Australia/Israel Review

Antisemitism – the fightback

Oct 25, 2021 | Judy Maynard, Naomi Levin

Scenes from the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, which took place on Oct. 13. (Credit: Government Office of Sweden)
Scenes from the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, which took place on Oct. 13. (Credit: Government Office of Sweden)

Australia and the IHRA definition as part of a global battle


On October 13, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the Australian “Government”, “people” and “nation” would join 32 other countries and “embrace” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism.

Appearing by video link at the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism before a distinguished international audience, Prime Minister Morrison said, “In the history of humanity the Holocaust serves as a perpetual and brutal reminder of exclusion, of racism, of systematic political hatred and evil itself.”

He emphasised that “Antisemitism has no place in Australia. It has no place anywhere in the world. And we must work together, resolutely and as a global community, to reject any word or any act that supports antisemitism towards individuals, towards communities or religious facilities.”

That stance has received strong bipartisan support in Australia. In July, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese had committed a future Labor government to endorsing the definition, while Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong told a Zionist Federation of Australia conference in November 2020 that “Labor fully supports the IHRA definition of antisemitism – a position reaffirmed in 2016, 2019, and [which] I again reaffirm today.”

The announcement came following repeated calls from the leaders of Australia’s Jewish community for the Working Definition’s adoption following a global uptick in antisemitic incidents in the past year due to the proliferation of online conspiracy theories falsely linking Jews to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, Israel’s response to indiscriminate rocket attacks against its civilians by terrorists in Gaza in May also led to a dramatic rise in antisemitic incidents around the world.

But for the pandemic, the forum in Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city, would have taken place in 2020, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, and the 20th anniversary of the first Stockholm Forum on the Holocaust. The fact that it was held at this time, despite the ongoing global healthcare emergency, demonstrates widespread recognition among both governments and experts that the problem has not receded and a strong collaborative effort is required. 

That the forum was held in Malmö is itself significant, indicating the willingness of Swedish authorities to confront some difficult truths. Jews had fled there from the Nazis in 1943, and after the war the city received survivors from concentration camps, many of whom stayed on and made new lives there. 

But in recent times, due to both verbal and physical antisemitic attacks, the city has developed a reputation as a place unsafe for Jews. The Jewish population has dwindled.


The Origins of IHRA 

It was in 2000 at the first of four Stockholm International Forums on the Holocaust, in which AIJAC’s Jeremy Jones participated on behalf of the Australian Government, that the IHRA’s founding document was agreed on. The Stockholm Declaration gave expression to the sense of horror perpetuated by the Holocaust, and the international community’s shared responsibility to never again allow such evil, by promoting remembrance, education and research. Bringing governments together in this work is the IHRA’s mission.

The IHRA’s Working Definition of Antisemitism is the fruit of a collaborative international effort that spanned almost two decades. A valuable tool in helping to educate about, and to eradicate, antisemitism, it is not intended to be legally implemented in and of itself. Its usefulness lies in providing a means of identifying examples of antisemitism, and thus enabling the design and employment of strategies designed to counter such behaviour.

The Malmö Forum was conceived to achieve practical outcomes, as well as verbal ones. Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven insisted that participants to the forum – named “Remember-ReAct” – move from words to action: “The basis for remembrance efforts and combating antisemitism is already established, in part in the Stockholm Declaration from 2000”, he said. “What we need now is not fine words and lofty phrases, we must ensure that more concrete action is taken… to jointly make real progress in this important work.”


The new EU Strategy on Combating Antisemitism

Attended by the King and Queen of Sweden, heads of state and other dignitaries, the Forum heard presentations from various governments regarding their respective strategies.

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, presented a summary of the comprehensive “EU Strategy on Combating Antisemitism and Fostering Jewish Life” that had been launched the previous week.

The policy is intended to be implemented over the period 2021 to 2030, and seems to demonstrate a serious commitment to protecting Jews and Jewish life in Europe. 

It has generally been warmly welcomed by Jewish groups. The European Jewish Congress (EJC), for example, called it “an unprecedented and vital document.”

Its goals are to strengthen the fight against antisemitism, to foster European Jewish life and to preserve the memory of the Holocaust. It acknowledges that previous efforts to prevent a rise in antisemitism have failed.

The strategy recommits the EU to the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism, and notes that the most common form of antisemitism found online today is Israel-related antisemitism.

Financial commitments include a €1.55 billion (A$2.41 billion) fund to promote fundamental rights. The strategy also pledges to halt funding to any program being run in a European member-state that discriminates against Jewish people or breaches any EU anti-discrimination rules.

The strategy commits to strengthening legal mechanisms pertaining to hate crimes and hate speech, and urges member states to provide more support to victims of antisemitic crimes. It notes the need for better training for police in handling these victims and improved reporting of antisemitic incidents.

Pointing to the level of antisemitism online, the strategy outlines a range of measures being undertaken currently, or in the planning stages, to reduce antisemitism in cyberspace, such as working with organisations to develop counter-narratives against rapidly spreading online conspiracy theories, and supporting a “hackathon” to find innovative ways to address antisemitism online.

