Sunday

22nd Sep 2019

EU declaration could 'chill' criticism of Israel

  • Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz (r) with senior rabbi Arthur Schneier (l) at the High Level Conference on the Fight against Antisemitism in Europe in Vienna last week (Photo: eu2018.at)

Criticism of Israel's occupation of Palestine could more readily be labelled as "antisemitism" under an EU declaration drawn up by Austria.

The non-binding document was quietly agreed by 28 EU diplomats in Brussels on Thursday (29 November).

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  • Israeli settler in Hebron, in Palestine's Israeli-occupied West Bank (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

It is to be rubber-stamped without further ado by home affairs ministers in the EU capital on 6 December, an EU diplomat said.

It "Calls on the member states that have not done so yet to endorse the non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism employed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance [IHRA]".

The definition ought to act "as a useful guide tool" in a multitude of areas, "including for law enforcement authorities in their efforts to identify and investigate antisemitic attacks more efficiently and effectively", it adds.

The IHRA is an intergovernmental body in Berlin, which the EU joined as a "partner" on Thursday.

"Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews," the IHRA definition says in its opening statement.

It lists 11 examples to illustrate its meaning, several of which refer to criticism of the Israeli state.

Six EU countries - Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Lithuania, Romania, and the UK - have already endorsed the IHRA credo.

But the definition is controversial because, for some, it could "be instrumentalised to suppress legitimate criticism of Israel's occupation and severe violations of Palestinian human rights".

That was what 34 Jewish historians and other scholars, including from Yale University in the US and Tel-Aviv University in Israel, said in an open letter last week.

It could "afford Israel immunity against criticism for grave and wide-spread violations of human rights and international law," they warned.

"This has a chilling effect on any critique of Israel," they said.

Instrumentalised?

One of the IHRA's 11 examples of antisemitism is: "Applying double standards by requiring of it [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation".

The Israeli government, for one, routinely uses the phrase "double standards" if the EU criticises it, for instance, on settlement expansion.

Its embassies also refer to the IHRA definition when they file demarches in EU countries.

The debate was, to some extent, reflected in the Austrian EU presidency's drafting of the European declaration.

An earlier draft was more hawkish, saying EU states must "apply" the definition as a "guide for the judicial and law enforcement authorities" to "identify and prosecute" antisemitic attacks, but this was taken out.

Another proposed line, also taken out, directly invoked the IHRA's 11 scenarios, calling on EU states to adopt the definition "including illustrating examples".

'Special responsibility'

Austria gave wings to the project at an event in Vienna last week, entitled the "High-Level Conference on the Fight against Antisemitism in Europe".

Its six-page text speaks in solemn terms about the need to ensure Jewish people can live in the EU free from fear and of the need to promote Holocaust education.

It says so at a time of worrying increase in hate crimes against Jews in Europe.

"Austria has a special historical responsibility never to forget the horrible crimes of the Holocaust. Austria actively supports Jewish life in our country and the fight against any form of antisemitism," an Austrian EU presidency spokesman told EUobserver.

The drafting process also shed light on EU sensitivities on Middle East and African migrants.

According to a text dated 31 October and seen by EUobserver, the declaration called for "training" about IHRA-defined "antisemitic prejudices" to be inserted in "the curricula of integration courses for migrants".

But another proposed line, which was crossed out, voiced concern on "avoiding negative stereotypes about migrants, given the fact that many new arrivals in Europe originate from countries where public discourse is often dominated by antisemitic prejudices (especially in the Middle East)".

'Negative stereotypes'

Austria, where the centre-right chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, shares power with the far-right FPO party, is one of the most anti-immigrant EU states.

The FPO has Nazi roots. It is now avowedly pro-Israeli and anti-Islamic, but some of its behaviour indicates contempt for both Jews and Muslims.

Its interior minister, Herbert Kickl, said in January that asylum seekers, most of whom come from Islamic countries, should be "concentrated in one place", evoking what happened to Jews in WWII camps.

A local FPO politician, Udo Landbauer, also resigned in February when it came out that his fraternity published songs which belittled the Holocaust.

Far-right sympathisers were a greater menace to Jews in Austria than Islamists were, a recent study said, amid the EU declaration's concern on Middle East migrants.

Far-right types accounted for 24 percent of registered cases of antisemitism in Austria last year, compared to 10 percent of Islam-connected cases, the survey, by the Forum Against Antisemitism, an NGO in Vienna, noted.

Asked by EUobserver if it was ironic that the Austrian government had produced the EU declaration given the FPO's profile, the Austrian EU presidency spokesman said: "Be assured that the Austrian government is fully committed in the fight against antisemitism, which is also the reason why we initiated the declaration".

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