"Contending with Antisemitism in a Rapidly Changing Political Climate: An International Scholars Conference"

Indiana Memorial Union

Sunday, March 24, 2019

IU President Michael A. McRobbie introduces Katharina von Schnurbein, the keynote speaker for the conference. Photo by Chaz Mottinger, Indiana University

Thank you, Alvin, for that kind introduction.

I want to extend a warm welcome, of behalf of Indiana University, to all of the distinguished scholars who have come from around the country and from 15 countries around the world to take part in this conference on "Contending with Antisemitism in a Rapidly Changing Political Climate," the fourth conference of its kind hosted by IU’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism.

Resurgent antisemitism and the rapidly changing global political climate

As all of you are undoubtedly aware, just over a week ago, a white supremacist affiliated with the alt-right killed 50 people and wounded another 50 in mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, during Friday prayers. Horrifically, the perpetrator of the attacks, who used a number of neo-Nazi symbols in his manifesto, livestreamed the attack, and video of the murders has continued to circulate online.

As you are also undoubtedly aware, just a few months ago, the United States experienced the most violent, deadliest attack on Jews in the nation’s history, when a man armed with semi-automatic weapons entered Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue during Shabbat morning services and shot and killed 11 congregants. As Anti-Defamation League President Jonathan Greenblatt said: "It is simply unconscionable for Jews to be targeted during worship on a Sabbath morning, and unthinkable that it would happen in the United States of America in this day and age."1 Like the New Zealand shooter, the perpetrator of this act of violent extremism and bigoted antisemitism had a history of making vitriolic and threatening posts on social media.

The despicable massacres at houses of worship in Pittsburgh and Christchurch also, sadly, bring to mind the 2015 mass shooting in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

All of these incidents, and unfortunately, a long list of others, underscore the dramatic increases in the numbers of hate groups that have been reported around the world in recent years, as well as the dramatic increase in the number of antisemitic incidents and acts of hatred and violence against other minorities.

The ADL, for example, reported that antisemitic incidents increased nearly 60 percent in the United States in 2017, and that 2018 was the fourth-deadliest year on record for domestic extremist-related killings in the U.S. since 1970.

Across Europe, antisemitism pervades the continent, with 90 percent of European Jews reporting that it is growing worse—to the point that many consider emigrating to Israel or another country.2

Community Security Trust, or CST, which annually issues an authoritative study of antisemitic incidents in the United Kingdom, recorded the highest total of such incidents ever recorded in a single calendar year. This was an increase of 16 percent from 2017, which was itself a record annual total.3

Just last month, the German government reported that violent antisemitic attacks in the country increased by 60 percent in 2018.4

And France reported a 74 percent increase in the number of antisemitic incidents last year.5

In our digital age, deplorable incidents such as those I described a moment ago also underscore the degree to which extremists increasingly plan their attacks to use social media to recruit new adherents and inspire others around the world to engage in acts of violence.

And, as you are here to discuss over the next three days, such incidents also underscore how changes in the global political climate in recent years—including the success of far-right and far-left parties, the rise of political leaders who either espouse or fail to denounce extremist views, and the general decline of liberal democracy around the world—have contributed to these sobering statistics.

Of course, the rise of extremist fringe political parties espousing antisemitism, white nationalism, and various other forms of hate-filled ideologies is bad enough. But in some ways, of even more concern is when some of these views start to make their way into the mainstream political parties of both right and left, which have been, in general, the bastions of liberal thought and tolerance. It is, for example, with the gravest concern that we are witnessing the increased infiltration of antisemitism into the British Labour Party, as underscored by the recent resignation from the party of a number of senior and respected members for this very reason.

Our shared responsibility to build communities of tolerance and diversity

As Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel said in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, we must never “be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."6

Indeed, all of us must raise our voices and condemn acts of persecution against men or women because of their race religion, or political views. This responsibility rests with each of us individually and with all of us collectively. Violent acts motivated by hatred against groups are—wherever they occur—matters of deep concern because criminal acts of hatred against any group threaten the freedom of all people.

Those of us in higher education have a particular obligation to work to ensure that our university communities regard tolerance and inclusive diversity, as among their cardinal virtues. As educators in the broadest sense, we must always insist that our students—and we ourselves—face the challenges inherent understanding and evaluating the ideas, assertions, and arguments, that come from other perspectives, other traditions, other disciplines, and other beliefs, as we search for knowledge and truth.

Indeed, it is precisely the multiplication of diverse perspectives, information, and worldviews, as well as the willingness to subject them to rigorous scrutiny, to debate them, and to defend them—in short using our reason to search for truth—that helps us to understand ourselves and our beliefs, our assumptions, and our knowledge more deeply and more thoroughly.

This conference also reminds all of us that in our diverse and increasingly global society, we cannot afford to ignore the lessons drawn from the serious and informed study of present-day antisemitism and its deep connections with centuries-old traditions of suspicion and hatred. The outstanding scholarship in which all of you are engaged helps us to educate our students, the communities we serve, and the broader public about both the history of antisemitism and its contemporary resurgence.

At Indiana University, all of us are proud that the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism is an integral part of that effort. Under the outstanding leadership of Professor Alvin Rosenfeld, the Institute performs an invaluable service through its international leadership in this timely study.

Announcing the Erna B. Rosenfeld Professorship

Before I introduce our keynote speaker, I want to take a moment to make a special announcement.

