January 27 marks the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, as designated by the UN General Assembly resolution adopted in 2005. The date of the commemoration marks the day that Soviet troops liberated the biggest Nazi concentration camp in the then occupied Poland, Auschwitz-Birkenau, in 1945. At that concentration camp, over a million men, women and children were killed in the most heinous ways.
This year’s International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust entitled “75 years after Auschwitz – Holocaust Education and Remembrance for Global Justice” aims to reflect the “continued importance of collective action against antisemitism and other forms of bias to ensure respect for the dignity and human rights of all people everywhere.”
Such education and focus on collective action against antisemitism is crucial as the world witnesses an increase in antisemitic attacks globally. Antisemitism is not universally defined. However, the working definition of antisemitism, as adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016 defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”*
Indeed, examples of such rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are plentiful. For example, in the last week of December 2019, buildings in north London (Hampstead and Belsize Park), UK, were sprayed with antisemitic messages. The same week, a man stormed the house of a Hasidic rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York, US, injuring several people. This was the 13th antisemitic attack in New York since December 8, 2019.
Only a few months earlier, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, published a report focused on “Combating Antisemitism to Eliminate Discrimination and Intolerance Based on Religion or Belief” that identified concerning patterns and trends of antisemitism around the world. As Ahmed Shaheed noted: “the frequency of antisemitic incidents appears to be increasing in magnitude in several countries where monitors attempt to document such incidents, including online, and that the prevalence of antisemitic attitudes and the risk of violence against Jewish individuals and sites appears to be significant elsewhere, including in countries with few or no Jewish inhabitants.”
Among others, he reported that, the French authorities saw a 74% increase in antisemitic acts from 2017 to 2018. These antisemitic acts constituted half of all documented hate crimes and close to 15% of the incidents involving physical violence in that period. In Germany, the authorities reported a 10% increase in documented antisemitic acts from 2017 to 2018, including a 70% rise in violent acts. In the UK, civil society groups reported a 16% increase in antisemitic incidents from 2017 to 2018. And the list goes on.
Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB, emphasized that “those incidents have created a climate of fear among a substantial number of Jews, impairing their right to manifest their religion, and that discriminatory acts by individuals and laws and policies by Governments have also had a negative impact.”
Antisemitic incidents require an urgent and unequivocal response from states which bear the primary responsibility for dealing with such incidents. However, responding to antisemitic acts once they occur is not enough. States must focus more on investing in preventive security measures to deter antisemitic incidents. Furthermore, combating antisemitism is not a job for states only. Civil society organizations can and must play a role in combating antisemitism, for example, by raising awareness of the issue and condemning antisemitic behaviors. Similarly, media companies must step up their game and introduce effective measures to address antisemitic cyberhate.
Independent of our religious affiliation or lack thereof, it is crucial to keep in mind the very true words of Ahmed Shaheed: “antisemitism, if left unchecked by Governments, poses risks not only to Jews, but also to members of other minority communities. Antisemitism is toxic to democracy and mutual respect of citizens and threatens all societies in which it goes unchallenged.” Commemorating the memory of the victims of Holocaust, marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we must ensure that the lessons learned are effectively put to test and trigger collective action against antisemitism in all its forms and manifestations.
(* This definition has subsequent been adopted or used by several states including, but not limited to, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czechia, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, and the the United States Department of State and Department of Education.)
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