by Elisa Massimino
Recently a lawmaker in Greece’s national parliament denounced his government’s call for Greeks to observe a day of commemoration, calling it “unacceptable.” The target of his ire? A measure calling on state institutions to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This wasn’t a random act by a fringe politician. Yiannis Lagos is a member of Golden Dawn, a political party which last year exploited the economic crisis to win 7 percent of the vote in national elections. Its power is growing. Headed by Nikos Michaloliakos — who uses the Nazi salute and denies that Auschwitz had gas chambers — Golden Dawn is the third most popular party in a country that suffered terribly under Nazi rule during World War II. There are similar developments in Hungary and Ukraine, where far right-wing parties Jobbik and Svoboda are staging a steady rise to power.
Even before the ascendance of these parties, manifestations of anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance — including violent hate crimes — have been on the rise in many parts of Europe and the former Soviet Union. I recently appeared before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing to discuss what governments, including the U.S. government, should do to counter these serious human rights problems.
Chairman Chris Smith (R-N.J.) should be applauded for holding this hearing. Entitled “Anti-Semitism: A Growing Threat to All Faiths,” it sent a crucial message: That this is a scourge of universal concern, or should be. Anti-Semitism — and the intolerance rooted in it — is a fundamental assault on human rights, one demanding aggressive government action. Yet only a few countries have demonstrated the political will to tackle it.
Anti-Semitism is thousands of years old and has persisted in many political circumstances. But recent developments have stirred up the “oldest hatred.” At the same time that Europe’s economic hardships are fueling the rise of far right-wing parties, animus toward Israel is increasingly spawning animus toward all Jews.
In this “new” anti-Semitism, Jews are targeted as if collectively responsible for wrongs attributed to Israel. The most infamous recent example was the 2012 terrorist attack in France when Mohammed Merhah, a 23-year-old of Algerian descent, killed seven, including four at a Jewish day school. He killed Jews, he said, to avenge Israel’s killing of Palestinians. Such manifestations of anti-Semitism are partly responsible for both persistently high levels and periodic surges of violence against Jews.
But today’s anti-Semitism is not solely a product of the conflict in the Middle East or the economic crisis. As much as ever, it’s a deep-seated, complex hatred that leads to the scapegoating of Jews for a range of societal woes. Across Europe, Russia, and the former Soviet Republics, synagogues and the homes and businesses of Jews have been burned and vandalized. People have been harassed, beaten, stabbed, or shot just because they were Jewish. People like the 25-year-old man in Kiev, Ukraine, who, wearing a yarmulke after a Passover service, was brutally beaten by unknown assailants.
For overt white supremacists and ethnocentric nationalist movements, anti-Semitism is at the core of their belief systems, a first principle. It continues to be an animating force for those who also target other religious minorities, Roma (Gypsies), immigrants, Arabs and LGBT people. In Russia, to retaliate for the 2011 sentencing of members of a skinhead gang responsible for attacks on migrants and others of non-Slavic origin, their cohorts took action as telling as it was horrific: they firebombed Moscow’s Darchei Shalom synagogue.
Anti-Semitism is a threat to all vulnerable segments of society, and therefore to society itself. To prevent not just anti-Semitic violence but all forms of hate crimes, governments need to take a comprehensive approach. Several years ago my organization produced a Ten-Point Plan outlining such a program, and we’ve learned that it can make a significant difference.
Yet some governments aren’t doing even the most basic things, such as documenting and reporting on hate crimes. Moral leadership, too, is lacking: government officials often fail to acknowledge incidents of hate crimes, much less condemn them, and are similarly lax in speaking out against expressions of intolerance, the hate speech that can metastasize into hate crimes.
Governments should enact and enforce tough laws that expressly prohibit hate crimes. To that end, they should ensure that police and government attorneys have the training and resources that enable them to successfully investigate and prosecute incidents of hate crimes. But enforcement alone isn’t enough: governments should launch public inquiries into the problem and reach out to victimized communities.
The United States government has been a leader in combating anti-Semitism, and it has leveraged its credibility on this issue to put it on the international human rights agenda. The House Foreign Affairs hearing reflects the country’s commitment.
The United States should make combating anti-Semitic violence a priority in its international diplomacy. For starters, Secretary of State John Kerry should articulate early in his tenure his strategy to leverage U.S. leadership to combat anti-Semitic and other violent hate crimes around the globe. He should immediately fill the position of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism with an individual experienced in identifying anti-Semitism and a track record of building coalitions across diverse communities to fight it. To encourage other countries to confront anti-Semitism, the United States should expand the police training and other technical assistance it provides. It should also increase its political and financial support of relevant civil society groups and international bodies. By intensifying its leadership, the United States would inspire other nations to combat this ancient ill with new vigor.
Elisa Massimino is the president and CEO of Human Rights First.