WASHINGTON (May. 30)
Standardizing the monitoring of anti-Semitism, improving Holocaust education and combating anti-Jewish bigotry in media coverage of Israel are priorities of a top European official on anti-Semitism. In a quick U.S. visit last week, Gert Weisskirchen met with Jewish leaders to reassure them of the seriousness of his efforts to fulfill goals that the 55-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe set at its anti-Semitism conferences during the past two years.
Weisskirchen, who also is the foreign policy spokesman for the ruling Social Democrats in the German Bundestag, told JTA that his immediate priority is standardizing drastically uneven monitoring of anti-Semitism across Europe.
“We should have a better system of collecting data, what is really happening, what kind of violence is going on the ground,” he said.
He hopes a system under development at the OSCE’s human rights arm, based in Warsaw, will be adopted across the continent.
“Some countries are better than others,” Weisskirchen said. “Governments are collecting different kinds of data. We are working on criteria, what kind of data should be collected.”
Weisskirchen’s post, which he assumed in January, was mandated by last year’s OSCE conference on anti-Semitism in Berlin. The organization also established positions to combat Islamophobia and racism in Europe.
Jewish leaders heading to the next OSCE anti-Semitism conference, to be held in Cordoba, Spain, in early June, are frustrated with the slowness of reforms discussed at the first such conference, held in Vienna in 2003.
Weisskirchen seemed to have reassured them that changes are under way.
“He’s very dedicated; he’s an excellent choice for the post,” said Betty Ehrenberg, director of international affairs for the Orthodox Union. “I hope he gets support.”
Weisskirchen is well known to Jewish leaders who have sought greater sensitivity in Europe to the resurgence in anti-Semitism there. In his nearly 30 years representing a southern German district in the Bundestag, Weisskirchen has stood out as a legislator who is particularly sensitive to the issue, Jewish officials say.
At a German Embassy event last week marking the new Holocaust memorial in Berlin, Weisskirchen, who was born in 1944, spoke sensitively of his legacy as a child of parents of the Nazi generation.
“The cold-blooded perpetrators, their telling silence, was to be broken by the resolve of the next generation,” he said.
When one Germanophile at the event asked Weisskirchen whether Germany now was ready to commemorate in a similar fashion the postwar mass deportation of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia, Weisskirchen rejected the comparison.
His wife was deported as an infant from Sudetenland, he said, but a tragedy Germans brought upon themselves could never be equal to the greater tragedy they brought upon the Jews.
Such sensitivities made Weisskirchen a natural for the job, said Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international affairs.
“He has always been pressing for action as a member of the OSCE parliamentary assembly, when it was reluctant to address the issue and to have a second conference,” Baker said. “There was never a candidate other than Weisskirchen.”
The only thing that continues to worry Jewish leaders is the OSCE’s apparent slowness in implementing changes.
“At the moment, if there’s any frustration about his work it’s not with him, it’s with dealing with the OSCE bureaucracy to do what he wants to do,” Baker said of Weisskirchen.
Weisskirchen has met twice since January with his counterparts dealing with racism and Islamophobia, and has consulted with leading European academics.
Appalled by the lack of knowledge of the Holocaust in Europe, he is examining education programs that he hopes can be introduced in schools across the continent through teacher-training programs. One such program is under development in Moscow, he said.
“You see an unbelievable lack of information,” he said. “We need to give new forms of curriculum to the teachers, not only to be better informed but better prepared to give the students an image of what happened in the 1940s in Europe, a better understanding of what happened.”
Another focus, he said, is how the media reports the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That was a more sensitive topic — no government or pan-governmental body should impose standards, he said — but journalists should be encouraged to introduce such standards in their own reporting.
“If you deliver a picture of the conflict between Israel and Palestine in which you criticize the Israeli government in an inappropriate form — say, comparing the Israeli army with the Nazi army — it creates a new form of anti-Semitism,” he said. “You should be aware as a journalist of what you are writing and depicting.”