Anti-Semitism: A Fight for the UN?

“The fight against anti-Semitism is a fight for all of us.”

– Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, January 22, 2015
By Lisa Bertel
In January 2015, the UN General Assembly held its first-ever informal meeting on anti-Semitism. The sharp spike in anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence around the world, particularly vivid in the attack on the Kosher supermarket in Paris the same month, led Israel and 37 other nations to request the meeting. In a video message, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon welcomed the meeting, emphasizing that the United Nations has “a duty to speak out against anti-Semitism” if it “wants to be true to its founding aims and ideals.” The message was recently reiterated on the forum on global anti-Semitism on September 7, 2016, a follow-up meeting to the 2015 gathering.

What has been done?

What has the United Nations done ever since the Secretary-General announced the fight against anti-Semitism as a core value of the UN? In this study, I assess the UN’s actions on anti-Semitism by looking into the various documents issued by its human rights machinery. Of particular importance are the Human Rights Council, the UN’s main intergovernmental body dedicated to human rights issues, and the treaty bodies, committees of independent experts who monitor the implementation of human rights treaties. They represent the UN’s tools to monitor, address and act against human rights violations, including anti-Semitism. UN resolutions are also a crucial indicator.
Our research presents us with 71 different official UN documents, published since January 2015 on the organization’s online database for UN documents. The documents come from a variety of sources and include reports, resolutions, recommendations, etc. NGO statements are excluded from our pool. We searched for the keyword “anti-Semitism” or “anti-Semitic” in its different ways of spelling. These terms appear in the documents in varying frequency: in some, they appear only once, in others in a side note, or are discussed over several paragraphs. The following overview shows what sort of documents are issued by different UN mechanisms. A substantial assessment will follow thereafter.

  • 42% of the documents come from the Human Rights Council. Most of them are issued by the council’s state-driven review mechanism called “Universal Periodic Review” (19 documents). The Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance provides 7 documents.
  • 41% are issued by different treaty bodies, committees of independent experts who monitor the implementation of human rights treaties. The vast majority of reports comes from the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Human Rights Committee, which is dedicated to civil and political rights.
  • 8% are resolutions of the General Assembly.
  • 8% are reports of the Secretary-General.

