Ronald S. Lauder: World must unite against antisemitism

12 Feb 2020

The following statement was presented to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) as part of a hearing on how U.S. foreign policy and the international community can counter the growing threat of anti-semitism around the world. Washington, D.C. -- January 8, 2020

Antisemitic expression, harassment and violence have surged in recent years to levels unseen since the mid-20th century, prompting Jewish communities worldwide to fear for their security, well-being, and their future in the countries in which they live as proud citizens. In this new reality, Jews are painfully conscientious of the serious consequences that can accompany the most basic and seemingly inconsequential life decisions – such as how to dress, where to go, what language to speak, and even what words to say.

In the last six months alone, a staggering number of violent attacks directly targeting Jews - including the deadly massacres at synagogues in Halle, Germany on Yom Kippur, and in Monsey, New York just last month, on the seventh night of Hanukkah – have underscored the very real need for increased vigilance and security measures on the part of local and federal authorities. Declaring condemnation or opposition to antisemitic violence and xenophobic hatred is not enough. We must treat this epidemic as the plague that it is and work together both to root out the cause and put a full stop to its proliferation. Action, not words, is the only course forward. 

As part of these efforts, the World Jewish Congress initiated last year the Special Envoys and Coordinators Combating Antisemitism (SECCA) forum where local, national, and international officials tasked with this very mission, exchange views, share best practices, and evaluate progress in the shared fight against antisemitism. So far, SECCA has officially met twice under the WJC auspices – in Bucharest in June 2019, and again in Munich in October 2019 – for productive discussions that have further emphasized the fact that there is a dire need for universal efforts to be taken to combat this universal problem. 

I am grateful to each member of SECCA for their forthcoming willingness and diligence to engage in dialogue on this critical matter, particularly European Commission Coordinator on Combating Antisemitism Katharina von Schnurbein, who has been a key partner to WJC in leading this initiative, and the United States Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Elan Carr, who has been a crucial partner in this endeavor.

Antisemitism is the oldest form of hatred. It is a blatant offense to global human rights, rooted in discrimination, extremism, and lack of education.  Like all forms of xenophobia, antisemitism has no borders. 

It is imperative that countries around the world unite in their efforts in the crucial battle now being waged on the front lines of our Jewish communities. Governments must prioritize the fight against antisemitism at the top of their agendas. Any national government that has not yet appointed a dedicated official as special envoy or coordinator on combating antisemitism should do so at once and ensure that it has the necessary resources to implement any recommendations emerging from that office.  Governments must also strive to develop comprehensive national strategies to combat antisemitism, with clear goals and plans for implementation, and make follow up to these strategies a non-negotiable course of action.

Governments must work to ensure that proper legislation is put into place to contend with the matter at hand. Adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism is essential, in that it allows for a global understanding of what does and does not constitute anti-Jewish expression. We must recognize that antisemitism today emanates from a wide spectrum of political and social views – from the far-right and an embrace of neo-Nazi ideology to the far-left and demonization of the State of Israel, as well as a plethora of sources in between. 

Average citizens are constantly exposed to antisemitic views in society, online, and in social media. It can be difficult to discern where the line is drawn between freedom of expression and explicit hatred, and in today’s climate, antisemitism is often disguised as legitimate political dialogue, even when the target is clear. Every member of the international community has existing legislation against hate crimes and hate speech; antisemitism must be properly covered under this legislation. Harsher consequences and penalties must be enacted to penalize violations of these tenets that are motivated by anti-Jewish hatred. 

The denial and distortion of the Holocaust, or obfuscation of basic historical facts, cannot continue to comprise a country’s nationalist narrative. Such expressions, including glorification of the Nazis and iconography, must be criminalized as a matter of course. Freedom of expression must not, under any circumstances, be used to abuse the civil and human rights of others – any individual that manipulates that basic right must be stripped of the privilege.  

In this digital age, the internet and social media have become the greatest conduits of antisemitism and xenophobia, allowing for easy and quick dissemination of hatred, with limited control. Specific legislation must be enacted against online hate, to ensure that social media companies, conventional media outlets, websites, and blogs, both large and small, are held accountable for the content they host and the implications of its exposure. Companies found to be in violation of such legislation need to understand they will be fined, shut down, and penalized accordingly should they choose not to abide by these guidelines.  

Along with these concrete steps, governments must also do everything in their power to protect their Jewish citizens, whenever and wherever they choose to gather – be it in their homes, synagogues, community centers, or even walking in the streets. It should not be left to Jewish communities and their supporters to protect themselves. It is ineffective, and unreasonable, to expect Jewish citizens to bear the cost and responsibility of ensuring their own security.  Communities need to know that their governments stand with them and beside them. They need to know that there is a safe and reliable way for them to report antisemitic incidents, and to feel confident that law enforcement agencies have both the knowledge and resources to deal with such manifestations as they arise. Following my visit to Halle, I declared: “All Jewish places of worship and Jewish communal sites need to have enhanced round-the-clock security provided by state security services.” This demand stands strong and should be applied to every government in every country.

It is clear that one of the most crucial tools at our disposal to prevent the proliferation of hatred is proper education. This education must start early, both in homes and in schools, to teach children about the values of equality and tolerance. National curriculum should include courses and programs to educate students about the history of the Holocaust and the dangers of racism, discrimination, and indifference to the suffering of others. The Holocaust targeted Jews for systemic extermination, but this fact of history cannot be left to the Jewish community alone to bear. 

In order to fight antisemitism, governments must not isolate their Jewish communities.  They must do everything they can to ensure that the decades and centuries of these communities’ contributions to societies are celebrated, and that the persecution that they have faced and continue to face on a daily basis is recognized as a societal crisis. Antisemitism is not just a Jewish problem – and the Jewish community must not be left to contend with it alone.