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European Jewish Students Meet Ahead of Anti-semitism Conference

April 28, 2004
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Teasing is an unfortunate but inevitable part of growing up. But when fellow students at Olga Berlin’s high school asked her tauntingly if anyone had ever thrown stones at her because she was Jewish, she didn’t laugh it off.

Instead, Berlin, 18, moved to a different school in her hometown of Stuttgart.

Berlin described her experience at a gathering of students here two days before an international conference on anti-Semitism.

The student event, organized by the Jerusalem-based World Union of Jewish Students and held at the Jewish Museum of Berlin, brought together about 50 young Jews from 23 countries to share their frustrations and hopes about the anti-Semitism they face in their communities and educational institutions. The program was supported in part by the World Jewish Congress.

While they may not be threatened physically, students said they often felt uncomfortable with the kinds of questions they face.

“When people hear I’m Jewish, they say, ‘Oh, you are not Italian,’ ” said Gad Lazarov, 20, of Milan.

Sweden’s Jewish community has seen an increase in threatening phone calls, said Daniel Schatz, 24, of the Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism. He said verbal attacks on Israel were modern expressions of traditional anti-Semitism, which “attacks the core of Jewish identity.”

Aylin Varon, 26, of Istanbul, said the Jewish community there “is much more fearful” since the bombings of two Istanbul synagogues in November.

“There is much more security. Some Jewish businesses have received threatening calls,” Varon said.

But personally, she said, “I cannot say I have ever experienced anything overtly anti-Semitic.”

Varon said she has strong friendships with both Muslim and Jews.

Many students described facing anti-Israel views on campus and an intensifying anti-Semitic atmosphere in academia and media.

One person recalled the case of an editor of a major Lithuanian newspaper, who blamed Jews for the world’s problems. Another told of a German professor who compared the Warsaw Ghetto uprising to Palestinian suicide bombings.

In Leeds, Britain, students said Palestinian students make sure there is a one-sided portrayal of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

The Jewish students agreed that they have to be proactive in leading the fight against anti-Semitism, and that both the general public and Jewish students need to be better educated about Judaism.

They shared ideas and tactics. Among them were the creation of an intercultural summer camp in Ukraine, pro-Israel activities on the Leeds University campus and Jewish cultural events that were open to the public in the Czech Republic and Romania.

The students recommended working with local Israeli chambers of commerce to develop pro-Israel programs, and helping local media recognize anti-Semitic stereotypes and understand the difference between legitimate and unfair criticism of Israel.

“I think it’s important to teach people not to be lazy, but to react,” said Chananya Daniel, 20, of Amsterdam. “It’s true that students are always doing more things, not just talking.”

Daniel’s words echoed those of Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, who told the students that they have an obligation “to take the most gross malefactors and expose them.”

Singer said, “You can be more free to express less establishment views because that’s what students are supposed to do.”

Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, advised the students to “reach out to non-Jewish partners. Maximize your approach. And be prepared and engage in mock debates.”

Both Berger and Singer, together with the Central Council of Jews in Germany and other groups, organized their own events preceding the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s anti-Semitism conference here.

A broad array of representatives of European Jewish communities, educators, politicians and non-governmental organizations made their way to Berlin ahead of the OSCE conference. They might want to take some advice from students, some of the students suggested.

Amy Sampson, 19, and Jardena Lande, 21, both from Britain, said the anti-Israel atmosphere at Leeds University had grown worse over the past year. In response, Jewish students organized events using slogans like “More humus and less Hamas,” to draw students into learning more about Israel.

Arnow Finkelstein, 24, said his Jewish student group in Vilnius recently met with Christian groups.

“Now we have good contacts; they want to learn Israeli dancing. It is an important start,” he said.

Anja Doroschuk, 25, of Kiev, said her Jewish community organized a 16-day interreligious camp, focusing on a different religious or ethnic group each day. Her group also is working to get schools to devote two days to the study of the Holocaust, instead of the standard 20 minutes.

Olga Berlin said students should learn “not only about the Second World War, but about anti-Semitism,” and not only about discrimination against Jews “but also other ethnic groups.”

“And then they should learn that a Jewish person is not Israel,” she added.

Peleg Reshef, director of the World Union of Jewish Students, said he liked “the fact that there is a conference on anti-Semitism.”

But at the end of the day, Reshef said, only knowledge of Jewish history and culture would enable the students to battle and beat anti-Semitism.

“So study tonight and tomorrow if you can, because tomorrow you have to go out and teach,” he said.

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