I am very pleased to announce this evening that Professor Alvin Rosenfeld, who, of course, directs the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, and who is also the founder and former longtime director of IU’s Borns Jewish Studies Program, has generously endowed the Erna B. Rosenfeld Professorship in the Borns Jewish Studies Program in memory of his late wife. This will be the first endowed professorship at any university in the United States with a focus on the study of contemporary antisemitism.

Erna Rosenfeld, Alvin's wife of 50 years, worked for Indiana University for more than 35 years, receiving the Outstanding Professional Staff Merit award for her work as the Area Coordinator for IU Residence Life.

A search to fill the professorship is currently underway. When filled, the professorship will allow Indiana University to maintain its leading position in the study of contemporary antisemitism in the United States.

Would you please join me in thanking Professor Rosenfeld for his generosity in establishing this important professorship in memory of his late wife?

Introducing Katharina Von Schnurbein

And now, it is my pleasure to present this evening’s keynote speaker, Katharina von Schnurbein.

Ms. von Schnurbein’s educational background includes undergraduate studies at the University of Bonn, a Master of Slavonic Studies from Oxford University, and a Master of European Studies from the Center for European Integration Studies in Bonn.

As those affiliated with Indiana University will know, I am fond of pointing out that Indiana University teaches around 70 languages—more than any other university in the United States. The vast majority of this language instruction takes place in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, which is also home to the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. Our multilingual keynote speaker would feel right at home in many of those classrooms, as she speaks German, English, Czech, Dutch and French, and is studying Hebrew and Italian—all languages in which IU offers instruction.

In December of 2015, intent on combatting all forms of racism, hatred, and intolerance with the same determination, the European Commission announced that it would appoint two new coordinators—one to combat anti-Muslim hatred in the European Union member states, and one to combat antisemitism.

Ms. von Schnurbein, who had, at that point, served with the Commission in various roles for more than a decade, was appointed as the Commission’s first Coordinator on Combatting Antisemitism. In this role, she works toward the ultimate goal of "normality" for Jews in Europe, so that they do not have to second-guess their movements and everyday decisions in order to enjoy their basic freedoms and rights.

Ms. von Schnurbein previously served the European Commission as press officer for the EU Delegation in Prague, as the spokesperson for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities in Brussels, and as an advisor to EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. In the latter role, she coordinated the Commission’s dialogue with churches, religious associations, and philosophical and non-confessional organizations.

As the European Commission’s Coordinator on combatting Antisemitism, Ms. Von Schnurbein brings the concerns of Jewish communities in the EU member states to the attention of the political level of the Commission. She helps coordinate efforts across services in the context of the Commission's overarching policy on racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance. She serves as a liaison with the 28 EU member states, the European Parliament, other institutions and civil society organizations.

She has worked to rally European Union member nations to adopt the working definition of antisemitism as set out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Ms. von Schnurbein collaborated closely with leaders of the IHRA as they worked to develop a clear definition, and her advocacy efforts helped lead to the European Parliament’s adoption in 2017 of its first ever resolution on combatting antisemitism, which included the IHRA’s working definition.

She also works to help enforce Europe’s ban on Holocaust denial, and to facilitate the removal of content flagged as hate speech from European social media sites.

In January, Ms. von Schnurbein and her colleagues released a Eurobarometer survey on antisemitism, which highlighted a major division on the perception of antisemitism in the EU. While 89 percent of Jews responded that antisemitism has increased significantly over the last five years, only 36 percent of the general public believes it has increased.

Ms. von Schnurbein and the European Commission also work to combat antisemitism outside the EU through joint initiatives with the United States, Canada, and Israel, through United Nations seminars and initiatives, and by organizing and participating in high-level conferences on antisemitism around the world.

On behalf of Indiana University, I am very pleased to welcome her to Bloomington as the keynote speaker for this conference on Contending with Antisemitism in a Changing Political Climate.

Please join me in welcoming the European Commission’s Coordinator on Combatting Antisemitism, Katharina von Schnurbein.

Source Notes:

  1. Jonathan A. Greenblatt, "ADL Statement on Synagogue Shooting in Pittsburgh," Web, Accessed October 28, 2018, URL: https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/adl-statement-on-synagogue-shooting-in-pittsburgh.
  2. Judy Matlz, "90 Percent of European Jews Say Antisemitism Getting Worse, EU Report Finds," Haaretz, December 10, 2018, Web, Accessed March 11, 2019, URL: https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/europe/.premium-90-percent-of-european-jews-say-anti-semitism-getting-worse-eu-report-finds-1.6728980.
  3. Antisemitic Incidents Report 2018, CST
  4. Ben Cohen, “German Government Records 60% Surge in Violent Attacks Targeting Jews During 2018,” The Algemeiner, February 13, 2019, Web, Accessed February 13, 2019, URL: https://www.algemeiner.com/2019/02/13/german-government-records-60-surge-in-violent-attacks-targeting-jews-during-2018/?utm_content=news1&utm_medium=daily_email&utm_campaign=email&utm_source=internal/.
  5. Angelique Chrisafis, “’Spreading Like Poison’: Flurry of Antisemitic Acts Alarms France,” The Guardian, February 12, 2019, Web, Accessed February 13, 2019, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/12/french-police-investigate-antisemitic-attacks-in-paris-simone-veil?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other.
  6. Elie Wiesel, Acceptance Speech, on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, December 10, 1986, Web, Accessed March 19, 2019, URL: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1986/wiesel/26054-elie-wiesel-acceptance-speech-1986/.