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News Analysis Conference on Anti-semitism Marks Milestone in Recognition of Problem

June 23, 2003
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There was no escaping the irony.Sixty-five years ago, Adolf Hitler stood on a balcony in Vienna’s Heldenplatz and triumphantly addressed hundreds of thousands of cheering Austrians after Nazi Germany annexed Austria into the Third Reich.

Last week, within earshot of that balcony, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe held the first- ever international governmental conference exclusively dedicated to the subject of anti-Semitism. The two-day meeting brought together nearly 400 delegates from the 55 member states of the OSCE, an international body founded in 1995 that grew out of the Cold War era’s “Helsinki process” of human rights monitoring and conflict resolution.

The forum produced no concrete actions or resolutions. But the very fact that it took place and recognized anti-Semitism as a unique form of prejudice that needs to be addressed on its own in an international context made it a historic event.

“We are making a statement that the time of denial is over,” Hebrew University professor Robert Wistrich told the gathering. “The message is very necessary.”

Even more important, said delegates, was the prospect that the issue would be addressed on an ongoing basis, thanks in part to an offer by Germany to hold a follow-up session next year in Berlin.

“We’re not going to cure the evil of anti-Semitism in a two-day conference. But we’ve begun something,” said Mark Levin, the executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of the Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who headed a large U.S. delegation, including Jewish leaders and members of Congress, declared himself “delighted and heartened” by the German invitation.

“It would be a shame to take a historic conference like this and to turn it into a one-off event,” he said. “And what could be more historic than organizing a first meeting in Austria and following it up in Berlin?”

The conference stemmed from a decision taken by the OSCE foreign ministers’ annual meeting last December and will be followed by another conference in September on discrimination, racism and xenophobia.

The United States was instrumental in pushing for the meeting — at times in the face of reluctance by some European states, who insisted that anti-Semitism should be addressed within the context of more general human rights and discrimination issues.

This remains the official stand of the European Union. Its delegate at the meeting reiterated that “the E.U. stresses the importance of addressing racism, xenophobia, discrimination and anti-Semitism under a common, unified approach, using the experience and initiatives on the various issues to support action across the board.”

The format of the OSCE conference left little room for debate on issues that were emotional and at times highly politicized.

Members of government delegations and non-governmental organizations gave brief statements focused on specific areas of concern: legal and institutional mechanisms to combat anti-Semitism; and the role of governments, civil society, the media and education.

The shadow of history loomed large as speaker after speaker made reference to the ghost of Hitler and the legacy of the Holocaust.

Several Jewish delegates referred pointedly to how their own families had been persecuted.

But the dangers of the present — and the uncertainties of the future — loomed even larger.

In effect, the conference became a forum for a passionate enunciation of Jewish concerns at pernicious new mutations of what Giuliani termed “the Western world’s oldest and most persistent species of hatred.”

In particular, this included what many described as a new form of anti-Semitism that, while drawing on traditional anti-Jewish stereotypes, has increasingly appeared to shift the target of hatred to Israel as the collective embodiment of the Jewish people.

This was linked partly to fallout from the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and partly, too, to an increasing identification of Jews and Israel with the United States in a confluence of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism.

Speakers described a spike in violence against Jews and Jewish institutions in some countries since the fall 2000 outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, many of them attacks carried out by disaffected Muslim youths.

They also described a wave of hate mail and anti-Semitic Web sites on the Internet, and a demonization of Israel in the media and the political arena.

This, speakers said, was accompanied by an erosion of post-Holocaust taboos that enabled criticism, even legitimate criticism, of Israel’s actions against the Palestinian intifada to “legitimize” traditional anti-Semitic expression.

Irwin Cotler, a Canadian member of Parliament, described an “old-new escalating global and even lethal anti-Semitism carried on the new superhighway of the Internet.”

The world has “seen the emergence of Israel as the collective Jew among nations,” he said. “Traditional anti-Semitism rejects the right of Jews to exist in the Diaspora. The new anti-Semitism rejects the right of Israel and the Jewish people to live in the family of nations.”

Part of this, he said, was an ideological anti-Semitism “that masks itself under the banner of anti-racism. In this form, Israel becomes ‘racist’ and Zionism is ‘racism,’ and Israel emerges as the enemy of all that is good and the embodiment of all that is evil.”

Under this reasoning, he said, “the dismantling of Israel becomes held out as a moral imperative.”

Wistrich identified Muslim anti-Semitism as the “most dangerous, even genocidal” threat. “Just as much of the anti-Semitism rampant in the media of the Arab Middle East was exported from Europe, some of it is now being re-exported to Europe,” he said. “Combined with radical Islamism and traditional European belief, it is potentially deadly.”

Still, warned a representative of Turkey, “fighting anti-Semitism must not turn into a blind Muslim-bashing.”

These and related issues have sparked widespread debate on Op-Ed pages, on talk shows and in a recent series of symposia and conferences sponsored by Jewish and other non-governmental organizations and institutions.

“The OSCE and its member states have been forced to recognize the concern of the Jewish community that there has been a failure to recognize anti-Semitism,” Michael Whine, a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and a vice president of the European Jewish Congress, told JTA. “They still think of it as a hangover from the Holocaust and neo-Nazism,” he said. “Jewish organizations said during this conference that while this traditional form of anti-Semitism is still there, this is not as dangerous as the anti-Semitism that is now emanating from the Arab world. We have to recognize this new reality.”

The question remained, however, as to how to harness warning and concern and translate it into action. Giuliani put forward an eight-point plan that could serve as a framework for action.

This included a recommendation that OSCE states formulate a uniform system to track anti-Semitic incidents so that statistics could be monitored and compared in a meaningful way.

He and other speakers stressed that it is not enough to have anti-hate legislation in place — the laws on the books have to be implemented.

Many speakers, for example, praised France for having reacted vigorously last year to a wave of anti-Semitic violence and cracked down harder on hate crime.

“The history of this moment will be if it is not just a one-off event, but by recognizing that anti-Semitism is a virus and must be dealt with by civil society as a clear and present danger, for now and for the future,” the Anti- Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, told JTA. “Maybe it took some pressure to get people here, but maybe this will lead to a conscious realization that it is to everyone’s benefit,” he said. “Anti-Semitism was, is and will continue to be the canary in the coal mine vis-a-vis democratic societies.”

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