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Europe: OSCE Conference Looks At Ways To Confront Anti-Semitism

  • Kathleen Moore

Europe is in the midst of a resurgent wave of anti-Semitism and countries must act now to stem its rise. That's what delegates have been hearing at an anti-Semitism conference in Vienna, the first such gathering by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Vienna, 20 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Vienna's Hofburg Palace. Sixty-five years ago, Adolf Hitler stood here and proclaimed Austria's annexation to a cheering crowd of thousands.

So it was with mixed feelings that a much different crowd gathered at the site this week for a conference on anti-Semitism sponsored by the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

They're glad it's taking place at all -- it's the security and rights organization's first meeting exclusively devoted to the problem.

But many are dismayed, too. They're shocked that something like this is still needed so many years after the Holocaust, and some -- but not all -- are worried by what they say is a recent rise in anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani headed the U.S. delegation.

"It's hard to believe we're discussing this topic so many years later and after so many lessons of history that have not been learned," he said. "If action had been taken in the 1930s, then millions and millions of people would have lived. Words didn't suffice to save their lives, and words aren't going to suffice to turn the tide of anti-Semitism that is once again growing in Europe and other parts of the world."

The problem isn't just the traditional forms of anti-Semitism like attacks on Jews or synagogues. Delegates say there's now an added modern twist -- anti-Semitic propaganda spread on the Internet and via e-mails. And the "virus" -- as one delegate put it -- has also mutated and taken on a more covert form.

It pops up in debate over the Middle East, as criticism of Jews as a whole instead of the Israeli government. That, some delegates complain, has become quite acceptable among European intellectuals.

They heard other examples, too. How "Jewish" is a term of abuse for Polish soccer fans. How a prominent British parliamentarian said this year that the prime minister was in thrall to a "cabal of Jewish advisers." And how a recent Greek newspaper cartoon had one Israeli soldier telling another: "We weren't in Dachau concentration camp to survive, but to learn."

Greville Janner, who heads Britain's Inter-Parliamentary Council Against Anti-Semitism, said: "New anti-Semitism is a revival of the old anti-Semitism, but in a new form. Also particularly in the form of Muslim anti-Semitism as the overflow from the Middle East, people saying, 'Don't blame us for September 11 [attacks], the Jews all got out and they knew all about it and fixed it.' That sort of rubbish. It's new, it's different."

Not everyone at the conference agreed that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe.

The Greek EU presidency says the EU is already cracking down on anti-Semitic prejudice. "This does not mean that anti-Semitism has again gained an intellectual or respectable foothold in our societies or that the EU has been gripped by a 'wave' of anti-Semitism," it said in a statement.

Several delegates from Central and Eastern Europe also noted no significant upsurge in their region -- though they also added there's no cause for complacency either.

Nils Muiznieks, Latvia's minister for social integration, said his country has few open anti-Semites of the sort that print neo-Nazi tracts or attacks Jews. But he added:

"Far more common are the closet anti-Semites, those who cling to a distorted version of history, Nazi-era stereotypes of the Jew-Bolshevik link. And those who are just downright insensitive, stressing their own suffering [under the Nazis or communists] while denigrating the Holocaust."

Aleksei Korotaev from the International League of Human Rights says that in Russia there are often contradictions between officials' words and actions.

"In Russia, there have been in recent years very positive statements against anti-Semitism at the highest federal level," he said. "Nevertheless, we know instances when statements and even actions were made at lower levels which contracted these positive statements. Also, several well-known Russian political figures repeatedly made clearly anti-Semitic statements without consequences for them. Impunity of perpetrators is one of the main factors contributing to the spread of Semitism."

Delegates made several recommendations about what can be done to tackle those instances of anti-Semitism.

Countries should have tough penalties for hate crimes. They must root prejudice out of school textbooks. Officials should quickly condemn anti-Semitic acts and refute myths, such as the one that Jews had forewarning of the 11 September attacks.

Countries should keep statistics on anti-Semitic incidents and, Giuliani suggested, get together and review them at least once a year to judge progress. That way, he said, officials would no longer be able to "put their heads in the sand" saying anti-Semitism does not exist or dismissing incidents as hooliganism.

Those suggestions are targeted at Europe, and France in particular, but others are aimed at the United States -- for example, an appeal to close down American websites containing anti-Semitic material.

But Alcee Hastings, a U.S. congressman, said that suggestion is a nonstarter:

"There's no question that much of the hate material that is here in Europe comes from the U.S. But the argument put forth that what we should do is shut that down would be the antithesis of what the First Amendment stands for. I would not -- even though I can't stand the stuff that leaves our country -- I would never try to shut down a legitimate organ of communication. It would be like going to [U.S. public broadcasting] and saying you have to close your doors because I do not like your views, or [the U.S. television network] Fox because they're not 'fair and balanced' [as their motto says]. I could not tolerate that."

The conference wrapped up today and will be followed by another on discrimination, racism, and xenophobia in September.