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April 12, 2018

Yom HaShoah—"To Truly Honor the Past we Must Understand the Present and Preserve the Future"

On March 23, 2018—one week before Passover and three weeks before Yom HaShoah—Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old French Holocaust survivor, was brutally stabbed to death and left to burn in her home in Paris’ 11th Arrondissement. The city’s public prosecutor declared the crime an aggravated assault with religious bias, and President Emmanuel Macron stated that “she was murdered because she was Jewish.” As a child, Ms. Knoll escaped with her mother from one of the darkest moments in French history—the roundup and deportation of French Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz. Decades after she escaped death in the concentration camps, Ms. Knoll became a victim of a vicious antisemitic hate crime in today’s Paris.

Her murder comes at a monumental time in the Jewish calendar. From March 31 to April 8, Jews around the world celebrated Passover, a holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt. Passover is also a holiday that focuses on themes of freedom, identity, and remembrance. April 12 will mark Yom HaShoah and begins the eight Days of Remembrance—the Jewish commemoration of the Holocaust. This date is significant also as the Hebrew date for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The Holocaust was facilitated by a culture of hate and an acceptance of violence. Unfortunately, this culture persists today—“never again” did not mean that antisemitism went away—as evidenced by the brutality of Ms. Knoll’s murder. The past year has seen an increase in hate crimes throughout Europe and the United States. Ninety-two violent antisemitic incidents were recorded in France in 2017, a 28 percent increase over 2016. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of reported antisemitic incidents in the United States increased 35 percent in 2016 over 2015, and again 57 percent in 2017 over 2016. In the United Kingdom, antisemitic hate incidents reached record levels, according to Community Security Trust, with a 34 percent surge in violent assaults against Jews in 2017. Finally, according to government data, Germany saw an average of four antisemitic crimes per day in 2017. The better we understand and address antisemitism as a human rights issue, the easier it will be to properly report, record, prosecute, and most importantly, prevent antisemitic violence and hate.

These statistics coincide with another troubling trend. We live at a time where growing authoritarianism and ethno-nationalist populism—often with antisemitism at its core—have given rise to extreme voices. In Europe, populist far-right political parties have risen to power, many with historical ties to antisemitism and the Holocaust—notably the Freedom Party (FPO) in Austria, which was founded by Austrian Nazis at the end of World War II. Other far-right parties gained mainstream acceptance in society, including the National Front in France, which has a strong tradition of antisemitism since its inception. These parties maintain platforms of prejudice, particularly emphasizing the refugee crisis, and mobilize forces around themes of xenophobia, antisemitism, and Islamophobia. This fearmongering has impacted voters worldwide and fueled the frightening rise of hatred on the streets and online.

This fearmongering is part of a dangerous spiral—for example, Muslims in France are both the targets of hatred, and, in some instances—such as the kosher market murders in 2015—the perpetrators of antisemitic violence. 

Now, more than ever, it is imperative to conceptualize the fight against antisemitism within a human rights framework. Antisemitism—which is a certain perception of, or prejudice against, Jews that is often expressed as hatred towards Jews—manifests as religious, ethnic, national, and racial intolerance or prejudice, and in some instances involves the conflation of Israeli government policies with Jewish identity. When Jewish individuals or institutions are targeted based on their religious, racial, or ethnic affiliation with the Jewish people, courts have found bias-motivated hate speech or violence.

Because antisemitism can be placed in many different categories—bias based on race, ethnicity, national origin, and religion—antisemitic hate crimes can be difficult to categorize, frame, and prosecute. In April 2017, Sarah Halimi, an elderly Jewish woman, was murdered in her apartment. She lived in the same neighborhood as Ms. Knoll and was murdered by a radicalized neighbor. She too had complained about threats on her life prior to her murder. Yet, despite appeals from Ms. Halimi’s family, public prosecutors, and civil society organizations, the judge in her case proved reluctant to call her murder an antisemitic hate crime (the antisemitic character of the attack was finally included in the case after nine months of investigation). All too often, unless the circumstances provide no room for argumentation, prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and state officials are reluctant to identify a crime as bias-motivated.

As we mark Yom HaShoah, we remember the atrocities of the Holocaust. But we should also acknowledge the persistent strain of antisemitism that is active today. The United States and foreign governments should have no tolerance for bias-motivated hate crimes. They must improve their reporting, recording, and victim outreach services to encourage greater identification of antisemitic crimes.

The Trump Administration has compiled a troubling record on combating antisemitism, and while it did mention the Jews this year on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it has mis-stepped time and again—from not calling out the blatant antisemitism undergirding the white nationalist protests at Charlottesville, Virginia, to hiring Sebastian Gorka, a man tied to antisemitic publications, organizations, and people. At a minimum, the Trump Administration should act immediately upon its affirmed commitment to combat antisemitism by filling the long-vacant position of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, as is required by law.

On these Days of Remembrance, to honor the victims of the Holocaust, we must fight to protect the system of human rights and democracy that emerged from the ashes of some of the darkest days in our history.