The rise of anti-Semitism in France, home to the world’s largest Jewish population outside Israel and the US, is a shocking reminder of the constant peril religious minorities find themselves exposed to. The well-known phrase, “Nie Wieder”, borne out of the horrors of the Second World War, was supposed to herald a new era of tolerance towards Jews, but now represents a hollow reminder of the more pernicious traits of mankind – especially in light of the recent vandalization of a Synagogue in Strasbourg.
Although a lot of attention has been placed upon the gilets jaunes (yellow vests), with links being drawn between the movement and the recent spike in anti-Semitic attacks, one must put this issue into its broader historical context. Indeed, the increase in anti-Semitic attacks in France pre-dates the movement and represents part of a wider European pattern.
A report from the EU’s agency on fundamental rights reinforces the notion that anti-Semitic discrimination is on the rise across Europe. The report found that four out of five British Jews consider anti-Semitism a major problem in British politics, with a third considering leaving Britain. Almost half of all Jews in France and Germany considered emigrating as they no longer feel safe.
However, this issue of anti-Semitism is symptomatic of wider trends in Europe. The refugee crisis precipitated by the conflict in Syria saw a growth in support of populist parties, who have used immigration as an issue with which to heighten societal divisions. Here we see a growing pattern of intolerance towards others – the rise of anti-Semitism is symptomatic of this.
Having visited London and Paris recently, where I met with senior Jewish community leaders to discuss ways in which to deal with this issue, I was asked about the situation in Ukraine.
The situation has improved dramatically since Ukraine gained independence in 1991 vis-à-vis anti-Semitism. While there has been a long history of anti-Semitism with openly anti-Semitic policies during the Soviet occupation, our current Prime Minister and the current Head of the Presidential Administration are both Jewish, something that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Today, the Ukrainian authorities have done much in the fight against anti-Semitism.
Today, Ukraine is the least anti-Semitic country in Central and Eastern Europe according to a 2018 Pew Research Centre survey. Only 5% of Ukrainians would not accept Jews as their fellow citizens, in comparison to 14% in Russia, 18% in Poland and 22% in Romania.
However, we still need to remain extremely vigilant so as to prevent the re-emergence of anti-Semitism in Ukraine. As President of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, this is unquestionably my highest priority.
Despite there being no silver bullet in the fight against anti-Semitism, we must combine a zero-tolerance policy with education and holocaust remembrance. It is for this reason the JCU launched the “Righteous of my City” initiative, to recognise the supreme sacrifices Ukrainian people made protecting the lives of Jews during the Second World War, at the risk of their own lives. This project seeks to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust and of the 2,619 Ukrainian Righteous Among the Nations, naming streets and public areas after them to inspire Ukrainians today.
Education about the Holocaust is lacking in numerous countries including Ukraine largely because of the Soviet occupation. Today, the JCU is actively engaging with the authorities to improve this. We believe a local, decentralised approach, where people learn about the history of their local communities, is a powerful way to create proximity between Ukrainians today and those who lived during WW2.
The Righteous Initiative is a hugely exciting and innovative project and I will be working with Jewish community groups across Europe to share instances of best practice. The Righteous initiative is not only about stopping anti-Semitism. By celebrating and recognising those who acted against their best interests to save others, we can foster a climate of tolerance towards all ethnic and religious minorities.
The sight of tens of thousands of people taking to the street in Paris to protest the rise in anti-Semitic attacks was heartening to see. The actions taken by politicians was also encouraging, including concrete steps to help stop hate speech by adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. However, without a concerted attempt to educate people about the horrors of the Holocaust, we can never truly learn the lessons of the past.