious once again:
The lack of a working definition on anti-Semitism that encompasses all forms of old and new anti-Semitism, including forms of anti-Zionism, that can be used as a guideline and tool.
Another failed attempt to adopt such a definition had just been made by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) during its annual conference in Hamburg in December of 2016 (decisions are made unanimously, and out of the 57 member states only one, Russia, opposed the adoption).
Germany itself as rotating chair of the OSCE had prioritized and lobbied for the adoption of an anti-Semitism definition. The same definition which the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) had adopted already earlier this year, and which includes, among others, two paragraphs that would have helped the judge in Wuppertal to not make such a terrible mistake:
To be fair, the appeal on points of law was in regards to the length of the sentence, and not regarding a re-evaluation of the motivation behind the attack. The court in Wuppertal also did not, as claimed by the Jerusalem Post and other media articles, claim that the attack was a justified criticism of Israel, the contrary was the case: Judge Bittner recognized the heavy traumatization of the Jewish community and made clear that this was no juvenile prank but a serious crime.
He nevertheless did not follow the prosecutors demand for a sentence without parole. What the new appeal ruling also failed to do, despite getting a second chance to correct the terrible mistake of its predecessor, was point out the obvious anti-Semitic character of the attack and thereby send an urgently-needed, strong message to the Jewish community that the German judicial system is able to recognize and prosecute anti-Semitic incidents against its Jewish population.
Not once did Judge Bittner mention the word anti-Semitic in his ruling.
This case is another instance that proves and drives B'nai B'rith's work and engagement in pushing for an official definition on anti-Semitism to better protect our Jewish communities and prevent such attacks from not being labeled for what it really is: another shameful anti-Semitic attack on a Jewish community in Europe.
World attention has recently been focused on the shameful passage of an anti-Israel resolution on settlements at the U.N. Security Council. Resolution 2334 contains a litany of criticism of Israel while absurdly striking a tone on incitement and terrorism that puts the onus on both sides of the conflict.
The resolution condemns all building beyond the 1949 Jordanian-Israeli armistice line—a line created after Jordan and other neighboring Arab states invaded the newly independent State of Israel in an attempt to annihilate it from existence. The armistice line (also known as the “Green Line”) stood in place until 1967, when Jordan and other Arab states again tried to destroy Israel, only to lose significant territory in the Six-Day War, when Israel liberated the eastern part of Jerusalem (including the Old City) and Judea and Samaria (which Jordan had by then re-named the “West Bank”), among other territories.
The section in Resolution 2334 that could prove to be the most problematic in the long term is a vaguely worded passage that calls on states to “distinguish” between their dealings with Israel and territories Israel gained during the Six-Day War. It’s not clear how states should “distinguish” their actions, but it is clear how the Palestinians and the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement will read this phrase—they will clearly try to use this as international cover for a boycott.
More on the Latest Anti-Israel U.N. Resolution
On the same day that the Security Council passed Resolution 2334, the General Assembly’s 5th Committee (the U.N.’s administrative and budget committee) decided, by its usually lop-sided anti-Israel majority, to fund a Human Rights Council (HRC) decision from March to create a database of companies doing business in areas beyond the Green Line. There is no ambiguity about what is happening with this decision—the U.N. is being willingly co-opted to become the secretariat of the BDS movement, creating a list of companies that activists can draw upon for divestment campaigns.
Israel submitted an amendment to this 5th Committee resolution to strip the funding from the mandate, but only Australia, Canada, Guatemala, Palau and the United States sided with Israel. The European Union (EU) gave a statement saying that EU member states would vote against the amendment as a bloc (even though the EU did not support the original HRC decision in March, albeit only by abstention), because it was important to stand by a principle of not letting policy discussion distract from the budgetary process, which is often run by consensus. Apparently that principle is more important than the principle that the United Nations should not be co-opted for anti-Semitic purposes.
The EU has been trying on this issue to have its cake and eat it too. Some EU members have laws against boycotts of Israel (and EU leaders pay lip service to opposing a boycott), yet the EU Commission put out guidelines by which member states should label all Israeli products from the disputed territories. While the guidelines do not explicitly call for a boycott of goods from the settlements, it seems only reasonable to deduce that it is meant to enable one.
The U.N.’s database will contain Israel companies based in the disputed territories, of course, but it will also likely target outside corporations that do business in the territories, multinational corporations that help bring security for Israeli citizens regardless of whether they reside within the Green Line or not. And it could very well be broadened to include Israeli businesses not even based in the territories, but those such as banks and stores that operate wherever their Israeli customers reside.
