transatlantic talk

At former SS headquarters in Berlin, European leaders teach the U.S. a lesson on antisemitism

The White House announced last month its plan to create a national antisemitism strategy, a process the European Union completed in 2021

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

(From L to R) U.S. Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. First Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Amy Gutmann, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism Felix Klein and European Commission Coordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life, Katharina von Schnurbein, attend an international gathering on combating anti-semitism on January 30, 2023, in Berlin, Germany.

BERLIN — For decades, American Jews generally regarded Europe with a feeling of superiority on matters of antisemitism. When Jeffrey Goldberg asked, “Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?” in a prescient 2015 Atlantic cover story, written in the wake of the deadly attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, many Jews in America read the article with fascination, but not yet understanding — a vast gulf separated the two communities in their experiences of antisemitism. 

That has changed in recent years as antisemitism in the U.S. has risen to levels not seen in decades. The result is that 80 years after the Holocaust, the U.S. finds itself in the slightly ironic position of turning to Europe for guidance in how to combat antisemitism. 

Antisemitism envoys from across Europe gathered in Berlin on Monday for a meeting with Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. The convening took place in the Topography of Terror museum located at the former SS headquarters, on the 90th anniversary of Hitler’s appointment as chancellor.

“I know each of you is laying such crucial groundwork for those who will come after you to do this important work,” Emhoff said in remarks at the start of the meeting. “We can learn from each other.” 

The meeting follows a White House announcement in December that the Biden administration plans to create a national strategy on antisemitism. After a busy and emotional five-day visit to Poland and Germany, Emhoff arrived back in Washington on Tuesday night to move forward with plans to create the national strategy. Next week, he and Lipstadt will speak at a United Nations event focused on antisemitism.

“My voice amplified the fight and amplifies the fight, but [Emhoff’s] voice does — it’s on a whole different level,” Lipstadt told Jewish Insider on Tuesday.

Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission coordinator for combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life, told JI after the roundtable that she believes Emhoff’s involvement with the issue “will have a real impact” as the U.S. begins to put together its action plan. “What I think is important — and this has been our focus — is to create structures in a way that the system reacts,” she said.

In 2021, the European Union released its own antisemitism strategy after years of careful research, planning and brainstorming. The process was a diplomatic and logistical feat, involving representatives from each of the 27 EU governments and each country’s Jewish community. An efficiency-minded German with an eye for both organization and the big picture, von Schnurbein was the mastermind behind the strategy. 

“It seems to me she sees it a) as an affront to what happened here in European history that there still should be antisemitism, and b) just as I do, and I think anybody else from a democratic country, [she] recognizes the threat to democracy,” Lipstadt said.

Von Schnurbein, who is not Jewish, has overseen Europe’s approach to countering antisemitism since 2015. She grew up in the German state of Bavaria in the shadow of the Holocaust. The closest Jewish community was located an hour away. 

“In my family home, I mean, these were dinner discussions, [about] our responsibility towards Jewish people and what we as Germans, as individuals, have to do, what responsibility we have,” explained von Schnurbein. 

The antisemitism landscape in Europe and the U.S. is not the same, nor are the mechanisms to respond to it comparable. Europe’s population is larger, although the EU has less power over its member states than the U.S. federal government does over the 50 states. And the U.S. has a Jewish population several times larger than that of Europe.

“It really needs to be ensured that there is education, not only about the Holocaust, of course, about the Shoah, but all the richness of Jewish life beforehand, so Jewish life just simply becomes more normal,” von Schnurbein said. “In your everyday life, you don’t necessarily have someone sitting next to you in school that says, ‘Tomorrow I am not here because of Yom Kippur.’” A 2014 Pew study found that roughly 40% of Americans said they did not know any Jews. 

The tight-knit group of global antisemitism envoys, from Europe and beyond, will meet in Washington at the end of this month to provide insight and feedback to the White House interagency task force on antisemitism and other forms of hate. Von Schnurbein believes the EU’s antisemitism strategy could offer useful guidance to Washington. The EU’s approach is country-specific, and its recommendations for each member state — such as its insistence that each EU country appoint its own antisemitism envoy and craft its own antisemitism strategy — could also correspond to actions in each American state, rather than just at the federal level.

“Why not see this also with regards to the U.S.? You have a federal level and then 50 states,” von Schnurbein explained. “There needs to be ownership from the member state side, from the civil society, from businesses, from schools and universities and political parties and so on, and translate this into the respective contexts. And that’s important, too, for it to, let’s say, trickle down.”

Similarly, the EU plan calls for each member state to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism. “I think that the question of the adoption of the IHRA definition was not a given. I think that we have made tremendous progress in ensuring that all forms of antisemitism are seen as equally pernicious,” von Schnurbein said. “We want a society free from antisemitism, so we have to look at all these examples, including Israel-related antisemitism.” More than half of all U.S. states have adopted the IHRA definition, although it has also faced pushback for its assertion that anti-Zionism can sometimes cross the line into antisemitism. 

Emhoff has refrained from discussing Israel in the context of antisemitism, insisting that his role right now is to listen to others who are the experts on the issue of antisemitism. 

“He’s trying to be careful. He’s trying to do a good thing,” said Lipstadt. “He’s trying to be smart politically and not take away from the issue itself. It’s the kind of thing that needs nuance, and nuance demands knowledge, experience. He’s just gaining that.” 

Von Schnurbein started working for the European Commission (the EU’s executive body) in 2002, holding a number of different roles including spokesperson, before she took on the antisemitism portfolio.

“It was a real learning curve,” she said. “I came to this with a very open mind. What is regarded by the community as antisemitic — that should be our starting point.”

Lipstadt has a global remit, so she closely follows what happens in Europe. As an ambassador, her work is focused on the rest of the world, not the U.S. Still, Emhoff has called her a mentor, and the Holocaust historian has helped him make sense of the weighty topic. She told JI she did not anticipate working so closely with him after President Joe Biden nominated her in 2021. “I didn’t even think about it,” she admitted.

The idea for the trip to Poland and Germany, which included a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau and to the Polish town where Emhoff believes his great-grandmother once lived, came from a serendipitous conversation at a State Department Sukkot event. 

“We’re in the kitchen and he said, ‘So where are you traveling, Deborah?’” she recalled, and responded by saying she would be traveling to Poland in January for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. “He said, ‘I’m in.’”

The EU antisemitism plan has a long horizon. Its recommendations were crafted with a long-term commitment, looking ahead to 2030. In Washington, where political priorities shift in each presidential administration, the White House may have less than two years to formulate and implement its plan. 

“This goes far beyond the current mandate of this [European] Commission because we want to make sure that this is there to stay, and the structures we’re building up,” said von Schnurbein. 

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday after meeting with Holocaust survivors, Emhoff said the White House has not yet set a deadline for completing its antisemitism strategy. 

“I want it to be right, and I want it to be good,” he said. “Sometimes, if you do things too quickly, you’re gonna miss things.” 

The biggest test, both in Europe and in the U.S., is whether an antisemitism policy actually leads to a reduction in hate crimes and violence against Jews. France reported a 36% increase in reported assaults on Jews in 2021, while antisemitic hate crimes in Germany were up 29% that year. 

“What we need is that, then, it has a direct effect also on the livelihood of Jews in that they feel more secure. They feel they can go out as they like. They don’t have to think twice [about] which metro to come up,” said von Schnurbein. 

As a proud and supportive political spouse, Emhoff has spent years watching his wife, Vice President and former Senator Kamala Harris, write policies and put them to the test. On antisemitism, it’s his turn. 

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