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Using education to understand the impact of attacks on Holocaust memorials

5 November 2015

There have been a number of attacks on Holocaust memorials in the OSCE region in recent years. These hate crimes are a feature of contemporary anti-Semitism. Educating law enforcement is an important step in countering these crimes.

Babi Yar Memorial, Kyiv, Ukraine

Holocaust memorials are sites for commemoration and reflection across the OSCE region. Notably, communities gather around these sites on Holocaust Memorial Days for solemn ceremonies. However, Holocaust memorials have been the targets of anti-Semitic attacks in many OSCE participating States. Civil society information reported to ODIHR since 2011 suggests that Holocaust memorials were vandalized in at least 17 OSCE participating States.

These defilements can take many forms, from painting swastikas or anti-Semitic slogans on the memorials, destroying and smashing memorial plaques, to covering them with pork meat. Information submitted to ODIHR also indicates that many anti-Semitic attacks on Holocaust memorials take place in the days surrounding commemorations, such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January.

“In a perverse way, the Holocaust has now become a feature of contemporary anti-Semitism, used as part of resentment against Jews,” says Mark Weitzman, Chair of the Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). “Attacks on memorial sites not only directly target the memory of the Shoah – they also send a very chilling signal to Jewish communities and to survivors.”

OSCE participating States have repeatedly pledged to take action against anti-Semitism. A critical way in which they take can fulfil this commitment is through work to strengthen law-enforcement agencies' abilities to recognize and address hate crimes.  

“Frontline law-enforcement officers play a leading role in governments’ responses to anti-Semitic attacks, such as attacks on Holocaust memorials,” stressed Cristina Finch, Head of ODIHR’s Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, at IHRA's Conference on Holocaust and Public Discourse, which took place on 6 November 2015. “Ensuring that police officers identify and record anti-Semitic motivations in attacks on Holocaust memorials sends an important signal to the targeted community, the perpetrator and society. This is the first, very important, step in an effective government response.”

ODIHR is developing a toolkit to help further support the work of law-enforcement agencies in countering anti-Semitic hate crime. The toolkit will draw attention to Holocaust memorials as targets of attacks, thus raising awareness of the specific nature of anti-Semitic hate crime. It will also include good practices that demonstrate how Jewish communities and law enforcement can work together and build mutual trust.

Education can play an important role in sensitizing police officers to the impact that attacks on Holocaust memorials have on Jewish communities. For example, some museums and memorial centres offer professional development programmes for police that connect history with a reflection about their role and responsibility in contemporary societies.

Anna Lenchovska, Regional Consultant in Ukraine for the USC Shoah Foundation, draws on Holocaust testimonies to train Ukrainian law enforcement on tolerance and non-discrimination issues. “Testimonies by Holocaust survivors provide powerful human accounts of what it means to experience bias and discrimination in its most extreme form,” she observed. “The more police officers know about stereotypes, the easier it will be for them to do their job recognizing and responding to anti-Semitic hate crimes.”