Building peace in the minds of men and women

Addressing contemporary antisemitism: A global issue?

11 July 2019

We live in an interconnected, interdependent and plural world – one of increasing complexity, uncertainty and contradiction. Where on the one hand, we are able to instantaneously gain access to information, stand in solidarity, provide financial aid via the click of a button; and on the other hand, perpetuate stereotypes, spread fake news and even incite hate using as few as 280 characters. 

Antisemitism, racism, xenophobia and other kinds of intolerance and discrimination, threaten not only the security of individuals and communities that suffer from their effects, but also jeopardize social cohesion, and democratic values, undermining the full realisation of fundamental human rights. Even more alarmingly, intolerance and discrimination of this nature can contribute to a toxic environment where violent extremism, terrorism and criminality can thrive. Countering intolerance and discrimination through promoting dialogue, mutual respect and understanding must be a priority for the international community in its efforts to ensure peace and stability: globally, regionally and locally.

This is why, UNESCO in partnership with the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the World Jewish Congress (WJC) organized an international workshop to strengthen the capacity of policymakers to address contemporary antisemitism in and through education from 10 – 11 July.

So, why is it important to address contemporary antisemitism within this context and more specifically as a global issue? 

From the outset, it should be recognised that antisemitism did not begin or end with the Holocaust. Its legacy of hostility and prejudice against Jewish people is still a reality today across the globe. Although the strategies and forms have mutated, often materialising under the pretext of the situation in the Middle East, antisemitism remains prevalent, given the increase in both the number of attacks and the nature of the violence used (i.e. from vandalism to terrorists attacks). 

Furthermore, in our changing geopolitical climate and new media environment we are witnessing a shift in antisemitic bigotry, which is no longer restricted to extremist circles, but rather increasingly mainstreamed, particularly online. Therefore, contemporary antisemitism often takes tacit, covert and coded forms, making it a complex and controversial phenomenon that mutates over time. In an attempt to unpack this issue, by addressing antisemitism as a global concern, there are four key elements to illustrate the universality of contemporary antisemitism, which has no bounds. 

First, contemporary antisemitism is a widespread and rising expression of hatred, harassment, violence and discrimination against Jews with important impact today. Antisemitism poses a threat to all countries, given its global reach. This is reflected in the Anti-Defamation League (2014) global survey that examined attitudes towards Jews and anti-Jewish stereotypes in 101 countries. The survey found that over 1.09 Billion people worldwide harbor antisemitic attitudes. In addition, data from the ‘longitudinal tolerance index’ conducted by the Consultative Commission on Human Rights (2017) revealed that – in France – ‘black people and Jews’ at 78% experience the highest levels of intolerance vis-à-vis other monitory groups. 

Second, in more recent years, we have observed antisemitism as a global security issue, given the nature of the violence used in attacks, and more specifically, the antisemitic component of terrorist attacks, with violent extremists targeting and killing Jewish people from Mumbai to Toulouse, Brussels, Paris, Pittsburgh and Copenhagen. Antisemitism is the driving force of a range of violent extremist ideologies and is often accompanied by gender-based and homophobic violence, racism and other forms of intolerance. What is more, various violent extremist ideologies and conspiracy theories that proliferate online often feed on antisemitism. 

Third, contemporary antisemitism is a serious human rights issue, which is not limited to the Jewish people, individually or collectively. Antisemitism is often treated as an isolated issue, implying that it is a problem for Jewish communities alone, when in fact antisemitism does not require the presence of a Jewish community to proliferate. This is particularly problematic for two key reasons: 

(1) when assessing response strategies, because of the removal of intersectionality; antisemitism is treated as something “other” or “different” and thus limits the scope for holistic/intersectional approaches, which are very much needed to combat all forms of discrimination and/or hatred. And (2) from a human rights lens, given that inherent intersectionality and universality of human rights law, it is important to recognise antisemitism within its legal normative framework and not address as something “other” or “different”, as if it is not or cannot be covered by international human rights law: 

In accordance with international human right law, there is specific provision outlined for antisemitism – that is “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”, among others,  articulated in Article 18 of the Universal Deceleration of Human Rights (1948) and Article 18 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (1966), as well as Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981). 

Like all forms of intolerance and discrimination, antisemitism has a profound impact on the society as a whole, undermining democratic values and human rights. 

Forth, contemporary antisemitism is a growing online issue that has no boundaries, thus universalising its scope and reach. Social media, online forums, blogs, comment sections and messenger apps provide platforms for antisemitic discourse to spread freely and anonymously. These mechanisms, and lacking effective counter action, leave space for like-minded peers (enclosed in so-called “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers”) to encourage and reinforce their harmful messages, providing a fertile ground for radicalization and lowering the threshold to engage in offline violence. 

Unchallenged antisemitic rhetoric encourages people to believe that prejudice, discrimination and even attacks on particular groups of people are acceptable. Therefore, a concentrated and collaborative global response is needed. Education can play a vital role in the prevention of antisemitism: it can foster tolerance and dialogue as well as build resilience among young people towards ideologies, including antisemitism, which undermine human rights, and equip them to recognize and reject antisemitic or other group-based forms of intolerance and discrimination. Ultimately, addressing antisemitism is both an immediate security imperative and a long-term investment to promote human rights and global citizenship.

UNESCO is strongly committed to the prevention of antisemitism as part of the Organization’s global programmes on preventing violent extremism through education (PVE-E) and Global Citizenship Education (GCED). In this context, UNESCO promotes education systems that address antisemitism in and through education and build the resilience of young people to extremist ideologies and prejudice. In support of this goal, UNESCO builds the capacities of education policymakers and teachers though guidelines, targeted trainings and the development of educational materials.