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The following op-ed appeared in USA Today on January 27, 2016
As the United States and the world today mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the day of liberation in 1945 for Auschwitz, the largest Nazi killing factory in the death of six million Jews, we solemnly recall a troubled past but sadly face a challenging present. Anti-Semitism is surging, including in Europe, with threats, violence and vandalism against Jews.
Last January, four Jewish men in Paris’ Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket were murdered, and an Israeli in Berlin was beaten. In February, a shooter attacked Copenhagen’s great synagogue. In March, a drunken mob assaulted a London synagogue. In November, anti-immigration demonstrators in the Polish city of Wroclaw burned effigies of orthodox Jews. In December, a Jewish cemetery in Sochaczew, Poland, was desecrated with Holocaust-denying graffiti and pro-Islamic State messages.
Today, the hatred fueling the Shoah is back and must be countered. In 2015, incidents led nearly 10,000 Jews, an all-time high, to leave Western Europe for Israel, with nearly 8,000 coming from France. From the Hyper Cacher shooting to the stabbing of a rabbi and two of his congregants in Marseilles to the wounding of 14 worshipers through a liquid poison attack at a Bonneuil-sur-Marn synagogue, 2015 was another grim year for French Jews. Last week, violence struck Marseilles’ Jews again, as a teenager attacked a Jewish teacher with a machete, prompting a Jewish leader to ask Jews not to wear skullcaps. In 2013, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights reported that one-third of European Jews polled said they had stopped wearing religious garb or symbols for fear of attack.
Meeting last week with European Jewish Congress officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly, and perhaps cynically, invited European Jews to resettle in Russia.
But Russia hardly is immune from this virus. In 2014, the Russian Jewish Congress reported a spike in anti-Semitism. Despite a decline last year, disturbing incidents occurred. In June, a previously vandalized Jewish kindergarten in Volgograd again was targeted. In July, a gunman shot Sergei Ustinov, the founder of a Moscow Jewish museum, and fled, with police deeming anti-Semitism a possible motive. In September, Semyon Tykman, a teacher in a Chassidic high school, went on trial in the city of Ekaterinburg. He faces a possible four-year sentence in a labor colony for “incitement of hatred” for discussing the Holocaust, the first trial of a religious Jew under Russia’s notorious extremism laws.
What is driving the violence and bigotry? A variety of toxic political ideologies and movements historically have scapegoated Jews for any number of social ills. Today, anti-Semitism largely combines two factors — extremists claiming to act in Islam’s name and a neo-Nazi movement targeting Muslims and Jews.
Several factors complicate efforts against the hatred. Some officials remain reticent to spotlight assailants’ religious or ideological motives. Studies show widespread negative feelings toward Jews. Some of this prejudice results in condemnations of Israel which, rather than highlighting specific policies, deem Israel’s existence evil — the new anti-Semitism. Finally, as documented by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which we serve, some nations and political parties support religious restrictions against Jews as well as Muslims and other minorities. At least four countries — Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland — ban kosher slaughter. Norway and Germany have seen attempts to ban infant male circumcision.
There are even political parties in Greece, Hungary, Ukraine and elsewhere with platforms denying the Holocaust.
It is time to root out the haters’ motives, which means owning up fully to radicalization problems, religious or political. It is time to confront again anti-Semitism’s ancient legacy. It is time to reaffirm religious freedom by relaxing restrictions on both Jewish and Muslim religious practices.
To its credit, Europe’s largest human rights body, the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, has stood strongly against anti-Semitism. Last month, the European Commission appointed Katharina von Schnurbein as the continent’s first coordinator in combating anti-Semitism. France and other countries have increased security in Jewish neighborhoods and religious sites.
No one initiative can defeat anti-Semitism. But these and other actions together can make a difference. As we commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we hope that Europe and its people, as well as nations around the world, will redouble their efforts against this scourge.
M. Zuhdi Jasser is a Vice Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is a USCIRF Commissioner.
To interview a USCIRF Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at email@example.com or 202-786-0615.