These recent U.N. actions may have created an overreach that provides an opportunity to move the U.N. in the right course. The Security Council resolution has created a furor in Congress and the incoming administration, which has led to threats of action against the U.N. Because of this, we’re now hearing the use of a word that we have not heard in a while at the U.N.—“reform.” If there is to be any reform at the U.N., one of the first priorities must be to reverse the barely concealed anti-Semitic efforts to boycott Israel that so many member states seem willing to either promote or at the very least tolerate.
Despite an astounding array of conventions, covenants, directives, framework decisions, case law and other existing legal instruments meant to ensure human rights and freedom from discrimination in the European Union, Jews continue to face high levels of anti-Semitism in nearly all of the 28 EU member states.
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.
The Times of Israel ran an op-ed written by B'nai B'rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin on Europe's tilt toward the Palestinian's and how many EU countries help the Palestinians game the the United Nations against Israel in the conflict.
You can read the full op-ed below or click to read it on TimesOfIsrael.com
Through this summer’s din and uncertainty of Brexit, the migration crisis and a wave of terror, Europe has remained constant in one respect: its singular fixation on a wrong-headed policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
If the Middle East were an arrivals and departures board at a train station, the Israeli-Palestinian question would be down somewhere at the fifth or sixth spot, behind the war on ISIS, the Syrian civil war, the Libya fiasco and Iranian hegemonism. All those decades in which the mantra “if you solve the Palestinian issue, all outstanding issues will fall into place,” has been proven to be nothing more than hollow conventional wisdom. The Sunni-Shia divide has become a roiling ocean, creating aftershocks in nearly every corner of the region — and beyond.
For years, the Palestinian leadership has become accustomed to “pride of place” on the issue, picking up supporters and apologists globally, but no more so than in Europe itself. Explanations for this are varied: some countries were concerned at one point about the spread of PLO terrorism in Europe, and sought accommodation with the terrorist organization. Some European governments were driven by ideological considerations and looked the other way at the thuggery, then the obstructionism of the PLO and its successors, while coming down hard on a succession of center-left and center-right Israeli governments. Some European leaders saw themselves as mediators and interlocutors, worrying that a shortage of obeisance to the Palestinian narrative would disqualify them from being “honest brokers.”
Indeed, since its 1980 Venice Declaration, in which the then-EEC (European Economic Community) supported the Palestinian’s call for “self-determination,” Europe has always tilted to the Palestinian side, despite the existence of generally good bilateral relations between a number of European Union (EU) countries and Israel.
As the EU grew in size, some differences in this approach became discernible. After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, a number of the new democracies could be found voting against, or abstaining on issues considered to be biased against Israel at the United Nations (U.N.) and other international fora. Increasingly, though, the demand for consensus in EU voting has seen the voting independence of the former Central and Eastern European states dissipate in the face of pressure from Brussels and from a number of the senior EU member capitals.
The 2012 decision to upgrade the status of the Palestinians to “non-member state”—despite the EU’s call for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, with the object of reaching a two state solution—was supported by no less than 14 EU members. Only the Czech Republic voted against; 12 others abstained. The message to the Palestinian Authority couldn’t have been clearer: why negotiate with Israel when the international community, including key European countries, could do the heavy lifting for it?
Gaming the U.N. system has become a PA specialty.
One recent case in point is a resolution singling out Israel recently adopted at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Health Assembly in Geneva. The measure, introduced by Kuwait on behalf of the Arab Group and Palestine, singled out Israel for “physical and procedural barriers to health access” in the territories, east Jerusalem and what they call the “Syrian Golan.” The text also cited the “prolonged occupation and human rights violations on mental, physical and environmental health…”
Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the daily lives of Israelis and Palestinians knows that emergency rooms and hospital wards in Israel treat Palestinians on a daily basis. Indeed, the Israeli organization, Save a Child’s Heart, which performs, gratis, pediatric cardiac surgery, has treated more than 2,000 Palestinian children since its inception in 1996. Beyond that, Israel has been treating hundreds of cases of civilians from across Syria who have been wounded in the barrel bombings and other carnage of that bloody war in medical facilities in the northern part of Israel.
