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EU: Watchdogs Warn Of Rising Anti-Semitic, Anti-Islamic Mood In Central, Eastern Europe

  • Eugen Tomiuc

Racism watchdogs in the European Union are pointing to a rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic feelings in Western Europe fueled by the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But are Central and Eastern Europe following suit? RFE/RL reports that the answer is unclear: Although the region has seen a resurgence in anti-Semitism since the fall of communism, anti-Islamic sentiment is less prevalent and varies from country to country.

Prague, 18 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise in Europe, but for different reasons in different regions.

In Western Europe, the trend is relatively new. In its annual report released this month, the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) noted a rise in anti-Semitism spurred by anger over the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States and the continued bloodshed of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Anti-Islamic sentiment has seen a similar resurgence.

In most countries of Central and Eastern Europe -- with the exception of the former Yugoslavia -- anti-Islamism is relatively rare, but anti-Semitism is not. It has been steadily rising since the fall of communism a decade ago left the region reeling from economic uncertainty and social chaos. Attacks on synagogues and Jewish cemeteries have been growing; xenophobic rhetoric has been a staple of political extremists and has even been heard from some mainstream officials.

It is a problem coming under closer scrutiny as eight Central and Eastern European countries prepare to join the European Union in 2004. EUMC Chairman Bob Purkiss told RFE/RL that all new EU members must meet antidiscrimination criteria before they join the bloc. "Equality was not part of the [1957] treaty of Rome [establishing the European Economic Community], but under Article 13 of the [1999] treaty of Amsterdam [on integration and European citizenship], we now have two equality directives on nondiscrimination, and those have to be implemented over a period of time commencing July of next year. They're very clear, they're very concise, and they're applicable to all member states," Purkiss said.

Purkiss said that candidate countries must step up efforts to implement legislation to ensure equality for all people, regardless of religion or ethnicity. He said some countries still have yet to sponsor genuine debate on equality issues.

One laggard on such issues is Romania. Bucharest has come under repeated international criticism for failing to acknowledge its role in the Holocaust or to take steps to curb anti-Semitic acts and declarations. The government belatedly adopted legislation to outlaw such gestures this spring but only after continued pressure from the West -- and with the incentive of a likely invitation to join NATO. Romania received its NATO invitation in November but still must face the challenge of securing its EU bid in 2007.

Michael Shafir is an analyst with RFE/RL and an expert on anti-Semitism. He said that in countries like Romania and Hungary, xenophobia has become so ingrained that even mainstream politicians have adopted an anti-Semitic stance as a way of achieving their political ends. "What do you think of [the former Hungarian governing conservative party] FIDESZ, which went into a practical alliance with [the ultranationalist] MIEP party in Hungary? What do you think of the famous [1992-96] alliance between Romania's main ruling party and the [ultranationalist] Greater Romania Party? And so on and so forth," Shafir said.

Isil Gachet is executive secretary of the Council of Europe's Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI). She told RFE/RL that ECRI reports have repeatedly found that anti-Semitism can be found in different guises almost everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe. "Even manifestations of anti-Semitism in Eastern and Central European countries are not always the same everywhere. It is different from country to country. In some countries, you have acts against [Jewish] cemeteries and sometimes Jewish institutions. In other countries, it's more of a pact of the media, where you see some articles with anti-Semitic connotations. In some other countries, it might be really some discrimination against members of the Jewish community," Gachet said.

Shafir said the events of 11 September and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which are credited with fueling the rise in anti-Semitism in Western Europe, have less of an impact in Central and Eastern Europe, where anti-Jewish resentment historically springs from economic roots. He added that while anti-Semitism remains a danger for all of Europe, Central and Eastern Europe are more vulnerable because of their still-evolving democracies. "The danger is always there. It has never gone away, and it's not going to go away. But the political elites should be very careful to distance themselves from any sort of utilitarian anti-Semitic speech that they might make in order to promote their interests. And I'm thinking here of all sorts of so-called democratic parties that at the right time, if it serves their purposes, very often use veiled anti-Semitic rhetoric," Shafir said.

With regard to anti-Islamism, Gachet said it is difficult to look at Central and Eastern Europe as a whole, since some countries in the region have relatively large Muslim communities while others have none at all.

History may also play a role, since Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and much of the former Yugoslavia were all once part of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Of those countries, only the former Yugoslavia has seen a fever of anti-Islamism, capitalized upon by nationalist politicians like Slobodan Milosevic, and ending in the bloodiest conflicts in postcommunist Europe, in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Gachet said that, although anti-Islamic sentiment is still rare elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, it might be expected to grow as the region develops economically and integrates into the EU and begins to attract more Muslim immigrants. "We should be very much aware of the fact that several Eastern and Central European countries are now becoming, more and more, countries with refugees, asylum seekers, migrants. I mean that migration in these countries is also something which is developing, and one cannot exclude that in the near future these countries will also have to face xenophobia, discrimination toward a population of migrant origin and notably, toward Muslim communities. I think it is very important to prevent those phenomena before they appear," Gachet said.

Gachet said that in order to be able to prevent Islamophobia in the future, the region needs much more of what she called "awareness raising," as well as improved education for younger generations. She also urges politicians in the region to abstain from what she termed "inflammatory speeches."