Celebrating Jewish Life: Honouring Dignity, Delivering Safety

Michael O’Flaherty
Pavel Losevsky © adobestock.com, 2019
FRA Director, Michael O'Flaherty, spoke during the second high-level meeting on antisemitic hate crime: European Conference on Antisemitism in Vienna on 17 April. He underlined the resurgence of antisemitism and reminded participants of the urgent need to tackle anti-Jewish hatred but also to honour and celebrate Jewish life. In his speech he outlined how this could be achieved.

Minister, dear colleagues,

Over recent years, it has been my great honour to visit centres of Jewish culture, faith, and learning – from great synagogues, such as in Luxembourg and Florence – and even the tiny beautiful one in Eisenstadt, to museums, such as here in Vienna, and centres of community life in Paris and elsewhere.

Sadly, the usual purpose of my visits has been to discuss the resurgence of antisemitism and related intolerance as tracked by the Fundamental Rights Agency.

The data is well known but it must still be presented at every opportunity.

Our periodic survey was last published in 2018. We surveyed 16,500 people in 12 EU Member States. Their story is one of discrimination, of harassment, of violence. It is a story of young people being impacted worse than older people, it is a story of a disturbing number of people who feel the need or wish to emigrate from Europe.  

The findings show that antisemitism pervades the public sphere, reproducing and engraining negative stereotypes about Jews. Simply being Jewish increases people’s likelihood of being faced with a sustained stream of abuse expressed in different forms, wherever they go, whatever they read and with whomever they engage.

We also, in 2020, surveyed the general population. We asked two questions: “How comfortable would you be to have a Jewish person as your neighbour?” and “How comfortable if a Jewish person were to marry into the family?”. The responses were diverse across the EU Member States. The highest values of comfort with having a Jewish person as a neighbour are found in Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden and the Netherlands. The lowest mean values of comfort were indicated in Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania and Poland. The results for the question about marriage show a similar pattern.

Another Fundamental Rights Agency source was our periodic reporting on the impact of COVID-19 with regard to fundamental rights. Our Bulletins demonstrated the very uneven impact of the virus and responses to the pandemic, hitting certain groups particularly hard.

The Jewish community is one such group. We reported on the myths and the lies that were spread and propagated against them: already in Spring of 2020, as we were alerted by the Anti-Defamation League, preposterous accusations were in circulation to the effect that Jews created and were spreading the virus. And, while not itself an indication of antisemitism, consider the experience of older Jewish people in institutional care. How many of the Holocaust survivors were among the older people who died, perhaps avoidably, in nursing homes?

To take just one last contemporary outrage, leaders in several Jewish communities are telling me of the calumnies whereby Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is blamed on Jews.

Dear colleagues,

It is impossible to overstate the importance of repudiating and pushing back against antisemitism. For sure, it is an issue of human rights and that alone is more than enough justification. But it is also about the very survival of ancient European communities. And the context is unique – survival after the unfathomable evil of the Holocaust. That is why I repeatedly say that our challenge is an existential one – if we fail our Jewish communities, then our modern European project will have failed.

So then, what can we do? How can we, to take the title of this presentation, celebrate Jewish life, honour dignity, deliver safety?

In the first instance, of course, we have the EU Strategy on Combatting Antisemitism and Fostering Jewish Life. The importance of this initiative cannot be overstated, and the European Commission is to be commended for it. It constitutes an invaluable road map for EU and Member State actions. The Commission will present an implementation report on the EU Strategy in 2024 and it has already been reported that, of the eighty-seven actions contained in the Strategy, fifty five have “already been set in motion in cooperation with Member States, civil society organisations and local and international partners.”

It is essential that the EU Strategy be accompanied by similar national initiatives. As of the end of 2022, 14 Member States had adopted a national strategy and another eight indicated that one was under development.  Of these, eleven are standalone antisemitism strategies rather than being elements of more broadly framed initiatives against racism and intolerance.

As the EU and the Member States proceed with strategy development and implementation, please allow me to suggest eight elements that should inform and support any and all of our efforts:

First, we should never forget that Jewish communities must be profoundly respected and engaged in all our deliberations and actions. Certainly, the State has a primary responsibility, but it needs to be delivered in full respect for the agency of the impacted individuals and communities. This is a matter of basic human rights, and it is also practically necessary since who but our Jewish communities can fully understand the impact of antisemitism and what protective and supportive actions are needed.

Second, we need a shared, a commonly agreed understanding of what antisemitism looks like, and which comprehensively reflects the types of antisemitic assertions that European Jews most frequently encounter. This is why the IHRA working definition is so useful. My Agency continues to encourage its use. In so doing, however, we need to be vigilant not to be associated with instances of distortion, instrumentalization or misapplication of it to stifle freedom of expression and legitimate criticism, including of a State.

Third, an important key to our prevention strategies must be sustained investment in remembrance of the Holocaust. I appreciate that it is well acknowledged that new efforts and approaches are needed as the last survivors pass away. But today, I would encourage us to also seize the opportunity to refresh how we remember. For instance, it is important to not just focus on what happened in concentration camps but also on how millions of Jews were killed in their homeplaces and elsewhere. It is no less important to remember how many people, in so many countries, were implicated in the persecution and killing. A further dimension of our remembering needs to be of the extent to which many States closed their borders to fleeing Jews. And we must always interrogate our narratives to ensure that they tell the story from the point of view of the Jewish communities.

