It's a criminal offense to ridicule any group – in particular Jews, and except Muslims

January 26, 2015

In Blog News

Jewish leaders call for Europe-wide legislation outlawing antisemitism

Proposal would criminalise activities such as banning the burqa, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and Holocaust denial

, Europe editor
The Guardian,
Paris attacks
A man waves an Israeli flag during the Israeli prime minister’s visit to the kosher supermarket in Paris where four hostages were killed earlier this month. Photograph: Michel Euler/AP

European Jewish leaders, backed by a host of former EU heads of state and government, are to call for pan-European legislation outlawing antisemitism amid a sense of siege and emergency feeding talk of a mass exodus of Europe’s oldest ethnic minority.

A panel of four prestigious international experts on constitutional law backed by the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation (ECTR) have spent three years consulting widely and drafting a 12-page document on “tolerance”. They are lobbying to have it converted into law in the 28 countries of the EU.

The proposal would outlaw antisemitism as well as criminalising a host of other activities deemed to be violating fundamental rights on specious religious, cultural, ethnic and gender grounds.

These would include banning the burqa, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, polygamy, denial of the Holocaust and genocide generally, criminalising xenophobia, and creating a new crime of “group libel” – public defamation of ethnic, cultural or religious groups. Women’s and gay rights would also be covered.

The proposed legislation would also curb, in the wake of the Paris attacks, freedom of expression on grounds of tolerance and in the interests of security.

“Tolerance is a two-way street. Members of a group who wish to benefit from tolerance must show it to society at large, as well as to members of other groups and to dissidents or other members of their own group,” says the document.

“There is no need to be tolerant to the intolerant. This is especially important as far as freedom of expression is concerned: that freedom must not be abused to defame other groups.”

Amid acute European angst over multiculturalism, fundamentalist violence perpetrated on alleged religious grounds and the response of the state, the call for uniform rules across Europe is to be initiated this week in Prague at events commemorating the Holocaust and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

“There’s a real threat of another Jewish exodus from Europe,” Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress and co-chair of the ECTR, told the Guardian. “The only way to fix these problems is deep changes in legislation to protect all, not just Jews.”

The panel of experts drafting the proposal includes a retired Italian supreme court judge, a former King’s College professor, and the former head of Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Institute. The panel was chaired byYoram Dinstein, a war crimes expert, professor and former president of Tel Aviv university.

“Antisemitism is clearly part of it, but by no means the thrust of the project,” he said. “It’s about tolerance and if you expect tolerance, you have to show tolerance. Otherwise it becomes very obnoxious.”

The document, A European Framework National Statute for the Promotion of Tolerance, according to the drafters, seeks to define, codify, and balance rights, liberties and security at a time when governments are scrambling over how to cope.

But it goes much further, calling for the criminalisation of “overt approval of a totalitarian ideology, xenophobia or antisemitism.”

Education in tolerance should be mandatory from primary school to university, and for the military and the police, while public broadcasting must “devote a prescribed percentage of their programmes to promoting a climate of tolerance”.

The drafters are currently touring the parliaments of Europe trying to drum up support for a consensus that would get many, if not all, of the proposals turned into law across 28 countries. Given the national disparities on gay rights, libel laws, holocaust denial and more, the proposals represent a legal minefield.

In Hungary, which has a long record of antisemitism and has a nationalist rightwing government in power, the demands were laughed away, said Dinstein, adding: “The government wouldn’t touch it with a long pole.”

At a European parliament committee hearing, he said, Britain’s UK Independence party (Ukip) was strongly opposed.

The organisers are particularly keen to see Britain enact legislation, similar to that in Germany or Austria, criminalising Holocaust denial. “We very much regret this is not done by Britain,” he said.

The yardstick, say the drafters, should be that if an international tribunal has ruled genocide has taken place, it should be accepted everywhere in Europe as criminal conduct to contest that in public. The Holocaust, the Rwanda genocide, and the mass murder of Muslims by Serbs in Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1995 would be covered. The Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915, for example, would not be covered.

One senior EU policymaker said as far as Europe’s Jewish communities were concerned there was no need for new laws. The priority was security and protection.

Kantor complained that when raising the issue of protection, national and regional Jewish leaders were encouraged to stage fundraising activities.

“We are challenging today things that haven’t happened in Europe for 70 years,” he said. “The Jewish community in Europe definitely needs protection. Governments should pay and should invest much more money. We’ve already paid our taxes and we need much more commitment from governments.”