Putting the International Religious Freedom Report into Action

By Zahava Moerdler

The State Department published its International Religious Freedom Report on Wednesday August 10, analyzing the status of religious freedom around the world in 2015 and providing details on discrimination against religious minorities. It also highlights the need for a working definition for the many forms of religious discrimination.

We took a close look into the sections on FranceGermanyGreece, and Hungary.

On Germany, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor assessed the prevalence of hate speech and crime, the rise of PEGIDA, and vandalism of synagogues. One incident sticks out: on February 5, 2015, a local court in Wuppertal finally sentenced three Palestinian men who had thrown Molotov cocktails at a synagogue in Wuppertal in 2014. Because the building was empty at the time, two of the men received 18-month suspended sentences for aggravated arson and the third, an 18-year-old, was placed on juvenile probation.

The defendants argued that their actions were not antisemitic, but rather an attempt to protest the violence in Gaza. The judge agreed and ruled that the attack did not constitute one of discrimination or antisemitism.

The court’s decision vividly illustrates the need for defining the parameters of antisemitism. According to former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance, Doudou Diene, “there is a crucial need to identify when anti-Zionism is tainted by antisemitism.” In his 2007 report, he found certain trends that crossed the line between legitimate public protest and antisemitism, including: “when Israelis and Jews who support the State of Israel are singled out, attacked, and treated in a manner that is out of proportion to the issue at hand and in comparison with the action of other countries, and when the legitimate right of Israel as a Jewish State to exist is questioned.”

The OSCE declared in 2014 that “international developments, including with regard to the situation in the Middle East, never justify antisemitism.” Similarly, the working definition adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance provides examples of antisemitism including, “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”

Providing a definition for antisemitism that lays out parameters of when speech constitutes antisemitism rather than protected political protest will help courts differentiate between conduct or speech that is legitimate and what is not. In the Wuppertal case, a synagogue was attacked presumably in protest to actions of the Israeli government. The synagogue has no control over the actions of a foreign government and should not be singled out accordingly.

This is just one example of one type of discrimination. Defining all forms of religious discrimination, whether it be antisemitism or Islamophobia, will help courts and governments recognize what constitutes discrimination and when so that these crimes are not swept under the rug.

These efforts must simultaneously not infringe on the right to freedom of expression. Clear definitions will help show whether speech or conduct crosses the line to constitute an illegitimate form of discrimination rather than a protected form of expression or speech.

In order to support the prosecution of hate crimes and provide clear delineations of when such crimes are based on discrimination, the OSCE should adopt working definitions of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of intolerance. The U.S. government should concretely address the problems identified in the State Department’s report. The report enables civil society, the media, and public to understand and evaluate strategies for responding to sustained religious discrimination.


Published on August 16, 2016


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