Katharina von Schnurbein — Interview with Barbara Faedda; Holocaust Remembrance Day 2023
Europe and the United Nations commemorate the victims of the Shoah each winter on the date of Auschwitz’s liberation in 1945, and the Italian Academy marks Holocaust Remembrance Day annually with an exploration of issues of discrimination and crimes against humanity. Throughout the years, the Academy has broadened its focus to explore groups that were targeted in the racism and xenophobia of the Nazi and Fascist regimes, and that suffered and died along with the millions of Jews. Of particular concern recently is the wave of antisemitism, historical denialism, and misinformation, and the manipulating of social media to pursue neo-Nazi and neo-Fascist ideas.
This month Barbara Faedda, Executive Director of the Italian Academy, had an interview with Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission’s first Coordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life.
Barbara Faedda: To open this interview, Ms. von Schnurbein, we would like to ask what your office does—what is your role and what led you to this commitment?
Katharina von Schnurbein: The Office of the Coordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life was created in December 2015. Basically, we have three aspects in the mandate. One is to liaise closely with the Jewish communities and Jewish organizations and other organizations that deal with antisemitism, hatred, Holocaust remembrance, and fostering Jewish life, to hear from them what their issues are; hence, to be in close contact with them. Secondly, is to make policy proposals to the political level of the European Commission, and once this is agreed, to implement it. So, we have the full range of the policy-making process. And then, of course, closely liaising with the Member States, the European Parliament, the national parliaments, with other EU bodies. Also, externally, we have cooperation internationally, for example with the UN, the OSCE, as well as with international organizations.
BF: It seems that antisemitism has grown faster in some countries than in others recently. How would you explain this? Moreover, some data show that the awareness and understanding of antisemitism are very low in some countries. Why is this and how could it be addressed?
KvS: Well, it depends on the forms of antisemitism. At the Commission, we say all forms of antisemitism are equally pernicious: whether it comes from the extreme right or from the far left or from Islamist circles or—as we saw during the pandemic and now with the war—coming increasingly as conspiracy from the center of society, they are all pernicious and need to be addressed. And I believe that in some countries, we are probably more aware of certain forms of antisemitism. For example, with regard to France, because of the terrorist attacks from Islamist terrorists, of course, this is at the forefront. But that does not mean that the other forms of antisemitism do not exist; and to some extent there is a condoning. Now, this is one form, and it’s unacceptable. We have to make clear that whoever wants to be part of European society has to accept Jewish life as part of our society, and that nothing is solved by the rightists pointing the finger at Islamists, nor by the leftists pointing the finger at the right. Actually, the most important part is to look into your own circles. When there is an antisemitic remark from the right, a right-wing politician should call it out. And the same for the left. And in particular, when it comes to the center of society, I think there needs to be a reaction from civil society as well.
BF: So many people fear that local extremism will keep growing. What are the best measures to handle such dangerous situations at the level of small communities? And what do European countries do in this regard, individually and as a union?
KvS: I think that indeed we have seen tension growing in democracies. We have seen nationalist narratives coming to the fore in different countries, and more support for nationalist ideas, and an “us versus them” mentality––which we thought we had made some progress towards overcoming in Europe: some move towards unity in diversity. At the moment, indeed, there are many challenges which have to do also with global challenges. In the pandemic now, with the war, inflation, the energy crisis, people feel threatened. And so, you look for someone who is “responsible” for it, you look for an easy answer. And we must not permit a wedge to be driven in between so-called mainstream society (the “we”) and minorities or certain groups. We must be very clear and uphold these values of equality. Some of this can be done through education. And we must watch our own language: on Twitter, even with people who mean well, the language deteriorates with regard to someone with whom you do not agree. I think we have to come back to having some manners. Then there is another aspect of real civic courage: standing up for each other, to defend the rights of minority groups and to not allow this kind of speech. I believe that the internet has a key role to play, in either stopping or amplifying this kind of speech.
BF: Neo-Fascist and neo-Nazi movements remain active in our societies, as do antisemitic and supremacist ones. How can we heal our democracies in order to eliminate such movements? Do social inequalities play a role here? And if so, do institutions like yours have the power to counteract them?
