Op-Ed: Governments must open eyes to hate crimes

NEW YORK (JTA) — The hateful murder of Special Police Officer Stephen Johns as he guarded the entrance to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was a troubling reminder that anti-Semitism still thrives in the United States. But the reminder should not stop there: Anti-Semitic and other violent hate crimes know no boundaries and are on the rise, from Washington to Europe and beyond.

The Holocaust museum tragedy is a clarion call for governments to respond more vigorously to crimes fueled by intolerance and discrimination.

Unfortunately, far too many governments have disregarded or downplayed the issue, resulting in a startling escalation in anti-Semitic and other violent hate crimes.

Only 13 of the 56 countries that make up the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the world’s largest regional security body, have adequate hate crimes monitoring and reporting systems in place. More than 40 nations in the OSCE, which includes North America and Europe, as well as former Soviet republics, currently fail to monitor and publicly report on violent hate crimes, leaving government officials without a clear picture of the growing problem.

And it is a growing problem. In 2007, violent anti-Semitic crimes rose in a number of countries where official and nongovernmental data is available — Canada, Germany, Russia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom. This increasing violence across the continent over the past several years has been boosted periodically by international events. Most recently, in January, anti-Semitic violence surged dramatically in apparent response to Israeli military action in the Gaza Strip.

The details of some of these violent attacks are most disturbing.

In Paris, one young student was stabbed four times and a 15-year-old Jewish girl was assaulted by a gang of young anti-Semites. In Britain, there was widespread violence against synagogues and rampant hate speech. In Belgium, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into a synagogue. In Germany, cemeteries were vandalized.

The phenomenon goes beyond Europe’s borders: In Venezuela, men broke into Caracas synagogue and Jewish schools had to be shut for several days to protect students.

To address the question of hate crimes — on an everyday basis as well as at moments of heightened international concern — and combat the spread of anti-Semitism, government leaders must take proactive steps to immediately condemn violent acts whenever they occur.

There are some positive footsteps to follow: In January, French President Nicolas Sarkozy engaged Jewish, Muslim and Catholic religious leaders in a process in which they all resolutely denounced violence. And Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown was the first leader to sign the London Declaration against Anti-Semitism and urge his European counterparts to join him in fighting hate crimes.

These examples of leadership are encouraging, but declarations and speeches will take us only so far in this fight. Nations also must work to strengthen hate crime laws, establish monitoring and reporting systems, ensure adequate police training on hate crimes, and invigorate efforts to reach out to and work with victim communities and civil society groups.

Fortunately, they do not have to achieve these goals alone. The United States has been and must continue to be a strong international voice on combating anti-Semitic and other hate crimes globally.

Though far from perfect in its effort to combat intolerance, the United States does have a comprehensive nationwide hate crimes reporting system and a criminal justice system that recognizes the unique nature of these violent acts. American leaders should engage their European counterparts in an effort to fight anti-Semitism and provide assistance as foreign governments work to establish or strengthen official systems of monitoring and reporting of hate crime violence.

The U.S. model for hate crimes data tracking, which includes incidents motivated in whole or in part on the basis of the victim’s race, national original, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability, would be a valuable tool for other nations to employ.

But if the June 10 shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum taught us anything, it is that the United States also must exercise continued vigilance against anti-Semitic and other violent hate crimes at home and update the tools that law enforcement has to combat them.

There is an opportunity right now to take such action: The Senate should pass the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act and President Obama should sign it into law.

Without question, if the United States is to be a global human rights leader, progress must start at home. And if Europe is to end the troubling trend of rising anti-Semitic and other violent hate crime, it must further open its eyes to the problem and mount a more vigorous and comprehensive response.

(Paul LeGendre is the director of Human Rights First’s Fighting Discrimination program.)

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