Interview With Ms. Katharina von Schnurbein, European Coordinator on Combating Anti-Semitism

anti-semitism europe
Jewish tombstones were desecrated with swastikas in the Herrlisheim Jewish cemetery, north of Strasbourg, France, last week. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

In November, a high-level conference took place in Vienna, Austria, entitled “Europe Beyond Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism — Securing Jewish Life in Europe.”

That conference was attended by many prominent figures in the Jewish and political arenas, and an important book, “An End to Anti-Semitism! — A Catalogue of Policies to Combat Anti-Semitism,” authored by notable scholars, was presented.

Among the high-ranking speakers at the conference was Ms. Katharina von Schnurbein, European Coordinator on Combating Anti-Semitism, who spoke about her work and her efforts to rally the nations in the European Union to adopt the working definition on anti-Semitism initially laid out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

On the eve of the conference, Hamodia sat down with Ms. Von Schnurbein for an interview on her efforts.

Can you tell us how you got appointed to this important position?”

I was working for the European Commission — in my last position as coordinator for dialogue with religions and non-confessional [secular] organizations — when First Vice-President Frans Timmermans was looking to appoint someone in December of 2015. I applied and was nominated.

My family background was definitely a motivating factor. My parents had numerous Jewish friends in Germany and Israel who were part of our lives. Growing up, we often hosted visitors from Israel and even learned some simple Hebrew songs.

My parents placed a strong emphasis on the responsibility we carried toward Jews as Germans. They taught us to delve into and ask the tough questions. They ingrained in us the importance of civic courage, to stand up and voice disapproval for any form of anti-Semitism. That gave me the strength to voice my displeasure and not relent when faced with resistance when fighting anti-Semitism. This is something that is becoming increasingly important nowadays. When you hear an anti-Semitic joke at a party, rather risk being the killjoy than remain silent.

I recall an incident from my childhood when my mother hung an Israeli flag out the window on the eve before we were to receive Israeli guests, and the next morning we discovered a huge swastika sprayed on the street. My mother immediately called the municipality, who had it covered up by the time the guests arrived.

In your capacity, how does one combat anti-Semitism?

The first hurdle is getting people to understand the necessity for combating anti-Semitism. Not everyone agrees that there is a need. Statistics show that there is a very varied perception of this topic between Jews and non-Jewish society. Take Germany, for example. Eight out of ten German non-Jews claim that anti-Semitism is not an issue, while at the same time eight out of ten German Jews will tell you that anti-Semitism has become a matter of increasing concern. This tremendous discrepancy proves how much needs to be done.

As part of my work, I aim to familiarize people with Jews and Judaism. We need to explain and enlighten people. The only way one can begin to comprehend the abyss of the Shoah is by first recognizing how Jewish life thrived in Europe before that, and the miraculous revival of European Jewry in recent decades.

It is our aim that Jews live openly anywhere in Europe, not to hide their identity, be it by wearing identifying symbols like a kippah or living their culture.

We carried out surveys and asked, what does a Jew identify with most? For some it is religion, for others, the culture. And very important is supporting the State of Israel, Zion, the Promised Land.

But according to our research, the overwhelming majority, ninety-five percent of Jews all over the world, identify mostly through the Shoah. So any discussions about drawing the line on discussing the Holocaust or, as recently occurred when an AfD politician [Ed.: German far-right party member Björn Höcke] called the Berlin Holocaust memorial “monument of shame,” strikes at the very core of the Jewish community.

Some forms of expression are perceived as anti-Semitic by Jews, while the person will claim that it was not intended that way at all. How does one categorize that?

This is indeed a difficult topic. The IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) has defined the working definition of anti-Semitism, which was adopted by the European Parliament in a resolution [June 1, 2017].

It defines anti-Semitism as being against Jews as a group. Of course there can also be anti-Semitic intent even when it is aimed at an individual Jew. The IHRA also clearly defined how to categorize anti-Israel rhetoric. Denying the very existence of the State of Israel is obviously anti-Semitic. But to criticize certain policies implemented by the Israeli government as one would any other country cannot be considered anti-Semitic. The Israeli government has also recognized these definitions.

