Times Will TellThe Times of Israel's weekly podcast

PODCAST: After 5 years, anti-Semitism czar says no improvement for EU Jews – yet

EU Commission’s first Coordinator on Combating Anti-Semitism Katharina von Schnurbein on the controversial IHRA definition and ‘deeply rooted’ hatred against European Jewry

This week on The Times of Israel’s weekly podcast, Times Will Tell, we jump across the pond to Europe where we speak with Katharina von Schnurbein, the EU Commission’s very first Coordinator on Combating Anti-Semitism.

The German-born, non-Jewish von Schnurbein told The Times of Israel that among the reasons driving her work is that her parents made it clear how important it was to learn from the mistakes of the Holocaust and make the world a better place today. Since late 2015, she has headed up an EU commission that works with Jewish communities, European governments and the EU body as a whole to fight anti-Semitism, which has allowed her to gain new insight into the world’s oldest prejudice.

Anti-Semitism varies across Europe both geographically and by ideology, von Schnurbein says, and appears in different manifestations. She notes increased “security threats” in Western Europe and “deeply rooted” anti-Semitic prejudice in Eastern Europe, which appears in the form of racist conspiracy theories.

She also talks about the hatred’s staying – and growing – power. Anti-Semitism, she emphasizes, appears on the political right, left, and in Islamist circles. Each of these must be defined and dealt with separately.

“The racist forms of anti-Semitism that led up to the Shoah have not gone away, unfortunately, while after the Shoah we’ve added new forms,” von Schnurbein says. “For example, Holocaust denial and distortion, and Israel-related anti-Semitism.”

Von Schnurbein has actively publicized the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, saying that recognizing the problem can help authorities to target these various forms of Jew-hatred.

Katharina von Schnurbein, front left, looks down at roses placed next to 20 newly-lain ‘stumbling stones’ to memorialize performers persecuted or killed by the Nazis, in front of the Mozart Festival House concert hall in Salzburg, Austria, August 17, 2020. (Courtesy)

The IHRA definition was originally composed as an internal protocol to help define anti-Semitism in its everyday work, but has become a mainstay for governments and civil society in dozens of countries around the world that seek to target and isolate anti-Semitism in their countries and institutions. However, the short 38-word text has also sparked controversy and divided Jews on different sides of the political spectrum – mostly due to its language on Israel-related anti-Semitism.

In 2016, British politics were thrown into turmoil by the UK Labour Party’s initial refusal to adopt the definition in its entirety due to language that some say discourages criticism of the Israeli government. More recently, a similar controversy followed former US president Donald Trump’s decision to apply the definition to anti-Semitism in universities, and is continuing to split US Jewry as President Joe Biden takes office.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, front right, with special envoys from the US and Europe, including EU Commission Coordinator on Combating Anti-Semitism Katharina von Schnurbein, back row center. (Courtesy GPO)

Von Schnurbein says the IHRA definition decidedly does allow for criticism of Israel, but condemns applying a higher standard to the Jewish state or collectively blaming global Jews for its policies. “Really, it’s about addressing anti-Semitism in a context where Jews are not the majority,” she says.

“To hold [all] Jews responsible for the actions of the government of Israel is unacceptable. It clearly shows that you project on the Jews in your country something with which they are not connected, because they are not necessarily Israeli citizens,” she says. “And even if they were, it’s not that you hold the citizen responsible necessarily for the government. So I think all of these aspects are important to recognize.”

Katharina von Schnurbein, standing, speaks about addressing anti-Semitism with Jewish community leaders in a synagogue in Florence, Italy. (Courtesy)

Von Schnurbein says EU policies are changing to aid in the fight against anti-Semitism. In 2018, the EU Commission unanimously voted to apply the IHRA definition for all member countries. The same resolution made additional commitments towards improving the security of Jewish communities and strengthening Holocaust education.

But, she says, “If we look at anti-Semitism as such, and whether the changes have been felt by the Jewish communities, I think we have to be honest — not much has improved yet. It takes time for policy decisions to take effect and to actually trickle down.”

Listen to the full conversation with von Schnurbein here. In a separate brief conversation, we speak with 29-year-old Swedish composer Jacob Mühlrad, who is releasing his a-cappella choir piece “Kaddish” on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label just ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Stick around for a sneak peek at a complete rendition of “Kaddish.”

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