By Erika Asgeirsson
On Wednesday September 7, representatives from governments, civil society, and tech gathered to discuss the most pressing issues related to antisemitism around the world. The perpetual fight against antisemitism has taken on a fresh urgency as multiple, overlapping issues influence it: the global refugee crisis, xenophobic far-right parties, terrorism attacks and backlash against Muslim communities, and the rise of extremist groups exploiting divisive narratives and sowing a culture of fear and intolerance.
The U.N. High Level Forum on Global Antisemitism was an opportunity to share concrete recommendations for combatting antisemitism. This was only the second forum of its kind at the United Nations; the first was held in 2015 following the kosher supermarket attack in Paris. Human Rights First was proud to speak as a voice for civil society at both.
Two key themes emerged throughout the day. First, there is a great need to address the growing problem of online hatred. Second, the problem of antisemitism and other forms of intolerance cannot be addressed by governments, civil society, or technology companies alone; collaboration is necessary. These same two themes have grounded Human Rights First’s approach to countering antisemitism and extremism for the past 13 years.
Global networks and social media present great opportunities to connect people, but they have provided those spreading hatred and violence a platform to broaden their reach. Hate speech on the Internet has worked to divide us, often crossing the line to advocate and facilitate violence. Danny Danon, Israel’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, noted that 63 percent of antisemitic tweets advocate violence. There is an urgent need to protect human rights online as we do in the real world and in a way that is consistent with freedom of speech.
Civil society, the tech sector, and governments must promote unity and tolerance online. As Susan Corke stated in her remarks, destructive speech must be countered by constructive speech. This approach ensures that not only is freedom of speech protected, but so too is the dignity and fundamental rights of Jews and other groups facing discrimination and violence. This week, Human Rights First and Coexister hosted the Inaugural #BetterTogether Summit in Paris with precisely this goal in mind. Representatives from civil society, tech, and the government pledged to take a proactive approach to hate speech—by learning how to craft and disseminate effective counter-speech to spread tolerance online.
These issues cannot be addressed by any one group alone. It requires a diverse coalition—including Jews, Muslims, and others—and collaboration between civil society, tech, and governments. To illustrate this point, Ambassador Samantha Power cited the successful coalition that persuaded the Hungarian government to withdraw its support for the planned statue of Nazi collaborator Balint Homan, a coalition which Human Rights First was proud to take part in. Ambassador Power explained:
Yet from Hungary we can also draw important lessons about how to effectively push back against antisemitism – and it is with this point that I wish to conclude. The planned statue to Balint Homan was never erected. A widespread coalition of Hungarian and international organizations, faith leaders, and governments came together to signal their opposition – persuading the Hungarian government to withdraw its support. I’m proud that American civil society organizations and government officials were part of this effort – including many of you here in civil society, and including U.S. Envoy for Combatting and Monitoring Antisemitism and the U.S. Envoy for Holocaust Issues, both of whom are also here with us today. Their engagement is one of the many reasons we continue to urge other countries to create a ranking position for monitoring and combating antisemitism within their own governments. But these envoys were far from the only U.S. government officials involved in the effort; as President Obama said recently, our government made clear that the statue was, “not a side note to our relations with Hungary – this was central to maintaining a good relationship with the United States.
Combating antisemitism is not just a Jewish issue, but one of universal importance. In a video message, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasized that history has shown that discrimination against one group is not confined to that group, but is often followed by discrimination against other vulnerable groups. Ambassador Power echoed this sentiment, stating: “Time and again throughout history, we have seen that when the human rights of Jews are violated, the rights of others are not far behind.” Those who target Jews often target other groups such as Muslims, immigrants, and refugees.
Moreover, this violence and hate directed at one group must be seen as a threat to the values and stability of the nation as a whole. In our research in France, a young activist from Parle-moi de Islam aptly described the need for a broad constituency in the fight against hate: “The best thing I can do as a Muslim to counter Islamophobia is to be active and present in the fight against other forms of racism, in particular antisemitism.” As Susan stated, to fail to come together in the face of rising antisemitism, intolerance, and extremism threatens the progress we made toward building a world based on respect for human rights in in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust.
The work of the forum did not end on Wednesday. Recommendations from all speakers and panelists will be published to ensure that the progress made on Wednesday has a lasting impact in the fight against antisemitism and all forms of discrimination and intolerance.
Human Rights First is implementing these ideas on the ground. Building on our successful conference, Human Rights First and Coexister will work within grassroots coalitions to develop strategies to effectively counter hate speech by spreading counter-narratives online with the support of technology companies and U.S. and French governments.
Much work remains to be done, and that often requires disrupting the status quo. Keynote Speaker Professor Deborah Lipstadt’s call to action sums it up best: “All of you who came here today, go forth and be troublemakers.”
We pledge to keep causing trouble in the name of human rights.