And yet, 107 countries supported this libelous WHO resolution, including all 28 EU member states. On a continent where the blood libel against Jewish communities was a prominent fixture of life in the Middle Ages, and on the basis of facts widely known in European capitals, it is both incomprehensible, and reprehensible that Israel should be castigated in this way.
Another recent example of Palestinian influence at the U.N. is the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Executive Board’s vote in favor of a resolution on “Occupied Palestine.” There are 40 points in the resolution, some of it rehashing previous resolutions condemning Israel for all manner of absurd accusations of “desecrating” holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. But this measure makes no reference at all to the Temple Mount, only to its Islamic/Arabic name, Al-Haram Al-Sharif. In the resolution, the plaza in front of the Western Wall is referred to as the Al-Buraq Plaza; “Western Wall Plaza” is noted in quotes only.
This isn’t only a matter of semantics, or “sensitivity.” In the past, the United Nations documents have referenced the holy site by both the name recognized by Judaism and Christianity (the Temple Mount) and Islam (Al-Haram Al-Sharif). This current re-writing of history, and the elimination of both the Jewish and Christian places in that history, was supported by 33 countries overall. Four EU countries actually supported the measure, and five did oppose, with two abstentions. But why was there a division in Europe over this blatant historical revisionism?
To the Palestinians, all of this has a purpose: to erase or delegitimize Israel’s, and the Jewish people’s claim to the land. That European countries, no strangers to either the Jewish narrative on their own continent or to the ancient connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, would, for the sake of diplomatic expediency, dismiss that history with a simple keystroke or a voting show of hands, is unacceptable.
There’s even more counterproductive meddling beyond the U.N. system. Case in point: Last fall’s EU directive to label products from the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights prejudges an issue (settlements) that belongs in a direct negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians. The EU itself, as a member of the Quartet (which also includes the United States, the United Nations and Russia), wants to have it both ways. Calling for face-to-face negotiations but siding with the Palestinians before those talks have even begun on this issue.
This all amounts to flawed diplomacy. Those European countries which engage in this kind of voting behavior or in extra-curricular diplomacy could better spend their time encouraging the Palestinians to end their quixotic sullying of Israel, rather than enabling it. These resolutions set back what remains of the peace process, they don’t advance it. Palestinian expectations are inflated when Europe backs these initiatives, and in Israel, the belief that it can never get a fair break at the U.N. and other international fora is reinforced.
It’s time for Brussels and other European capitals to send a simple message to Ramallah: if you’re serious about peace, get to the table. If not, there is no shortage of crises to occupy our time and attention.
“And if a foreigner sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. Like one of your citizens shall be the foreigner who sojourns with you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
“And you shall guard your lives exceedingly” (Deuteronomy 4:15)
Long before this past weekend’s terrorist attacks in Paris, French and other Western European Jews acutely felt the conflicting pulls of an instinctive empathy for the plight of refugees but also of a particular vulnerability to the security risks accompanying a substantial, let alone uncontrolled, influx of migrants and others from the Middle East. These Jews bear memories of not only the Holocaust but also, often, their own immigrant experiences originating in North Africa and elsewhere. On the other hand, the eventual arrival in Europe of a very large Arab-Muslim population was marked by the dwarfing of domestic Jewish communities’ relative size; much more importantly, the growth in numbers of the Middle Eastern newcomers, rarely as well-integrated as their counterparts in the United States, correlated directly with a continuous intensification of anti-Jewish hostility and violence.
As a result, the focal point of continental anti-Semitism has decisively shifted from Eastern Europe, where “traditional” religious and ethnic animus long pervaded, to Western Europe, to which the Middle East’s toxic anti-Zionism was, already well prior to the recent waves of asylum-seekers, imported in significant volume by the immigrants. Critically, moreover, many of these immigrants were the product of societies that make little distinction between “Zionists” and Jews in general: stark Pew Research Center surveys have found negativity rates of over 90 percent toward Jews--not even simply Israelis—in most Muslim-majority countries the group examined.
And so, with publicly wearing yarmulkes or Star of David pendants having increasingly become a genuine safety hazard in much of France and Western Europe, Jewish anxiety over the expanding presence of Islamic radicalism predates the current moment of collective European alarm. What has over recent months fragmented and stymied European officialdom as a massive humanitarian, socioeconomic and political challenge—the flood of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans and others crossing Europe’s shores and borders—could easily have been recognized by many European Jews as also being a signal security crisis. Over recent months and years alone, after all, they experienced shootings at a Jewish school in Toulouse, the Jewish museum in Brussels and a bat mitzvah celebration in Copenhagen; open expressions of anti-Semitism in Malmo, London and elsewhere; and a litany of attacks in the French capital, whose large Jewish population has slowly declined through aliya, that included the gruesome kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi, a synagogue besieged, a Jewish woman raped and (in the shadow of the Charlie Hebdo killings this year) Hyper Cacher grocery shoppers slaughtered.
