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Anti-Semitism Conference Looks At Ways To Combat An Ancient Hatred

An anti-Semitic slogan and a Nazi swastika drawn on a house in Vladivostok, Russia.

An anti-Semitic slogan and a Nazi swastika drawn on a house in Vladivostok, Russia.

* Correction appended

With each passing year, the enormity of the Holocaust seems to fade from collective memory.

One of the major manifestations of contemporary anti-Semitism is to deny the Holocaust ever happened, or to minimize its impact.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad repeatedly promises to enact a second Holocaust, threatening to eliminate the state of Israel.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad disparaged Israel at a conference on racism in Geneva in 2009.
That Holocaust denial often takes place alongside Holocaust glorification does not seem to give anti-Semites logical pause.

But the tragic history of the Jewish experience and the daunting challenges posed by anti-Semitism have not dismayed those committed to fighting it.

Several dozen human rights activists, historians, and government representatives recently gathered in Prague for a conference dedicated to "Confronting Anti-Semitism in Public Discourse." The conference was sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

"It is deeply embarrassing that we have to deal with anti-Semitism some 66 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany," said Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Jiri Schneider, whose remarks opened the conference.

Far from being some new ideology, contemporary anti-Semitism is "old poison in new bottles," he said.

While Jewish stereotypes propagated by anti-Semites may be ancient, participants said anti-Semites have been able to harness new technology to spread and popularize their bigotry.

"Intolerant discourse has never been as global as it is now," said Slovenian Ambassador Janez Lenarcic, the director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

Though anti-Semitism is a global phenomenon, the conference focused on topics pertaining to the OSCE region.

Hannah Rosenthal, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, says there has been a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in recent years across Europe. Polls taken in the wake of the financial crisis, for example, show that across Europe an average of 40 percent of people believe Jews "have too much power in business."

"Europe has a bad history with nationalism, with anti-Semitism," Rosenthal says. "And we're seeing this new wave of nationalism happen, and of course that is showing a new spike in anti-Semitism."

Noticeable Omission

Though scholars at the conference said European nations are doing a better job of acknowledging their past complicity in the Holocaust, there was a noticeable omission in an exhibit at the conference about the experience of Lithuanian Jewry.

The exhibit stated that "the perpetrators were primarily the Nazis, although some local collaborators joined them."

Konstanty Gebert, a columnist for the Polish newspaper "Gazeta Wyborcza" who worked as an underground journalist during the communist era, says the exhibit plays down the collaboration of Lithuanians in the Holocaust, in which over 90 percent of Lithuanian Jews died.

He says, however, that Lithuanian society has made progress in acknowledging the extent of its involvement. "There is," he says, "in the academic world, at least, a widespread recognition of the active participation of substantial segments of the Lithuanian community in the Shoah."

In addition to minimizing Lithuanian complicity, Gebert says, the exhibit failed to acknowledge the aid that Lithuanian Muslims provided to Jews in distress, focusing instead on Christians.

"What this reference leaves out is non-Christian Lithuanians who saved Jews," he says. "Lithuanian communists, Lithuanian Muslims -- there is a native Lithuanian Muslim community that actively saved the Jews during the war."

Anti-Semitism Focuses On Israel

Much of contemporary anti-Semitic discourse centers on Israel, which is routinely condemned in Nazi-like terms, particularly by the Arab and Muslim states. Many of the resolutions passed by the United Nations Human Rights Council, for instance, are devoted to condemning the Jewish state.

A challenge presented by those at the conference is how to distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel's actions from attacks motivated by anti-Semitism.

Debate over the conflict in the Middle East raises a chicken-and-egg question: Does the behavior of the Israeli government exacerbate anti-Semitism or do anti-Semites merely project their preexisting bigotry onto Israel?

Mark Gardner, a spokesman for the London-based Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Semitic hate crimes, remarked that anti-Semitic attacks in the United Kingdom spike whenever Israel takes military action.

Yet 2010 -- a relatively quiet year in terms of Middle East turmoil -- was the second-worst recorded year for anti-Semitic incidents.

Nowhere is anti-Semitism more widespread, or officially sanctioned, than in the Arab and Muslim world. There, prominent clerics and even governments officially endorse messages calling for a second Holocaust.

"Holocaust glorification is the most bone-chilling of all," Rosenthal says. "We actually see in the Middle East, clerics, looking at the camera -- and that means looking at tens of millions of followers -- and saying, 'Hitler was great, the Holocaust was wonderful, and Allah willing, we will be able to finish the job.'"

Imams Visit Auschwitz

To combat anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, Rosenthal recently brought eight imams -- two of whom were vocal Holocaust deniers -- to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp in Poland, where around 1 million Jews were killed.

The grand mufti of Bosnia visits the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
"It was an excruciating five days for me, the most challenging I’ve ever had," she says. "And I’ve given birth twice."

The imams were unaware that Albania, a mostly Muslim country, saved all of its Jews during the Holocaust, a historical lesson that she believes made them rethink their anti-Semitism.

Following the visit, the clerics signed a statement condemning Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism in all forms. It's a practice she hopes to replicate in the future.

No government policy or legal remedy will ever eradicate the age-old scourge of anti-Semitism. In the face of this hatred, Gebert, the Polish journalist, counsels vigilance.

"Anti-Semitism needs to be resisted and combated at every imaginable state,” he says. “Until and unless anti-Semites realize they are an isolated and despised minority, and that the majority will not allow the anti-Semites to claim them for their own, they will continue."

* Janez Lenarcic is a Slovenian, not a Lithuanian, diplomat.

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