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Behind the Headlines Conference in Berlin Condemns Anti-semitism, Calls for Monitoring by Toby Axelr

April 30, 2004
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An international conference on anti-Semitism failed to condemn its growth among Muslims in Europe, but participants nevertheless are hailing the gathering as a success.

A resolution passed at the end of the two-day conference Thursday declared “unambiguously that international developments or political issues, including those in Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East, never justify anti-Semitism.”

The mention of Israel in the final document — the first time the OSCE has ever issued a declaration of any kind — acknowledged a major source of anti-Semitism in Europe today and was one of several distinguishing elements in the forum on new manifestations of the age-old scourge.

However, Arab states convinced members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which hosted the conference in the city where the Nazis planned their genocide of European Jewry, to remove references from official documents linking criticism of Israel and Muslim anti-Semitism.

Our sense is that courageous statements at the conference “were few and far between,” said Shelley Klein, director of advocacy for Hadassah.

Still, at a time when public opinion in much of the world has turned sharply against Israel — resulting in a wave of attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions across Europe — a gathering intended to help the Jewish people “is a success in and of itself,” Klein said.

The conference, preceded by several other events in Berlin this week targeting anti-Semitism, was intended as a tougher follow-up to an initial OSCE conference last summer in Vienna.

Hosted by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and chaired by Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Passy, the program featured addresses by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, German President Johannes Rau and Holocaust survivors Simone Veil and Elie Wiesel.

In one particularly moving moment, Passy presented Fischer with the yellow star his grandfather had been forced to wear during World War II to identify him as a Jew. His family always had said that one day the star would be returned to a German, Passy said.

Several hundred participants, ranging from politicians to religious leaders to OSCE representatives, attended the conference at Germany’s Foreign Ministry. Also present were representatives of Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia, which are “Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation” in the OSCE.

Observers said the high-level officials participating sent a signal to political leaders on the eve of European Union enlargement that all forms of discrimination are unacceptable.

“Had it not been done by Joschka Fischer in Germany, I believe the Jews would be making a mistake in calling for a stand-alone conference,” Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, told JTA. He said he had asked Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel to attend last year’s conference in Vienna but was rebuffed.

Chief among many participants’ concerns was growing international vilification of Israel and the spillover effect it has had in recent years on attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in Europe.

A significant number of perpetrators have been young Muslims, particularly in France, but that point was hardly addressed directly at the conference.

“Today we confront the ugly reality that anti-Semitism is not just a fact of history, but a current event,” Powell told the gathering. He said that criticism of Israel was not necessarily anti-Semitic unless “Israel or its leaders are demonized or vilified, for example by the use of Nazi symbols and racist caricatures.”

In the days before the conference, the Anti-Defamation League released a report showing a decline in anti-Semitic attacks in Europe from their peak two years ago, but a marked rise in anti-Israel sentiment.

The disparity between the drop in anti-Semitism and the rise in hostility toward Israel suggests that political intervention has helped Europeans separate their feelings about Jews from their views on Israel, said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s U.S. national director.

“It’s open season on Israel, an open season of criticism at a level that is almost beyond reason and rationale,” Foxman said. Ultimately, he added, bias against Israel “impacts on how Jews are perceived.”

Paul Spiegel, who survived the Holocaust in hiding in Belgium and today heads the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said anti-Semitic attacks of all kinds should be denounced “wherever they come from.”

His remarks underscored the hesitancy to address the issue of Muslim anti-Semitism directly.

Speakers offered numerous suggestions in workshops on topics such as anti-Semitism in the media and Internet; the role of governments and civil society in promoting tolerance; and diversity training and Holocaust education. Non- governmental organizations shared their materials and networked in the ministry’s library.

Participants committed to honing their legal systems, promoting academic exchange and educational programs — including Holocaust studies — and pledged to “collect and maintain reliable information and statistics about anti-Semitic crimes and other hate crimes committed within their territory.”

They pledged to report such crimes to the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. That office is to be charged with monitoring anti-Semitism with the cooperation of the 55 OSCE member states, and it will make its findings public.

Finally, the OSCE’s human rights branch is to collect “best practices” from non-governmental organizations throughout the region “for preventing and responding to anti-Semitism.”

Several non-Jewish activists attended the conference, including a delegation from the Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

The conference “pushed anti-Semitism back on the agenda,” said Fahmia Huda, head of the Faith Communities Office of Britain’s Foreign Office.

“Everyone has a duty to take part in the discussions and do whatever they can to combat it,” said Huda, who is Muslim.

While several concrete recommendations emerged from the conference — including a call for a coordinator to monitor anti-Semitic crimes across the continent — some observers said the mere convening of the event made it a success.

Such a conference on the highest political level “shows that anti-Semitism is not a legitimate political instrument, and it sends a signal to the Eastern European states that have not always seen it that way,” said Wolfgang Benz, head of the Technical University of Berlin’s Center for Research on Anti-Semitism.

Observers said some Arab countries had pressured the OSCE to exclude language linking criticism of Israel with Islamic anti-Semitism. In addition, some European members of the board reportedly balked at including such language.

The final declaration, which was read aloud by conference chair Passy, condemns all manifestations of anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination based on ethnic origin or religious belief, as well as attacks on religious institutions motivated by such hatred.

Stephen Hoffman, president and CEO of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations, told JTA that the Bush administration encouraged the delegation “not to make blanket statements saying ‘Muslims say this’ or ‘Muslims say that,’ not to blanket a whole religion, just as we don’t want to be,” he said.

In debates over the final statement, OSCE members expressed “considerable opposition to referencing the situation in the Middle East and Israel too directly and too graphically,” added Hoffman, who was a member of the official U.S. delegation. “The U.S. government fought hard to get a reference, but the consensus was not there among many of the European member states.”

Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s head of international affairs, told JTA that the event was a success despite the compromises over the final document.

Even without pressure from the Arab states, the final document probably would not have explicitly linked Israel and Islamic anti-Semitism, Baker said.

“There were too many people who were nervous about it,” he said. “The question is whether you will note what the declaration says or what it doesn’t say. And the answer is that it is noteworthy for what it does say.”

Foxman agreed, noting that though the final declaration didn’t mention Muslim anti-Semitism, the topic was much discussed in both the OSCE event and at pre-conference events.

“We broke an important taboo,” Foxman said. “The next thing is to talk about the perpetrators.”

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