KvS: There are many aspects to your question. Yes, in some ways social inequalities have grown, and this can lead to a lot of frustration with the individual. However, this does not give the right tools to those who feel this inequality and then attack others. And I think here we have to be very clear: yes, there are some injustices that have developed (also due to the crisis and due to the war), but we will not solve them by attacking others. We have very strong preventions against radicalization. We have a radicalization-awareness network in the Commission that brings together practitioners who work on radicalization-prevention, and de-radicalization programs for people to talk among themselves. All of this is really important to support and to foster and make sure that there is competence also when it comes to this development. Schools play an important role—as a bridge. We try to work with teachers when it comes to antisemitism. There is a program now addressing antisemitism through education (that can be financed with €1 million) to make sure that in each Member State we can specifically address and develop preventive measures that will address their specific forms of radicalization—or also of prejudice that can easily turn into antisemitic prejudice. Because what we have also seen is that in many on the right wing, but also on the left, general frustration and discontentment with government decisions leads to the declarations such as “I have a right to say this!” and it very quickly can turn from general discontent to conspiracies. And then we spiral quickly into antisemitism. Hence we always say that fighting antisemitism is also a defense of democracy, because actually by addressing this—the pernicious hatred—you uphold certain values, and you develop certain values.
BF: You already mentioned social media. Of particular concern is the wave of misinformation and the manipulation of social media to pursue neo-Nazi and neo-Fascist ideas in this regard. Could you explain the EU, the European Union Commission strategy to combat antisemitism and promote Jewish life? And could you also explain the European Union code of conduct against online hate speech?
KvS: One thing is clear: that the internet has become the chief entry door bringing hatred, hate speech, and antisemitism into our living rooms, and therefore it is key to look at the internet and see how to bring certain rules to the internet, if we want to contain and to push back hatred in the future. It is not just for neo-Fascists. It is really also for all forms of hatred. Therefore, we have European legislation countering hate speech that has been in place since 2008 and that we are implementing with Member States (and have recently overhauled) to see where Member States have not yet correctly transposed it. And this is underway and has really already improved the legal situation. If you have strong legal tools, then you also need to have the prosecution—and that means strengthening capacity, doing training, and, in particular, having sufficient people who can prosecute hate speech online (because it is just as illegal online as it is offline). And then we have the platforms, which have to comply first with the law. And we have the Digital Services Act, more recently. I don’t know whether you’re aware, but it basically increases (on top of the hate speech legislation) the Digital Services Act, and also obligates transparency from the platforms, so they have to disclose their algorithms to the authorities. They have to be more transparent. Why do they not take something down to the user? They have to have proper redress mechanisms and all of that, and they can be fined if they don’t comply. I believe it is important to have these rules for the platforms—of course, always fully respecting freedom of speech: that is important. But hate speech is not free speech. That’s very important as well. And then there is a third factor: to strengthen civil society. First, those NGOs that engage in detecting hate speech, and that sift through the net with regards to images, as well. They have an expert who has developed an expertise and then they can flag it. They can see the reaction from platforms. They can also flag it to the authorities if there is not a proper response. I think that is very important to strengthen this civil society aspect of the internet. The Code of Conduct is part of this last aspect. We agreed with the platforms in 2016 that they would delete illegal hate speech within 24 hours of it being flagged to them, according to European legislation. These NGOs flag hate speech, and platforms should react. But we have not seen the result we would have liked. And the consequence is that we need legal rules that are not just voluntary. But the Code of Conduct remains a very important tool, because it also shows how hate speech travels. The NGOs have this important function of flagging. But in parallel, the platforms also have to take the responsibility and take down hate speech when they detect it.
BF: Some people appreciate Holocaust Remembrance Day, while others consider it ineffective. What is your opinion on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and how do you think that this day of commemoration could stay current across the years and the generations and be an effective tool for the transmission of memory and historical awareness?
