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Europe: Intolerance Commission Says Fears Of Racism Hamper Data Collection

  • Don Hill

The European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance is this month observing the 10th anniversary of its founding. It will convene what it calls a major conference to assess its contributions to racial and religious tolerance in Europe. One of the commission's greatest concerns has been rising anti-Semitism in Europe, but the commission's chairman tells RFE/RL that historical barriers are blocking efforts to analyze the problem.

Prague, 4 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) is entangled in a frustrating web.

To commemorate its 10th anniversary later this month, the ECRI -- an arm of the Council of Europe -- plans to hold a conference in Strasbourg to consider what it has accomplished and to plan future tactics in its campaign to oppose intolerance. Commission leaders say, however, that they will go into the meeting lacking some basic information.

For example, the commission agrees with other human rights groups and interested agencies that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe. But a knotty problem is slowing the ECRI's efforts to measure the problem and analyze its causes. In some quarters, merely gathering data on the racial, ethnic or religious elements in incidents of crime and violence is itself considered racist.

ECRI chairman Michael Head tells RFE/RL in a telephone interview from London that significant increases in cases of anti-Semitism in Europe are evident to observers but that measurable data are difficult to acquire. Head says the anti-Semitic upsurge is especially worrisome and that its probable causes are complex.

"We are deeply concerned about the upsurge in anti-Semitic violence in Europe over recent years. [We soon recognized] that this was not just a simple question. It was a very complex one. It was not just a question of whether anti-Semitic violence was caused by young Muslim groups reacting to events in Palestine, or whether it was caused by nationalist skinheads, or whether it was caused by a deep level of anti-Semitism in a particular society," Head said.

Head says efforts to unravel the causes are hampered by unevenness in the data that are collected.

"It is very difficult to find out where the violence comes from, and to what extent it is due to one particular factor as opposed to another," Head said.

Head says some countries collect ethnic and religious data without a problem, but that others do not.

In Germany, Nazi decrees before and during World War II required Jews to wear identifying insignia. The requirement became a precursor to the Holocaust in which millions of Jews were imprisoned and massacred. Today, Germany is extremely sensitive to issues related to ethnic and religious identification.

ECRI Executive Secretary Isil Gachet says several countries continue to inhibit the collection of information based on ethnic, national, and religious identification.

"At the level of the Council of Europe, for example, our member states have very different approaches concerning ethnic data. You have some countries where they collect this kind of data for a long time. [In some] other countries, it is considered as being extremely dangerous, and it is even sometimes forbidden by constitutions. In countries like France or Spain or Germany, they do not [collect] ethnic data [for] historical reasons," Gachet said.

"We are deeply concerned about the upsurge in anti-Semitic violence in Europe over recent years."
Chairman Head adds, "Until there are systems of collection of information of this sort, it is extremely difficult to compare one country with another, or to be very precise as to the nature of the phenomena that we are describing."

The Council of Europe comprises 45 member nations across Europe. Ten nations formed the Council of Europe in 1949 to defend human rights, parliamentary democracy, and the rule of law. The Council of Europe established the ECRI in 1994.

The issue is not, of course, whether anti-Semitism exists in modern Europe. Sporadic news reports of defaced synagogues or Jewish cemeteries and of anti-Jewish outbursts by ordinary people and even some politicians demonstrate that. One problem is definition, with some Jewish leaders in Europe condemning criticism of Israel's behavior in the Middle East as anti-Semitic and, currently, denouncing the U.S. film "The Passion of the Christ" as anti-Semitic because it fosters "anti-Jewish stereotypes."

The issue the ECRI raises is whether anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, xenophobia, and hate crimes are on the rise. This requires, ECRI leaders say, the analysis of occurrences over time, not merely the recording of individual incidents.

This month's anniversary conference will discuss racism and terrorism, racism and migrants, "Islamophobia" and anti-Semitism. Also on the agenda are roundtables focusing on Romania, Portugal, Lithuania, and Slovenia.
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