The single worst way the EU could combat anti-Semitism

The newly appointed European Commission Coordinator on Combating Anti-Semitism spoke at a Jerusalem conference that was a thinly veiled platform for bashing pro-Palestinian activists. Above all, it sent an alarming message about how she perceives her own role. 

By Ben White

A senior European official spoke last week at an Israeli government-hosted conference in Jerusalem where human rights defenders were denigrated and smeared as anti-Semitic.

The International Conference on Online Anti-Semitism was organized by the pro-Israel group Israeli Students Combating Anti-Semitism (ISCA). The group’s director, Ido Daniel, is a veteran hasbara activist who believes in “exact[ing] an economic and personal cost” from Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) activists.

The conference participants included Katharina von Schnurbein, appearing in her official capacity as European Commission Coordinator on Combating Anti-Semitism, a role created last December.

The second panel of the day was on the topic of “How the left was lost: Durban, online left-wing anti-Zionism, the BDS movement and the perversion of human rights.” Speakers on the panel, moderated by an official from the UK’s Community Security Trust, included Gerald Steinberg of Israel advocacy group NGO Monitor and London-based anti-BDS campaigner David Hirsh.

NGO Monitor president Gerald Steinberg speaking at the ISCA conference. (ISCA Facebook page)
NGO Monitor president Gerald Steinberg speaking at the ISCA conference. (ISCA Facebook page)

In a video of his talk, Steinberg can be seen denigrating and smearing a host of Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights defenders and NGOs. Those targeted included global anti-poverty charity Oxfam, Medical Aid for Palestinians, and Human Rights Watch, whose director Ken Roth was singled out for particular criticism.

The head of NGO Monitor also attacked Palestinian and Israeli groups such as Zochrot, Badil, and Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Steinberg even lashed out at Jewish Voice for Peace, a group with more than 200,000 online members and 60 chapters across the U.S.

NGO Monitor’s role in the intensifying intimidation of human rights activists in Palestine/Israel is well-documented, including on this website. As Noam Sheizaf wrote last year, one of the goals of the group is “to attack what they see as the last political platform for anti-occupation activity inside Israeli society.” Steinberg himself has worked as a consultant to the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

When I contacted von Schnurbein about the attacks on human rights defenders made during the conference, her office refused to comment, simply saying that she “does not comment on Israelis politics” [sic].

Not only did the EU’s anti-Semitism envoy decline to condemn the conference’s branding of human rights defenders as purveyors of “hate speech,” but in a copy of speaking points provided by her office, von Schnurbein appears to legitimize Steinberg’s claims, stating: “We also recognize that anti-Semitism often hides behind anti-Zionism.”

It is disturbing that a European official would speak at, and give credence to, an Israeli government-hosted attack on NGOs and BDS campaigners, especially at a time when – as recently highlighted by Amnesty International – Israeli authorities are escalating repressive measures and threats against civil society activists.

It is also bodes ill for how exactly von Schnurbein conceives of her role, at a time when the Israeli government and its allies in North America and Europe are seeking to close down the spaces for Palestine solidarity activism in the guise of fighting a redefined anti-Semitism.

Ben White is the author of ‘Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide’ and ‘Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, Discrimination and Democracy’. His articles have been published by Middle East Monitor, Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, Huffington Post, The Electronic Intifada, The Guardian’s Comment is Free, and others. He tweets at @benabyad.