Meanwhile, the one Western European country where, for obvious historical reasons, overt bigotry toward both “Zionists” and Jews still remains substantially inadmissible, Germany, is for those same and additional reasons bearing the lion’s share of European absorption of Middle Eastern refugees—refugees that, at some 800,000 this year alone, will alter Germany’s demographic landscape, quickly constituting around 1 percent of the country’s populace. If history and the fundamental rules of politics are any guide, many of these immigrants will not so easily depart even if the severe upheaval in their homelands is ever settled, and they will inevitably exert influence on their adopted countries’ societal culture and political policies—including those impacting to what degree Jews still consider Europe a viable and hospitable home, as well as those with regard to the unceasing jihadist onslaught faced by Israel. Sadly, too many French and Belgian policymakers, whose countries were most directly impacted by this week’s tragedy, have frequently failed to afford the Jewish state the principled, unwavering support and solidarity that they have received following atrocities that lack any legitimate justification.
But if the latest carnage in Paris has provided searing affirmation for those fearing the “overrunning” of Europe by people who might include more of those committed to striking Western civilization from within, Jews in particular could not and cannot help but be indelibly impacted by other images that have emerged from the Middle Eastern exodus to Europe over recent months. The sights and sounds of refugee families traversing hundreds of perilous miles by sea and on foot, desperately cramming into overheated trains or reception camps—in one country, migrants even briefly had numbers written on their arms by local officials—have been, plainly, unbearable. And the photograph of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach cried out to the collective conscience of humanity.
Reports now indicate that at least one of the perpetrators of this past weekend’s Paris attacks may indeed have infiltrated Europe on the pretext of (or hidden among those) seeking asylum. But, real security threats notwithstanding, international unresponsiveness cannot be the lot of all those genuinely seeking nothing but to escape their hellish circumstances at home and to find for their families a better life. The solution to their predicament, and that of those responsible for the welfare of the migrants’ intended destinations, is not at all clear. It should be remembered, though, that while many Middle Easterners do hail from settings where antagonism to various Western values, and certainly to Jews, is common, the vast majority of these individuals are not themselves disposed to engage in violence. And, certainly, a deep divide between people will not be overcome simply by ignoring or wishing away immense human suffering, especially that of innocents.
However it ultimately grapples with next-door calamities that continue to spill over onto its terrain, Europe—not enjoying the distance provided by oceans that bring some security even in an age of air travel that is easy and online communication that is even easier—is not likely to be the same as it was five or 25 years ago. And, with enduring implications for the vital and historic Jewish presence on this continent, Jews are likely to continue to be the first to experience trends that stand to remake Europe as a whole.
In striving to preserve both their societies and essential human values, European leaders cannot be envied for the policy dilemmas that they face. It should by now be clear, though, that morality and security alike require equally confronting the scourge of violent fanaticism irrespective of whether it targets Israelis or Frenchmen, Jews or simply anyone. In a globalized world, ideological wildfires cannot easily be contained in someone else’s domain.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University.To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
"If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” – Hillel
Over the past year, human rights advocates and policy experts alike have warned of the growing plight of refugees fleeing the humanitarian crisis triggered in the Middle East. And over the past few weeks, headlines finally began to reflect this desperate reality.
Stories on the human toll of the refugee crisis abound. Laith Majid in tears clutching his two children just off the Greek Island of Kos. Drowned three-year-old Aylan Kurdi on the shores of Turkey. A truckload of more than 70 refugees die of heatstroke in Austria.
The number of displaced people in the world today is the highest number since World War II at 60 million people. Currently there are four million Syrian refugees who have escaped war and dire living conditions and an additional seven million Syrian citizens currently displaced within their country’s borders. The European Union’s (EU) border agency has said more than half a million migrants have arrived at the EU's borders this year, a massive influx nearly double the number from 2014, with origins ranging throughout Africa and the Middle East.
Sienna Girgenti is the Assistant Director for the International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy at B'nai B'rith International. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
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