With respect to physical safety and security, the European Commission committed to organising a high-level conference to discuss the protection of Jewish communities across Europe. Funding of €24 million (A$37 million) will also be provided to protect synagogues and other Jewish communal institutions.

The strategy also contains a pledge to support training for journalists to recognise all forms of antisemitism, including any unconscious antisemitic bias in reporting; and it plans to address antisemitism in sport, including via social media campaigns.

It even proposes to connect the Jewish festival of Tu b’Shvat, the “new year for trees,” to the EU’s pledge to plant three billion trees by 2030.

Finally, the strategy recognises the importance of educating young people about antisemitism, including the Holocaust, and “reflects Europe’s commitment to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, even after the last Holocaust survivors have passed away.”

It finds “currently one European in 20 has never heard of the Holocaust, and less than half of Europeans think it is sufficiently taught in schools.” To correct these deficiencies, the European Commission wants to create a network of sites it calls “where the Holocaust happened”, as well as continuing to support public Holocaust memorials and commemorations.

This ambitious strategy appears to set the benchmark for other countries in terms of seriousness in combatting contemporary antisemitism.


National Efforts

Pledges by the host Swedish Government at Malmö included promoting what it calls “education for active citizenship” to prevent antisemitism and other forms of racism, and the strengthening of Holocaust research. 

Stockholm pledged it would present an action program in 2022, whose elements include enhancing efforts by police to counter antisemitism, racism and hate crime, and the continuous monitoring of these activities in digital environments. The Swedish Government also plans to criminalise organised racism, and will establish a parliamentary committee to, as it puts it, “unbiasedly consider whether Holocaust denial should be more clearly criminalised.”

Sweden has also flagged the establishment in 2022 of a museum to preserve and pass on the memory of the Holocaust, and a Yiddish language centre to promote Jewish life. The funding of security measures will be significantly enhanced. 

All in all, the Government expects the implementation of the proposed measures to cost some €9.3 million (A$14.4 million) per annum.

French President Emmanuel Macron was another national leader who appeared virtually at Malmö to voice support and to outline his country’s commitments to fighting antisemitism. These include the release by year’s end of a new national strategy combating racism and antisemitism by the country’s Inter-Ministerial Delegation for Combating Racism, Antisemitism and anti-LGBT Hate (DILCRAH – Délégation Interministérielle à la Lutte Contre le Racisme, l’Antisémitisme et la Haine anti-LGBT). Additionally, substantially increased budgets are promised for memorial institutions and associations working to combat hatred.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also addressed the Forum, pledging that the previously unfunded office of Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Fighting Antisemitism, held by international human rights lawyer and former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, would be upgraded to a permanent post supported by dedicated funding and staff. 

Trudeau also highlighted previous actions taken by his Government, such as convening a national summit on antisemitism in July, and his Government’s adoption of the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism.

Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin told the forum that his country’s proposed Hate Crime Bill would introduce new legislation outlawing both online and offline incitement to hatred against another person or group due to characteristics such as race, religion, or ethnic or national origin. It would also create a new offence of denying, or grossly trivialising, crimes of genocide, including Holocaust denial. A new National Action Plan on Racism will be published, including measures to combat antisemitism, antigypsyism/anti-Roma discrimination and other forms of racism.

Commitments outlined to the forum by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis include the establishment of an award for those who contribute to Holocaust education, research and commemoration, as well as to the prevention of antisemitism. In May, Romania adopted its first national strategy for preventing and combating antisemitism, xenophobia, radicalisation and hate speech. In addition, it developed an action plan containing 36 concrete projects designed to protect vulnerable groups, and encourage cultural and educational programs, including the promotion of Jewish life. Efforts are being made to inaugurate a National Museum of Jewish History and the Holocaust.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Forum that the US was allocating $1 million (A$1.33 million) to counter online antisemitic hate speech in the Mideast and North Africa, and has commenced a series of international visitor leadership programs designed to confront Holocaust distortion and antisemitism in North Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Latin America.


The Social Media Front

With heavy criticism directed at social media and other online sites for enabling antisemitism, officials from Facebook and YouTube pledged to take their responsibilities seriously.

Pedro Pina, YouTube chief for Europe, Middle East and Africa, committed to tackling hate speech online through policies, tools and programs, and pledged €5 million (A$7.75 million) from Google to be directed towards governments and non-profits engaged in the fight. 

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg described the way her company had worked with the World Jewish Congress to provide accurate information about the Holocaust to those searching for information on its platform. She said the company was removing 15 times more hate speech now than it was five years ago, and this work would not stop.


The Way Forward

Sweden assumes the presidency of the IHRA from March 2022 until February 2023. Having required the participants in the Malmö Forum to deliver concrete pledges and not mere words, Sweden has set itself the further task of following up on these pledges during its forthcoming term.

Australia, for its part, a member of IHRA since 2019, did more than simply pledge to adopt the widely used definition of antisemitism at Malmö, welcome and important as this is. On a bipartisan basis, it demonstrated it was a core member of a global community committed to both Holocaust remembrance and fighting a battle against the growing global scourge of antisemitism, in all its manifestations. Malmö, and the examples of positive action put forward by the various other democracies there, would have provided ample ideas and potential initiatives to consider as Canberra now contemplates what more it can do to participate in those global efforts. 


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