Unfortunately, one too often sees “legitimate criticism” against Israeli policies to a much greater degree than for any other country. Take, for example, the number of U.N. resolutions against Israel in comparison to the rest of the countries combined. Yet they claim that they don’t “hate” Israel, but rather that they “take issue” with a certain policy or action.

I do not comment on foreign policy. But I do recognize that within the EU it is not a simple matter. We must be very clear that Israel’s existence may never be questioned or threatened. The same goes for boycotting Israeli products, artists, scientists or others; this is simply unacceptable.

On the other hand, we see that having an issue with one Jew may indeed be a sign of anti-Semitism. For example when we vacation in the Alps, one hotel-owner’s negative experience with a Jewish customer will cause him to refuse any Jewish guests. Isn’t this the other side of the same coin, and how do you fight this?

My responsibility is to combat anti-Semitism within Europe. So it takes a while until policies trickle down to the countrysides. But what I can say with certainty is that the attitude of people depends on one’s family’s view on the topic. That is why it is important to start with the right education at school, which will hopefully in turn change the discourse on Jews within the family. Education is key to nip anti-Semitism in the bud.

How can this be implemented?

By training teachers to recognize and understand patterns of anti-Semitism. These teachers will then have a different reaction to anti-Semitism in the schools. And that, in turn, will result in students gaining a greater sensitivity toward the topic. You see what a long process we are talking about.

Within my capacity as European Coordinator on Combating Anti-Semitism, we have specific responsibilities where we can offer an added value — for example, by fighting to remove illegal hate speech from the internet. Our strength lies in numbers, for example, to get all member states to agree on a policy and get various social media outlets to implement measures.

anti-semitism europe
A man lights candles at the entrance to an apartment building in Paris on March 28, 2018, at the conclusion of a march in memory of Mireille Knoll, Hy”d, the 85-year-old Jewish woman murdered in her home in what police believe was an anti-Semitic attack. (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

The number of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe has risen in the past few years. Is it the actual number of occurrences or the reporting of attacks that has increased?

The Chief Rabbi of Rome once told me, “Since your nomination, anti-Semitism has exploded.” He is not so wrong; certainly anti-Semitism has become much more visible. On the other hand, it has always been around.

Often the numbers grow because reporting of incidents has increased. We founded a high-level group on racism and xenophobia comprised of representatives from departments of justice and internal affairs from each member state. They are working on a strategy to improve data collection. We know that there is a high number of unreported cases — roughly 70 percent! But it is not just about recording anti-Semitic attacks but about gaining a clear picture of the actual incidents in their various forms.

We ran a survey on how members within Jewish communities in Europe perceive anti-Semitism; 16,000 Jews participated in this poll. The results [came] out on December 10. This will be matched with a survey we are currently running with the general population, in order to highlight the discrepancy. That report will be presented in January 2019.

Currently, all anti-Semitic incidents where the perpetrator is unknown are categorized as a right-wing/Neo-Nazi incidents. We know that in the perception of Jewish victims, roughly half the attacks, if not more, are committed by people with a Muslim background. In order to combat effectively, we need to first have a clear image of who and what we are dealing with.

The EU has seen a massive influx of refugees from predominately Muslim countries. Many of them are not radical Islamists, but were ingrained back home with messages of global Jewish conspiracy. This thwarts their perception of and relationships with Jews in Europe. How does EU plan on combating this problem?

We work with Muslim organizations who try to tackle this issue with Muslim youth. They try to use the children’s personal experience to jumpstart a dialogue. Often these children themselves experienced discrimination. When you use that as a springboard for imagining what Jews had to endure throughout history, especially during the Holocaust, it gets them to imagine what it would be like to experience genocide today. With this image [they] change their perception of Jews and of acts of anti-Semitism.

This is a promising process, especially for immigrants who have gone through harrowing journeys to get to Europe and gain freedom. As it is, they need to learn and adopt European values in all aspects of their lives, recognizing that Jews are part of regular society here and that denying the Holocaust or similar rhetoric will only result in their becoming an outcast of society.

But they can only grasp this if they are taught, and this is, in my opinion, our greatest challenge: Do we truly know what we want to impart? I believe it is possible, but must be targeted specifically. Each EU member country has to fight its versions of anti-Semitism and they need to figure out how to do that individually. We support them by sharing best practices.

