One Year Later: The Historic United Nations Report on Antisemitism as a Human Rights Concern

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It has been one year since Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, published the first-ever UN human rights report solely dedicated to examining the threat to human rights posed by antisemitism and identifying necessary actions
to combat it. Dr. Shaheed’s report, which he developed after studying the issue and meeting with representatives of Jewish communities and organizations around the world, including in several consultations convened by AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute, was warmly welcomed not only by Jewish audiences but also by many governments at the UN General Assembly.

In his 2019 report, Dr. Shaheed affirmed that antisemitism is manifested in both classic and contemporary forms and commended the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism as a critical source of guidance for understanding
the phenomenon. Reviewing trends around the world, Dr. Shaheed expressed alarm that antisemitic attitudes appeared to be prevalent in many countries, both those with significant Jewish populations and those with no Jewish inhabitants alike. Dr. Shaheed concluded that in extreme cases, antisemitic rhetoric poses a threat to the right to life of Jews, and more broadly, persistent antisemitism has created a climate of fear in which Jews in many countries – particularly those who are openly or visibly observant – are effectively prevented from being able to exercise the right to manifest their religion or belief or to exercise other rights. Dr. Shaheed’s report also identified antisemitism not only as a serious threat to the human rights of Jews, but also as a threat to the rights of non-Jews, including other minority communities. He characterized antisemitism as “toxic to democracy” and concluded that it “threatens the rights of
all people in societies in which this insidious hatred is unaddressed.” He then set out a number of recommendations for further action to combat antisemitism and protect the human rights of Jewish and other individuals, including calling on all governments to adopt the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism.

In hindsight, Dr. Shaheed’s report, which AJC called “historic” at the time of its publication, was especially prescient. During the year following the publication of Dr. Shaheed’s report, from mid-October 2019 through mid-October 2020, a number of violent antisemitic incidents have occurred and antisemitic expression appears to have become even more widespread in many countries. The drivers of this include the intensification of deep political and societal discord in many countries, particularly the United States, exacerbated beginning in the first quarter of 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic consequences stemming from it. These phenomena have placed unprecedented stress on people and societies, making them ripe for exploitation by those willing to scapegoat Jews and Jewish communities and to perpetuate antisemitic stereotypes and conspiracy theories as explanations for the fear and hardship they face. The
resulting proliferation of antisemitic material, including in online media and on social media platforms, represents a serious challenge to which policymakers and social media companies have not yet adequately responded.

This report concludes that while governments and other actors have indeed taken some significant steps to implement Dr. Shaheed’s recommendations over the past year, much work remains to be done. It also proposes additional steps that governments and political leaders, social media and internet companies, and United Nations officials and entities should take in
order to more effectively confront antisemitism in the months and years ahead.