Taking all such elements into consideration, it is time to find smart new ways to engage our societies, adults and children, in reflection and debate.

Fourth, we need to stay invested in offering protection to Jewish communities. It is deeply disturbing that armed guards have to be deployed and surveillance systems kept in place, but this seems unavoidable for now. However, under no circumstances should Jewish communities be expected to themselves pay for necessary security. The duty to provide a safe environment for our people falls squarely on the State.

Our States also need to follow the hate online, where, today, it is most commonly found. Again, this is often acknowledged. However, we need to be vigilant on how the internet is policed. For instance, we have to be very cautious in our reliance on automated content moderation. My Agency’s recent research has demonstrated the limits of artificial intelligence and the errors that can compromise machine learning. To take just one example, when we tested an artificial intelligence driven content moderation tool, we saw how it flagged the term ‘I am a Jew’ for takedown because it associated the word ‘Jew’ with hateful remarks. However, when we ran the term, ‘I hate Jews love’ it failed to flag it because it associated the word ‘love’ with positive messages.

Fifth, it is important to prosecute those acts of antisemitism that cross the line of criminal conduct. This requires a zero-tolerance approach whereby no one benefits from impunity. It also requires a much higher rate of reporting of antisemitic acts. This in turn requires us to understand the causes of non-reporting, be it a lack of trust in the authorities, a sense that nothing will change or a lack of awareness of where to bring certain types of complaint. The Fundamental Rights Agency will, of course, continue to support EU Member States as they seek to improve all aspects of the reporting, recording and prosecution of hate crime.  There are also impressive civil society initiatives to support improved monitoring and investigation of hate speech, such as the ‘Facing Facts’ programme.

Sixth, across all our efforts to eradicate antisemitism, it is necessary that our law, policy, and practice are evidence-based; that we gather the data. As we have seen, we cannot rely in this regard on recorded complaints as our source. States need to proactively pin down the statistics. But we still have a resistance of some countries to undertake this work.

We have to confront these hesitations. We appreciate the historical reasons: a reluctance to gather data on Jews because of the way census and other data was used to persecute them in the Holocaust. We understand that. But when Jewish groups themselves are saying, “Gather the data!”, then surely we need to have a new conversation. In this regard also, my Agency stands ready to support States, including through the sharing of appropriate data gathering methodologies.

The Fundamental Rights Agency, itself, will of course continue with its periodic surveys. In fact, we are in the field right now and will publish results early in 2024.

Seventh, our countries can do a still better job of celebrating Jewish culture and life as deeply treasured features of our societies. Here, perhaps above all, initiatives should be deeply informed by the views of Jewish communities. They need to avoid assuming a single homogeneous Jewish identity and instead reflect the rich diversity of Jewish cultures. They also need to avoid outmoded assumptions that individual persons can be neatly categorised into a preordained single identity. And it is no less important to avoid perpetuating misunderstandings and stereotypical categorisations about Jews or Jewish life – a point that is powerfully made in a current exhibition at the Jewish Museum here in Vienna.

Before moving on, allow me a word on the issues of ritual slaughter and circumcision. I accept that these trigger difficult and sometimes polarized debate in many countries. All I would ask is that the debates be informed by a respectful understanding of such practices within longstanding religious traditions – the importance of which to Jewish life was affirmed by my Agency’s 2018 survey – and that the discourse seek to fully respect the human right of freedom of religion or belief. I would point to the recommendations of successive UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Religion or Belief for guidance in addressing these matters.

Eight, and finally, we must never forget that the slogan ‘never again’ is not a statement of fact. There is no guarantee of a non-recurrence of the Holocaust. We require eternal vigilance to avoid any incremental deterioration of our societies. This, of course, is a topic that goes well beyond my scope today. But it does recall the profound interconnectedness of the combat of antisemitism and standing up for democracy and rule of law.

Dear friends,

That last point leads me, in conclusion, to a suggestion.

It is often overlooked that the modern-day human rights system has important origins in the repudiation of the Holocaust, with this being expressly acknowledged by drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What is more, among the greatest of the post-war human rights legal scholars were Jewish academics, not least Hersch Lauterpacht, Raphael Lemkin, Lou Sohn and Oscar Schachter; as well as more recent human rights thought leaders, including Thomas Buergenthal, Rosalynn Higgins and my friends, Felice Gaer and the late Nigel Rodley; and not forgetting, of course, Ben Ferencz, the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor who died just last week. I suggest that it is time to revive awareness of these connections, especially in 2023, the 75th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration. In so doing, we would both honour great people and throw a light on the unbreakable ties between the repudiation of antisemitism and the defence of human rights.


As we recommit ourselves, our organisations, and our States to the eradication of antisemitism we must believe that we can succeed. In that spirit, let my last words be those of the Prophet Jeremiah,

“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope”.

Thank you.

See also