There is an organization in Poland that works with Polish students as well as with immigrants on discovering the history, very often the Jewish history, of their villages or towns. This gives them a completely different regard for the place where they live and they can identify with the people who lived there and what they went through. This is an example of a very far-reaching project. There are similar projects in other countries, but of course there could be much more; we need teachers who are trained for this.

December will mark three years since you were appointed. What have been the highest and lowest points in your work so far?

We have definitely achieved a major feat by getting the definition of anti-Semitism accepted. I recall the first interview I gave after being appointed to my current position. It was with an Israeli paper [Times of Israel, December 22, 2015] which ran under the headline, “EU mulls definition of anti-Semitism…”. During the course of my interview, I had mentioned the need to clearly define the term, and yet it became the focal point of the article. It was an eye-opener on how urgent it was to get a clear definition.

We worked closely with the IHRA leadership and within one year we were able to specify the working definition of anti-Semitism. I think it’s a good basis, even though it is not legally binding.

It was endorsed by the EU Commissioner for Justice Vera Jourova on Holocaust Remembrance Day 2017, and was adopted by the EU parliament. Now we are in the process of getting all member-states to implement these laws at home, because it’s only useful if applied. The EC does not have the authority to implement these laws in individual countries; whether they actually apply these laws remains at their discretion. Of course we have the basic principles of democracy, rule of law, gender equality and opposition to discrimination of any kind.

So far only six countries [the U.K., Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, Germany and Latvia] have followed suit; I wish there were more. They need to train the police, the judiciary and educators in how to recognize and handle anti-Semitic attacks. Things are definitely moving along, but it all takes time.

The lowest point is when I am faced with anti-Semitic sentiments in discussions or in regular conversations among officials of member states — highly-educated people — and I recognize the discrepancy between what we have achieved and actually getting it implemented.

In my opinion, when you personally have a relationship with Jews, prejudicial perceptions immediately fall away.

On the other hand, it is not the Jewish community’s duty to constantly engage in such matters in order to fight anti-Semitism. This is a battle that society at large has to be responsible for.

This past spring, you mentioned that your department was working on a report on how to launch more initiatives, policies and exact more pressure on member countries to implement laws against anti-Semitism. How is that report coming along?

It is still in the works. I made my own study in this regard and hope to publish that soon.

There will also be a review before the end of the current EC legislature in 2019 — how much was achieved and what still remains to be done.

In Europe we have grown used to various security in our institutions. American Jews felt safe until the Pittsburgh massacre in October. What can you offer to Americans in your capacity, and how can our experiences benefit them?

They can definitely learn a lot from the European Jewish communities regarding security. It is the security measures that have thwarted attacks on Jewish communities in Europe.

The attack in Pittsburgh was perpetrated by a right-wing extremist. Unfortunately, we have a lot of experience in this regard, and I believe the cooperation between the United States and Europe is very important.

The current administration has not appointed a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. I had a a good working relationship with the former envoy [Ira Forman]. We had regular phone appointments and would bounce ideas off each other. I miss that. It is important for us to work together across the Atlantic. We have to defend our shared values together.

What is your hope, down the road, for the best possible outcome of your work?

Naturally, the end result should be an end of anti-Semitism!

Jews in Europe should be accepted as the norm, so that they can live openly however they want, to naturally wear a kippah or a Star of David.

The truth is, no one wants to send their child to a school that looks like a prison, no one should need to think twice about which metro station is safest to get to or which area to live in because they’re Jewish.

We need to work towards normalizing a Jew living openly and without fear wherever he or she wishes, and not to have to make life decisions based on security reasons. That Jews should feel that they truly have a future here for themselves and for their children. Far too often I will hear someone say: “I will stay, but I will tell my children to leave.” I sincerely hope that this trend will be reversed and they can see a future here.

I just attended the “Jüdischen Zukunftskongress“ [Congress on the Jewish Future ] in Berlin which bore the motto “Weil ich hier leben will” [“Because I want to live here”]. I think that was a wonderful initiative, and reflects the prospering Jewish life in Berlin.

I believe this approach is contagious and will continue to spread throughout all of Europe, where Jews will say, “This is where I live, this is our home.” That’s what we have to aim for; that’s where we need to get to.