Sixty-eight percent of the documents are country-specific, meaning that they present reports or remarks that are concerned with one member state in particular. Most of them are related to either the aforementioned treaty bodies or to the Universal Periodic Review, a process in which the human rights record of each member state is scrutinized.
When and which state is being examined depends on the cycle and the treaty or mechanism under which the review takes place. Remarkably, the country-specific documents which address anti-Semitism concern almost exclusively European and other Western countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden, Poland, USA and Ireland, with only a few exceptions (Argentina, Colombia, Lebanon and Russia).
Even though Europe has recently seen a revival of this oldest hatred, with an increase in anti-Semitic attacks and chants of anti-Jewish slogans on the street, it is nowadays the Middle East and North Africa, where anti-Semitic attitudes and open hatred is strongest.
This is not to imply that the UN should drop its focus on European anti-Semitism, yet it is astonishing that the countries where such attitudes are most widespread are spared from scrutiny, criticism and recommendations for counteracting the hate.
The attention on Western countries cannot be pinned to the cyclical progression of the review. States like Turkey, Syria, Kuwait or Iraq were also addressed in the same period, and could have been given the chance for scrutiny, but have not been subjected to criticism on their anti-Semitic records.
That the documents are issued by the United Nations does not mean that one of its institutions or mechanisms raised the topic of anti-Semitism. In fact, 42 documents of the 71 contain information on anti-Semitism that is either provided by a member state, a non-governmental organization, a national human rights institution or an international organization such as the Council of Europe. Hence, material that has been provided by external actors led to the mentioning of anti-Semitism in 59% of the cases.
In several documents, the topic is not raised with a critical or alarming intent. In 19 of them, “anti-Semitism” was only mentioned in the context of praising the effort and commitment of state institutions and mechanisms to combat this modern scourge, or to commend steps taken. One report on Germany even laments the country’s supposed readiness to fight anti-Semitism in comparison to its weaker efforts against anti-Muslim racism.
What the resolutions tell us about anti-Semitism and the United Nations
We counted six UN resolutions which include anti-Semitism. One of them is a draft resolution, the other five are resolutions issued and adopted by the General Assembly. Two of them are on “Freedom of religion or belief”; another two on “Combating glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fueling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance”; and finally there is one entitled “A global call for concrete action for the total elimination of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and the comprehensive implementation of and follow-up to the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.”
These resolutions stand out for their redundancy. The resolutions on freedom of religion and the one on Nazism each adopt identical wording in consecutive years. They emphasize “deep concern” and recognize the rise in anti-Semitic violence among other forms of intolerance.
The annual repetitive phrasing of the resolutions is common in UN texts. The resolutions are revealing when it comes to the UN’s understanding and conceptualization of anti-Semitism. By repeatedly placing the term among the constellation “Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and Christianophobia and prejudices against persons of other religions or beliefs,” the resolutions suggest anti-Semitism to be a form of religious prejudice. Even the resolution on racism remains unclear when stating to combat “xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and incitement to national or ethnic and religious hatred” as its goal.
In order to effectively and comprehensively fight anti-Semitism, it is necessary to start off by understanding what anti-Semitism actually is. Even though anti-Semitic attacks often target religious institutions such as synagogues or people who openly display religious symbols such as the kippah, its motivation is generally not to be found in a dismissal of the Jewish religion or Jewish practices. After all, Hitler did not persecute and execute European Jewry because he disapproved of their belief in a different god, but because he imagined them to be a race with the power and intention to destroy Germany and the world.
What anti-Semitic individuals or organized groups attack is an imagined evil, a projected conspiratorial and global power embodied in “the Jews” and, more recently, the Israeli state. Hence, when Ban Ki-moon, in his introductory statement to the high level forum on global anti-Semitism in September 2016, proudly announces that “violence against people because of their religious identity or beliefs is an assault on the core values of the United Nations,” we might at best detect confusion in his understanding of anti-Semitism. At worst, we have to conclude that the United Nations has an utter disinterest in this phenomenon, and is therefore neither able nor willing to take up the fight against anti-Semitism.
If the United Nations fails to understand classical anti-Semitism, how can it address its new forms, in which the image of Israel resembles very much the classical anti-Semitic image of “the Jews”?
The UN today is an important catalyst of this new anti-Semitism. The world body continuously delegitimizes and demonizes Israel, for instance by its notorious 1975 resolution equating Zionism to racism, and through repeatedly singling out and condemning Israel while being silent on human rights violations by other states or, worse, by rewarding those violators with seats in its prestigious forums.
Ban Ki-moon’s words on combating anti-Semitism will remain empty and ineffective if the UN resists a serious engagement with the meaning and scope of all forms of anti-Semitism. Unless the UN reflects upon its very role in boosting anti-Semitism through its work, it will remain part of the problem, and cannot become part of the solution.
Amongst the list of documents, there are only a few exceptions which, beyond listing anti-Semitism among other forms of discrimination, dedicate a paragraph or more to it. The strongest one is the report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The Special Rapporteur recognizes the anti-Semitic character of Holocaust denial in the section on “Countering Holocaust denial and the distortion of history.” He points out the dangers deriving from such a distortion, and emphasizes that it is not merely a phenomenon of the extreme right, by concretely mentioning the Holocaust cartoon competition in Iran and endeavors of Holocaust relativization in Eastern European universities. He recommends educational as well as legislative measures to counter Holocaust denial. Such extensive and explanatory paragraphs are generally rare among the UN documents, and can serve as a positive example of how the topic can be given attention. If this Special Rapporteur was able to seriously address the issue, why don’t others do so too?


I set out to answer what the UN has done on anti-Semitism since Ban Ki-moon’s strong words of dedication to combat it. The answer is, unfortunately, very little. Even though the topic of anti-Semitism is brought up within the UN mechanisms and by the UN institutions in 71 official documents, it lacks systematic attention and assessment. This is the result of an incomplete understanding of the issue at hand, which correlates with an insufficient focus and the buck-passing to external actors such as NGOs and international organizations. Consequently, the UN places the task upon these other actors and member states to raise anti-Semitism as a problem, which explains the shocking imbalance between the West and the rest of the world. An institution dedicated to combat anti-Semitism must urge member states to face this scourge head on, instead of depending on the goodwill of others. The few positive examples of in-depth discussion show that the United Nations has the capacity to approach anti-Semitism seriously.


  1. Acknowledge the problem by developing an understanding of anti-Semitism: This should be done by adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism.
  2. Make anti-Semitism a subject of discussion: Urge member states, UN treaty bodies and special rapporteurs to investigate anti-Semitism in each country, and clearly address it in their reports, under the relevant treaties, mandates and applicable standards.
  3. Take a stand: Issue a resolution that explains and condemns anti-Semitism, which also urges member states to recognize and act against it.
  4. Reflect upon your own role: The UN must confront itself with questions of how its resolutions and decisions boost new forms of anti-Semitism, instead of fighting it.
UN Watch