Four years into her stint as the European Union’s coordinator on combating antisemitism, Katharina von Schnurbein asked her boss to add the words “and Fostering Jewish Life” to her official job title.
The change in 2019 reflected a professional evolution for von Schnurbein, whom European Jewish Congress President Ariel Muzicant calls the “biggest and strongest ally the Jewish people have” in the EU apparatus.
It signaled her shift from merely countering hatred and discrimination of Jews, using tools such as the working definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Under von Schnurbein, her office added a new and tricky role: defending Jewish customs, such as kosher slaughter, from growing scrutiny or limitations, including by governments of EU member states and even institutions of the European Union itself.
“I came to realize in the first three years that countering antisemitism only serves an ultimate goal, which is to foster Jewish life, to make sure that Jewish life can flourish,” von Schnurbein told The Times of Israel last week in Jerusalem, where she attended talks with Israeli counterparts and the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum annual gathering. “So we started focusing on that.”
In 2021, von Schnurbein’s office for the first time mentioned shehitah, or kosher slaughter of animals for meat, as belonging to its purview. The mention appeared in a document written by her office detailing EU strategies for fighting antisemitism and fostering Jewish life. The same EU strategy document also mentioned ritual circumcision, or milah, noting that 82 percent of Jewish European respondents of a 2018 survey said that a ban on circumcision would pose a problem in their lives.
The document, which also encouraged EU member states to adopt their own strategy plans for fighting antisemitism, failed to impress some Jewish community campaigners (one prominent rabbi called the document vaguely worded and “not serious.”)
But for von Schnurbein, it formed the mandate for “listening to the impact bans have on the Jewish and Muslim communities concerned,” as she described it. She has also lobbied openly with officials against bans.
Von Schnurbein held talks with Finnish officials last year on a bill that proposed to make it illegal to kill an animal for meat without first stunning it. The legislation would have outlawed the production of all kosher and halal meat.
In February, a parliamentary committee that had approved the bill took out the ban before the animal welfare legislation was adopted in March.
At a recent meeting with an official from an EU member state who supported banning kosher and halal slaughter on animal welfare grounds, von Schnurbein asked the official: “And what about people welfare?” a person who attended the meeting told The Times of Israel. The source declined to mention the country in question, citing the confidentiality of closed-door talks.
The European Jewish Congress and other Jewish groups have for years been opposing attempts to ban shechitah and milah. But when von Schnurbein joined that effort, “she put it on the agenda of the EU,” said Muzicant, the Congress’s president.
Halal and shechitah have been either explicitly banned or de-facto outlawed in recent years in Belgium, Denmark, Estonia and Slovenia, among other EU states, as well as the Netherlands and Poland, whose parliaments banned the practice but then lifted the ban again.
In the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland, milah also has come under scrutiny, by parliament, the courts, medical associations or political parties.
The drive to ban these customs, which are to some extent shared by Muslims and Jews, is led by an unlikely political coalition between right-wing xenophobes on the one hand and on the other, seculars and progressives citing animal and child welfare principles, which they say are violated by shehitah, milah and their Muslim counterparts.
Jewish community leaders say these trends are contributing to a feeling that Jews are not welcome in certain European societies. This perception compounds the concerns of many Jews about antisemitism, and is casting doubts on the long-term viability of European Jewry. These concerns — as well as Zionist ideology, antisemitic terrorist attacks by Muslims and harassment that became commonplace in Western Europe at around the turn of the century — have led tens of thousands of European Jews, including 50,000 from France alone, to leave for Israel over the past decade.
This reality is occurring in communities where assimilation rates were high even before synagogue-goers and people wearing Jewish symbols came under threat of violence.
“Let’s say we can beat antisemitism. What will have we achieved if by the time we do, there are no more Jews left in Europe?” Muzicant, the head of the European Jewish Congress, said at a recent meeting of his organization’s board. Bans on European Jews’ religious customs “convey a feeling that we’re not wanted,” even if workarounds to those bans can be found, Muzicant said.
Von Schnurbein, a Germany-born mother of four who has worked at the European Union for over 20 years, phrases this in more diplomatic terms. “Ensuring religious freedom to Jews is a key aspect to ensuring the viability of Jews in Europe,” she said at one of the conferences that she attended in Israel.
Soft-spoken and with an unmistakably upbeat disposition and wardrobe – she seems to prefer long, colorful chiffon dresses to the drabber attire favored by many other EU bureaucrats at formal events — von Schnurbein faced skepticism from some European Jews when she became the first EU point person for fighting antisemitism in 2015.
The appointment was a promotion for von Schnurbein, whose previous job had been to advise the president of the European Commission on dialogue with churches, religions, philosophical and nonconfessional, or secular, organizations.
She got promoted at a turbulent time for European Jews, shortly after the advent in 2012 of jihadist terrorist attacks on Jews in Europe. Some initially dismissed her as an EU mouthpiece or lightweight for her equivocal answers to criticisms on key policy issues, including the effects of Muslim immigration on antisemitism; setbacks in defining that hatred; limitations on religious freedoms; and the ability of antisemitic terrorist groups, like Hezbollah, to operate on EU soil. Challenges in enforcing anti-hate speech laws in discourse on US-based social media have been another problem area.
Eight years later, she is almost universally recognized by Jewish community leaders as a quiet but powerful force promoting and delivering ways to foster Jewish life in Europe.
She has resisted the temptation of leveraging her success to climb up the EU hierarchical ladder. “Don’t ask me what’s next,” she said when the subject of her career came up.
Eight years of fighting antisemitism isn’t that long when measured against the two millennia during which such services were required, she quipped. “There are people who remain on a certain topic because it’s just something they really are passionate about. And it’s my case,” said von Schnurbein, who grew up in Bavaria in a pro-Jewish and pro-Israel family.
Being an advocate for centuries-old Jewish traditions means fighting not only xenophobes who see them and their Muslim counterparts as unwelcome imports, but also people with a humanist agenda that jibes with some of the European Union’s core values.
The tension “probably to some extent has to do with secularization” in EU societies, von Schnurbein said. This has led to a common perception that reduces religion to a system of beliefs that can be suspended at the workplace or in a public setting, or limited to houses of worship, she posited.
“In a secular mainstream society in Western Europe, the idea that you can let go of your religion when you go to work is quite widespread,” von Schnurbein said, noting that for many religious people, religion is present in all of life’s spheres. “This is a big challenge of our time — to find some sort of reconciliation and also reasonable accommodation for people who want to express their faith in accordance with their traditions,” she added.
Under von Schnurbein, almost all of the EU member states have adopted the definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA, an intergovernmental commemoration committee. Ireland and Malta remain the only holdouts. The definition is controversial because it lists demonization of Israel as an example of Jew-hatred. Pro-Palestinian activists oppose this because they argue it silences legitimate criticism of Israel.
The IHRA definition is seen as having replaced a similar EU definition, which is widely understood to have been scrapped in 2013 amid protests by pro-Palestinian activists.
Currently, the United Nations is working on its own action plan against antisemitism. Though von Schurbein confirmed she has read a draft, she declined to discuss it or concerns that the UN, which has forums with a well-documented bias against Israel, would adopt a definition that sidesteps the broad overlap between anti-Zionism and modern antisemitism.
“There is indeed still the possibility for progress,” she said with regards to the UN draft document.
But the draft also has “many good aspects in there,” von Schurbein said. One “should not be too dismissive of this attempt because it’s the first in history of the UN,” which, like the EU, was established on the lessons of World War II and the Holocaust, she noted.
Will the UN end up adopting a strong action plan against antisemitism ?
“We’ll get there,” von Schurbein said.