UN’s point man on religious freedom has released his plan for combating anti-Semitism

July 7, 2022 by Mike Wagenheim
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U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed presented a historic report in 2019 on global anti-Semitism as a human rights concern.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed. Credit: Courtesy.

His creation of the first stand-alone report on anti-Semitism by a U.N. expert was commended by Jewish groups as groundbreaking. 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.

Currently serving as deputy director of the Essex Human Rights Centre, Shaheed was the first special rapporteur on human rights in Iran for the U.N. Human Rights Council. A career diplomat, he has twice held the office of Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Maldives—an independent island country in the north-central Indian Oceanand 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, as well as social media companies, faith leaders and other actors, should confront with urgency.

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

JNS sat down with Shaheed to discuss the rapid rise in anti-Semitism, the finer points of his plan and what he defines as success in battling a global hatred of the Jewish people.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What has changed between 2019 and the original report you gave, and this new plan of action against anti-Semitism?

A: I think the key change that I would point to is the degree of engagement now by governments and by the United Nations on this subject. And by this, what I mean is that the number of national coordinators and the number of national envoys on this subject has increased. A lot more countries have appointed national coordinators or other focal points to look at the subject. That is one.

The second change is the number of countries that have adopted the (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism. I did see a significant increase in the number of countries signing on to it and, in some cases, some even citing my report’s recommendation as the reason for them doing that.

The third one is the U.N.’s own engagement. Of course, given the huge apparatus with many offices and many ways of doing things, it continues to be very problematic in terms of combating anti-Semitism. But in other areas, specifically in the creation of a U.N. Focal Point, Miguel Moratinos, in the High Representative’s office, to look at this subject I think is also important for our development. And I also argue that in addition to the action plan that the European Union has developed, the fact that the European Commission for racial intolerance has gone and reviewed the IHRA working definition and considered my recommendation on it—and adopted their own policy guidance—is important.

I would say that just in the past three years, there has been a bigger recognition that more has to be done to combat anti-Semitism and that more has been done to that. I am not saying things have changed on the ground. That’s a different issue. We always have attacks—very violent acts—against Jews. We have the general everyday prejudice. All that is still going on.

And then, of course, there’s also a counter-trend to challenge these efforts. For example, the IHRA working definition has, on the one hand, become more widely used, but there are also challenges to it. For example, the Jerusalem Declaration is trying to contest that. But the top line is that there’s now more engagement, more activity, more willingness to look at what needs to be done, and also some special elements, such as the recent European Union action plan combating anti-Semitism and fostering Jewish life. It’s an important one. We have also ongoing input from UNESCO in education on how to combat anti-Semitism in school settings, independent of my work but around the same time.

And finally, you have more engagement by social-media companies and human-rights defenders on this subject. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and their human-rights office have regular consultations with the tech companies and Jewish communities in creating more understanding of how social-media platforms are being used to perpetuate anti-Semitism. So, I think there’s awareness and more willingness to engage on the subject.

Q: Going back to the beginning a little bit, what sparked U.N. leadership to take a look at this issue and say something needs to be done here?

A: Well, I am not the United Nations. What brought me to this subject is simply when I began the mandate, I did an overview of what the global trends were in regard to intolerance and violence and what struck me were two things. One is the fact that anti-Semitic hatred manifested very frequently in violence that was perhaps more frequent than for other forms of hatred. There are frequent episodes of very violent attacks. The Pittsburgh synagogue attack, Poway, [Calif.] … they were already happening while I was working on his. The second one was the disproportionate nature of this. There’s never a proportionate nature, but what I’m saying is that 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 than others. And I would add one more thing as well. In my visits to countries as the mandate holder, I was also struck by the degree of self-censorship by Jews. In other words, the level to which people will have to go 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 in this. Before I did this work on religious freedom, I was a rapporteur for six years covering Iran. And, of course, in covering Iran and human rights, you do come across this feeling of Iran as a transmitter of anti-Semitism on the global stage. And my time in the Maldives was very much focused on promoting tolerance and inclusion, and combating anti-Semitism was a significant part of that. I think my own experience in the Maldives, where I was impeached by parliament for saying things like Israel should not be treated differently than any other country, meant I became a target of this hatred. So, long before I came to my current U.N. role, I was aware of the need to combat it. And as the world has seen in the past seven to eight years a rise in xenophobic hatred, anti-Semitism becomes 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: In terms of the Middle East, 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. You would have thought they were crazy if they said that just a few years ago. Obviously, those governments in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region are not infallible by any measure, but they’ve certainly made it more comfortable to be a Jew in the region [since the signing of the Abraham Accords in the fall of 2020]. Are there lessons that other governments and other global leaders can take from those countries in the Middle East that have opened themselves up more to tolerance?

A: What happens in Middle Eastern countries—and I’m speaking in very general terms, I’m painting with broad brushstrokes here—is that belonging to an Abrahamic faith is not seen as an odd thing to do. 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 of it. The other, of course, is the very notion that xenophobia has become far more widespread. Populism has become far more widespread in European societies, and they have struggled far more than these other societies in dealing with this. So, I would say that there are great lessons, but the key thing I would draw here is the fact that we have to recognize that tolerance means that we should also accept that people can be religious, and being religious isn’t a problem. And in fact, it is part of what makes for those societies. So, I think that secularism is a concern, as you see, for example, in the recent European court judgment which wasn’t going to support shechita (Jewish ritual slaughter) or brit milah (Jewish ritual circumcision). It comes from not possibly anti-Semitic forces. It possibly comes from animal rights and other concerns. But we must first recognize the importance of respecting this practice and recognize that religious people might want to actually display their attachment to it.

Ahmed Shaheed described anti-Semitism as the “canary in the coal mine of global hatred,” posing risks to minorities everywhere, including Jews.

Q: You mentioned in your plan and in your report that within the European Commission that there seemed to be a fairly unified position on combating anti-Semitism and fostering Jewish life, with some differences here and there, but overall, a unified position. And it all comes down, as you mentioned, to governments; they’re basically the front lines in how they handle anti-Semitism. Do you feel that the regional cooperation that we’re seeing within the European Commission can be duplicated elsewhere, whether it’s within the Organization of American States, the African Union or other regional bodies that can form a cohesive plan to combat this, rather than go country by country, government by government?

A: I think it would be easier in some cases to have a regional approach—at least as the mainframe from which countries handle this issue—because going country by country will mean that with some countries, it will be easy to do and other countries will remain more distant. But 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. So, I agree that the approach is very helpful.

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 the easier thing to do. So, I fully agree with you. There should be a regional-level focus on this. There should be a regional approach, which can then amplify the voice of the allies. And then it also gives more strength to those who are on the fence and certainly marginalizes those who are hesitant to take action on this.

Q: In terms of your plan, what does progress look like to you? Obviously, it’s not quantitative. per se, but a year, two years, five years, 10 years down the line, what will you be able to look at and say this plan, this effort, this advocacy on this issue worked and accomplished something? A: If there’s one I think measures progress is to see schools Jewish kids attend that don’t look like garrisons. They look like any other school in that country. Something I really struggled with when doing research on this subject 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 3-year-old, the 4-year-old, the 5-year-old who comes in a bus or car or train or walks through societies that are open. And 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. Now they don’t say it, but I am sure this will affect people. So, 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 safely 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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