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UN point man on anti-Semitism

By Mike Wagenheim

NEW YORK — UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, presented the first stand-alone report on anti-Semitism by a UN expert in 2019.

Ahmed Shaheed (JNS)

It was especially notable coming from a body that itself has long displayed bias against Israel — blaming it, and by extension, Jews, for regional and global ills.

Shaheed, who took up his mandate in 2016, described anti-Semitism as the “canary in the coal mine of global hatred,” posing risks to minorities everywhere, including Jews.

Now the deputy director of the Essex Human Rights Centre, Shaheed was the first special rapporteur on human rights in Iran for the UN Human Rights Council. He has twice held the office of Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Maldives — an independent island country in the north-central Indian Ocean — and narrowly survived impeachment by parliament for attempting to build ties with Israel.

Following his 2019 report, Shaheed recently released his Action Plan to Combat Anti-Semitism, which identifies anti-Semitism as a pressing and enduring challenge that governments, social-media companies, faith leaders and other actors should confront with urgency.

Together with the US State Dept. and European Commission envoys on combating anti-Semitism, he recently met with UN member states in an effort to garner support for his plan of action.

Q: What has changed between your original report in 2019 and this new plan of action?

A: The key change is the degree of engagement now by governments and by the UN. A lot more countries have appointed national coordinators or other focal points to look at the subject.

The second change is the number of countries that have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism. Some cited my report’s recommendation as the reason for them doing that.

The third is the UN’s own engagement. The creation of a UN Focal Point, Miguel Moratinos, in the High Representative’s office, to look at this subject is important.

In addition to the action plan that the EU has developed, the fact that the European Commission for racial intolerance has reviewed the IHRA working definition and considered my recommendation on it — and adopted their own policy guidance — is important.

There’s also a counter-trend to challenge these efforts. For example, the IHRA working definition has become more widely used, but there are also challenges to it.

But there is now more engagement, more activity, more willingness to look at what needs to be done, and also some special elements, such as the recent EU action plan to combat anti-Semitism and foster Jewish life.

We also have input from UNESCO in education on how to combat anti-Semitism in school settings, independent of my work but around the same time.

Finally, you have more engagement by social media companies and human rights defenders.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has regular consultations with tech companies and Jewish communities in creating more understanding of how social media platforms are being used to perpetuate anti-Semitism.

Q: What sparked UN leadership to take a look at this issue?

A: What brought me to this subject is simply when I began the mandate, I did an overview of global trends in regard to intolerance and violence, and what struck me were two things.

One is that anti-Semitic hatred manifested very frequently in violence. The Pittsburgh synagogue attack, Poway, [Calif.] . . . were already happening.

The second one was the disproportionate nature. If you look at the fact that the global Jewish population is a very small percentage of the total world population, the number of countries where Jews live is a fraction of what the other main religions occupy. From this perspective, the attacks that Jews face are far more proportionally higher.

In my visits to countries as the mandate holder, I was struck by the degree of self-censorship by Jews — the level to which people have to hide their identity, to become invisible, because being visible would have meant becoming the target of attack.

My own background does play a role. I was a rapporteur for six years covering Iran. You do come across this feeling of Iran as a transmitter of anti-Semitism on the global stage.

My time in the Maldives was very focused on promoting tolerance and inclusion, and combating anti-Semitism was a significant part of that.

I was impeached by parliament for saying things like Israel should not be treated differently than any other country . . . I became a target of this hatred. Long before I came to my current UN role, I was aware of the need to combat it.

The world has seen a rise in xenophobic hatred in the past seven to eight years, and anti-Semitism is the very first line of this type of hatred.

If you want to deal with different forms of hatred, which we must, we have to begin with the oldest and the most pervasive, and the most difficult of these forms.

Q: I’ve heard more than one Israeli and more than one Jew say they now feel safer and more open to identifying themselves as Jews in Dubai than they do in Paris, London or even New York. Are there lessons from the Middle Eastern countries that have opened themselves up?

A: What happens in Middle Eastern countries — and I’m speaking in very general terms — is that belonging to an Abrahamic faith is not seen as odd.

But in countries where secularism has become a bit more assertive — and an aggressive form of secularism, in other words, in Europe — there are a few places were secularism might also mean that you empty public space of any visible religious practice. In those contexts, people who are identified by religion get targeted for harassment.

But that’s only one aspect. The other is that xenophobia has become far more widespread. Populism has become far more widespread in European societies, and they have struggled far more than [Abraham Accord countries] in dealing with it.

Tolerance means that we should also accept that people can be religious, and being religious isn’t a problem. So secularism is a concern, for example, in the recent European court judgment which wasn’t going to support shechitah (Jewish ritual slaughter) or brit milah (Jewish ritual circumcision). It comes from possibly not anti-Semitic forces. It possibly comes from animal rights and other concerns. But we must recognize the importance of respecting this practice and recognize that religious people might want to actually display their attachment to it.

Q: You mentioned in your report that within the European Commission there seemed to be a fairly unified position on combating anti-Semitism and fostering Jewish life. Can this kind of regional cooperation be duplicated elsewhere?

A: It would be easier in some cases to have a regional approach — at least as the mainframe from which countries handle this issue. If you take it up at the regional level, they can find allies, synergies and ways of doing things that don’t have to target a country.

Even in Europe, if you went down to details in some countries, there are difficulties because of some of the issues with their own understanding of the past. But at the wider regional level, they’ll find working with the pack to be easier.

A regional approach . . . gives more strength to those who are on the fence and certainly marginalizes those who are hesitant to take action on this.

Q: What does progress look like to you?

A: Schools that Jewish kids attend that don’t look like garrisons, [that] look like any other school in that country.

Something I really struggled with [in my] research was that when I was visiting a Jewish school, which I have done many times, it was like coming into a high-security prison.

As an adult, it doesn’t really affect me personally, but I just think about that three-year-old, the four-year-old, the five-year-old who comes in a bus or car or train or walks through societies that are open. Suddenly, you get to your school, and you have to go through several gates and steel fences. And there’s a police car outside, and it feels like a prison.

I am sure this will affect people. For me, that’s a significant indicator of what progress is.

The second measure would be when Jewish communities no longer have to train their own guards — that they can assume that the state will be responsible for their safety.

The third would be the school setting where there’s greater awareness that we are learning about Jews not as victims of the Holocaust, but as people who are like us and, more than that, who have been making enormous contributions to our way of life and our civilization.

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