KvS: First of all, I believe that we owe remembrance to the victims. We pay respect to the victims of the Holocaust, the 6 million Jews and also the other victims that perished in systematic racist attacks or by racist laws that targeted them all as a group. There was a clear decision to address mainly the Jews, but also the Roma. And this memory is very important to uphold, with regard to the victims. Also with regard to the Jewish community today, and with regard to Europe—because the European Union was built on the ashes of the Second World War and as a clear statement saying: “we never again want to give room to hatred, as we saw in the lead-up to the Holocaust.” I think this commemoration is important, and particularly listening to the stories of Holocaust survivors—whether it is recorded or live—because I believe people cannot imagine what it really meant to go through this hell. I think it is very important to tell the stories over and over. But Holocaust remembrance in itself does not prevent antisemitism. In fact, sometimes—if it’s not done in the right way—it can even create a situation where others say: “Well, why always commemorate the Jews? There are other genocides, other atrocities.” We should also commemorate other genocides. But the singularity of the Holocaust is really that a civilized nation went down that path, and how quickly it developed, and that it started with words (some of the words that we hear again now). We must create civil courage by showing the courage of those who resisted, those who stood up against the Nazi regime. All of this together can help to create a compass in people that will help them to address the current challenges as well. But it has to be done in a proper way.
BF: Last question. What role do the younger generations have today in the fight against the antisemitism? And on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day 2023, do you have a particular message for young people—American, European, and all over the world?
KvS: Yes, I mentioned already that in October in 2021, the European Commission adopted our first-ever EU strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life. Holocaust remembrance and education about the Holocaust is a very important element in this because we strongly believe (as I said before) that we owe it to the victims and the survivors—and also to our own democratic values. One of the initiatives is that we have developed a Network of young European ambassadors to promote Holocaust Remembrance. It’s a network that has two components. One is a network for young people (age 15 and up): it enables them to talk about the Holocaust, gives them training, helps them to initiate Holocaust remembrance in their local setting—in their schools or in their youth clubs or very locally; it’s a one-year training program to give them this capacity. The other component is the digital world. And here we look at an initiative from Israel, where they pair young people (usually they’re a bit older, up to 25) who are online and might already be influencers, but also people that are simply interested in being paired with a Holocaust survivor. For one year, they talk to the survivor and are trained to tell their story and gain the courage to stand up against Holocaust denial, distortion, and trivialization online, and to use the reach they have among their peers to spread this message. We launched this initiative in November 2022. Moreover, we have another initiative for which consultations will be launched now, on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, called Places Where the Holocaust Happened. It is a network that will help smaller organizations and initiatives that look at locations—hiding places for Jews, or deportation sites, or train stations; locations where not much visibility has happened so far. This shows how locally the Holocaust happened, and that it was really something that neighbors saw, but they didn’t speak up—and how important it is to have the courage to speak up. Again, making a link to what happened back then, and supporting civil society, which has sometimes engaged for a very long time already—often with little money—in upholding the memory of these places; to help them and also create a space where they can learn from each other and have synergies. So this is another initiative, a network that we want to develop in the next few years; the strategy runs until 2030. One other aspect, beyond antisemitism and the Holocaust, is the positive aspect of fostering Jewish life, because Jewish communities in Europe are smaller as a direct consequence of the Shoah. Even in France, where you have the largest Jewish community in the EU, there are only 450,000/500,000 people; it’s still very small. In some countries we have a few thousand Jews. We think it’s also a responsibility of the EU to really support Jewish life and then work towards normalizing Jewish life in the public space and supporting the communities. To that end, there was a very nice initiative last year in Germany, which was called 1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany: throughout the year they had civil-society initiatives displaying different aspects of culture, of cooking, and so on. It was just an initiative of a few people, but it gained some traction. And often it’s also a question of funding. Hence, we have significantly increased the funding that can be used for this kind of civil society project.
BF: So it seems that your message to the youth is “Be involved and informed!”
KvS: Exactly. Actually, it is not their primary responsibility. It is often said the youth are the leaders of the future, but in fact, they are our leaders now. I have learned a lot from young people. We are in touch with the European Union of Jewish Students. They are fully involved in all our consultation processes. I think from them we can learn spontaneity and creativity and the commitment to speaking up. We can learn a lot: in particular, political circles can learn from the courage of young people. I’m always very heartened when I meet with young activists, because they don’t shy away from the job.