CORDOBA, Spain (Jun. 9)
At first the challenge was to get people talking about the problem. Then it was to turn words into actions. This year, the effort at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe conference was on maintaining the focus on anti-Semitism.
Ever since the OSCE began dealing with the challenge of anti-Semitism in the world today, Jewish organizations have faced an uphill battle.
This year’s meeting in Cordoba — which drew delegations from 55 governments — was the third sponsored by the OSCE.
The first gathering, in Vienna, set the precedent of a conference devoted to anti-Semitism. Last year, in the German capital, delegates issued a “Berlin Declaration” calling for concrete action.
But this year’s meeting was different: As its title makes clear, the Conference on Antisemitism and Other Forms of Intolerance included other types of discrimination, though the precedence given to anti-Semitism was more than implicit.
Gov. George Pataki (R-N.Y.), who headed the U.S. delegation, considered it “a positive step” to include categories such as discrimination against Muslims, Christians, Gypsies and other groups.
“But we cannot lose the fact that the whole concept of this conference began as an effort to elevate public awareness, governmental awareness in response and to eradicate anti-Semitism. That still has to be the primary focus,” Pataki told JTA.
“To me it’s quite obvious that anti-Semitism, not just currently, is frightening and damaging and horrific,” the governor said. “When you look at its history, we’ve never seen the inhumanity to man that we saw during the course of the Holocaust.”
Representatives of Jewish groups said one of the greatest challenges at the Cordoba meeting was to acknowledge the suffering of others, while reminding Europeans that their continent has a particular duty to focus on anti-Semitism because of the Holocaust.
“It is not our intention to prove that anti-Semitism comes first in some hierarchy of oppression,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee. “But one has to be blind not to recognize that anti-Muslim sentiments are prevalent in Europe today.”
Still, striking the right balance was no easy task.
“Islamophobia has replaced anti-Semitism as the new, sharp end of racism in the world, wherever you go,” Abduljalil Sajid, an imam and adviser to the Commission on British Muslims, declared from the podium.
Another difficult issue was keeping the Israeli-Palestinian conflict separate from the anti-Semitism discussions.
Gert Weisskirchen, the OSCE’s special representative for combating anti-Semitism, said hatred toward Jews in Europe is “nourished by pictures that are not fair” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Reasonable criticism of Israel is fine as long as it doesn’t cross a red line, as it has a number of times in European press and political debate, Weisskirchen said.
“If you, for instance, compare the actions of what the Israeli army is doing, or if you compare Sharon with Hitler, than this red line is crossed,” he said.
Ed Morgan, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, objected to an assertion by an Arab speaker that anti-Semitism will disappear only when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.
“If I were to say that hatred of Arabs won’t end until Arab countries come to terms with the State of Israel, that would be a racist statement,” he said.
Some other non-Jewish organizations groups presented moderate stances.
“We can’t make this a competition of who’s more a victim. That’s childish,” said Yusuf Fernandez of the Spanish Federation of Religious Islamic Entities. “If Muslims had lived in Europe at the time of the Holocaust, then both Jews and Muslims would have ended up in the gas chambers.”
Many participants felt that having members of different groups at the conference was an opportunity.
“I have tremendous hope from the fact that we are sitting in the same building, and some of us in the same room, as Muslim organizations,” said Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress.
He recalled Jewish-Catholic relations just a few decades ago, “when we were like that famous Michelangelo painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling — almost touching, almost touching with the hands reaching out to each other, and the synapse not being made.
“The Catholics today are our closest allies from having been our greatest enemies over 2,000 years,” he added.
Delegates discussed new national programs to raise Holocaust awareness and collect data on racist organizations.
The OSCE cited the FBI’s cooperation with German police in investigating German-language Web sites registered with American Internet addresses. France also was mentioned because its judges can sentence perpetrators of hate crimes to racism-awareness education.
But the chairman of the conference, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, criticized many countries for not implementing the Berlin recommendations.
“Unfortunately the findings fall short of expectations, as only 29 out of the 55 OSCE states provided statistical information relevant to hate-motivated crimes,” Rupel said.
“We hope states leave here with resolve to implement and institutionalize the mechanisms they agree are essential to counter anti-Semitism and hate crime,” Stacy Burdett, the Anti-Defamation League’s associate director of government affairs and an adviser to the U.S. delegation, said in a statement.
“We welcome the focus and support demonstrated at this meeting,” she said. “But in the end, no meeting or statement can be a substitute for national governments, one by one, taking action that can improve the safety and security of Jews and other minorities seeking to live in security and dignity.”
The OSCE noted that only a few countries have appropriate mechanisms in place to respond to anti-Semitism.
And in those countries where statistical information has been gathered, the trends remain disturbing. The ADL presented findings of a 12-nation survey, which found that “Europeans continue to question the loyalty of their Jewish citizens.”
It also found “alarmingly high levels” of the belief that Jews are too influential. Fifty-five percent of Hungarians and 45 percent of Spaniards polled more or less agreed with the statement that “Jews have too much power in the business world.”
Weisskirchen said he was most concerned about “the growing tide of anti-Semitism and incidents” in Russia, which remind him of his native Germany during the Nazi era.
He added that “after the Second World War we would be confronted with that kind of anti-Semitism growing again,” he said.
Behind the scenes, some countries expressed reservations about continuing the annual OSCE meetings.
Pataki said there was “a greater reluctance among some countries than I expected.”
“It’s shocking to even have to raise the possibility that there are those who would even look the other way,” he said.
Delegates also were at odds over complaints that Weisskirchen has not been given a strong mandate. Some countries wanted to combine his position with that of two other officials dealing with other forms of racism.
Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center warned that merging the jobs “would send the wrong message at the wrong time.”
“It will only diminish the focus on anti-Semitism, and effectively remove it from the world’s policymakers,” Hier said.
Still, many Jewish leaders were satisfied that what had been achieved at the previous meetings at least was not rolled back this year.
“Last year we hit such a high point that it was hard to repeat it,” Singer said. “What we were hoping to do was maintain the level.”