The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) decision to drop the longstanding “working definition of anti-Semitism” from its website has drawn considerable attention. Was this an honest error or a malicious act? To understand the controversy we must review the origin and use of this definition, see link:
The working definition was released nearly a decade ago by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). At that time European countries were only beginning to react to the resurgence of anti-Semitism in their midst, and few people were willing to acknowledge that a new form of anti-Semitism was emerging that demonized the State of Israel and questioned its very legitimacy. The EUMC’s first study of anti-Semitism, conducted in 2004, revealed the lack of any clear, agreed-upon definition. AJC worked closely with the EUMC and with academic experts in Israel, the U.S. and Europe in drafting the working definition.
It was termed a working definition because it was never formally adopted as a political document by the EUMC board. Achieving consensus in the EU is never an easy process. In this case, the EUMC wanted something to place quickly in the hands of practitioners—government officials and civil society—to enable them to better understand and monitor the problem of anti-Semitism. And it succeeded.
Since its release, the working definition has been included in police training materials prepared by the OSCE. It has been adopted by the U.S. Department of State. It has been recommended by inter-Parliamentary commissions in the United Kingdom and Canada. Notably, it has helped many people come to recognize that anti-Semitism can take multiple forms, including some that relate to Israel.
Monitoring and recording incidents of anti-Semitism were severely lacking in 2004. If incidents were not identified or reported to police, or if they were not enumerated by government agencies, it was as though they had not happened. This enabled European leaders to say, with some justification, that anti-Semitism was not a problem. The working definition, which described the multidimensional nature of anti-Semitism, helped align the views of political leaders with those of Jewish communities.
In 2007, the EUMC was subsumed by the larger EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), which maintained that as a human rights agency it was not in the business of issuing definitions. In 2009, I hosted a roundtable discussion at the OSCE that brought FRA’s director together with European Jewish leaders and others. We met shortly after the end of the Gaza war, and participants offered numerous examples of Israel being vilified in the local media and of dramatic increases in attacks on Jewish institutions, presumably from people inflamed by the Middle East conflict and looking for targets closer to home. These were the very examples cited in the working definition that FRA seemed ready to abandon. It did not, and until recently it remained on the agency’s website, albeit without comment and with an old EUMC logo at the top of the page.
Ironically, FRA went on to conduct a detailed survey of Jews in nine EU countries and their experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism, which was released last month. It demonstrated objectively and comprehensively that the problem remains a serious one, perhaps even more acute than any of us had realized. Jews are increasingly fearful of identifying themselves publicly. Thirty-eight percent will frequently or always avoid wearing or carrying something that will mark them as Jewish. Twenty-three percent say they avoid attending Jewish events or visiting Jewish sites because they do not feel safe.
The FRA study also took a page from one of the key elements of the working definition, asserting that European Jews recognize that equating Israelis to Nazis is an expression of anti-Semitism plain and simple.
The FRA findings also revealed that the vast majority of European Jews do not report their experiences of anti-Semitism, believing that police and other government agencies will not treat them seriously or even deal with them. So the problem of monitoring and recording that the EUMC recognized nine years ago is still with us, and the value of an operational definition ought to be self-evident. While there is clearly a growing awareness and understanding on the part of police and prosecutors throughout the EU, it is premature to think that a common definition of anti-Semitism with practical examples no longer has an important role to play.
It is puzzling and unfortunate that the working definition has disappeared from the FRA website, and hard to believe that this was just the result of tidying up some virtual space. I urge its return both in recognition to the important legacy of the EUMC as well as the obvious value it can still provide.
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Rabbi Andrew Baker is the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Director of International Jewish Affairs and serves as the Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)