Antisemitism Fight Provides Way For Mending Transatlantic Split

By Marc Perelman

Published May 07, 2004, issue of May 07, 2004.
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BERLIN — Fresh from a major international conference here last week, diplomats and communal leaders say that the fight against antisemitism is emerging as a vehicle for mending the American-European split over Iraq, as well as easing tensions between Jewish groups and human rights organizations.

Representatives of the 55-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe met here in Germany to map out a strategy for the eradication of antisemitism, vowing to make good on their pledges to bolster law-enforcement, step up monitoring of hate crimes and implement educational measures against bigotry. But the high-profile involvement of German and Spanish officials at the OSCE conference left observers insisting that European leaders see an opportunity to patch things up with Washington.

“They are using the Jewish key to the White House,” one Jewish communal leader said on condition of anonymity. He quickly added that such calculations did not mean the European commitment to fighting antisemitism is not genuine.

Germany campaigned hard to host this year’s conference in Berlin for obvious historical reasons. However, observers and diplomats said, the German authorities seized the opportunity to work closely with Washington to forge a strong final common declaration and dissipate the reverberations of its opposition to America’s decision to go to war with Iraq without approval from the United Nations.

Spain, meanwhile, is looking for an opportunity to divert American attention away from the new Socialist government’s decision to pull the country’s troops out of Iraq. The new government dispatched its foreign minister, former U.N. envoy to the Middle East Miguel Angel Moratinos, to Berlin and offered to host a follow-up conference on antisemitism next year in Cordoba.

Asked whether Spain was trying to curry favor in Washington, an American congressman smiled, saying only that he welcomed Spain’s initiative.

In addition to the diplomatic ballet, observers and activists saw signs of rapprochement between Jewish groups and human rights organizations. Jewish activists and communal leaders have been unhappy that human rights organizations did not do more to stop and condemn the antisemitic outbursts that accompanied a U.N. conference on racism and discrimination two years ago in Durban, South Africa.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, an influential Washington-based coalition that includes black, Jewish and Asian organizations, sent a large delegation to Berlin and issued a declaration recommending concrete measures to fight antisemitism. These developments reflect the deep commitment of human rights organizations and civil rights groups to the fight against anti-Jewish bigotry, said Wade Henderson, the executive director of the Leadership Conference.

“Jewish groups asked us to join them,” Henderson said. “It’s a call we were happy to receive and to answer and it helps heal the breach over Durban.”

Stacy Burdett, associate director of government and national affairs of the Anti-Defamation League, said that Jewish groups and American civil rights organizations held lengthy discussions about antisemitism during which Jewish activists were able to outline the growing linkage between antisemitism and anti-Zionism in Europe.

“This conference provided a vehicle for us to ask our long-term friends to stand with us on an issue where we feel alone at times,” she said. “To bring a diverse delegation is the most powerful way to say antisemitism is a human rights issue.”

While the Leadership Conference’s Henderson dismissed any notion of a quid pro quo, he said the human rights community expected Jewish organizations to provide a similar show of support at an upcoming OSCE conference on discrimination in Brussels in September, where the issue of Islamophobia will figure prominently.

In addition to condemning all forms of antisemitism and urging member states to enhance both legal and educational means to fight bigotry, the so-called Berlin declaration adopted by consensus at last week’s conference also included references to Israel. The declaration stated “unambiguously that international developments or political issues, including those in Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East, never justify antisemitism.”

Still, observers and diplomats acknowledged that the language was not likely to solve the hotly debated question of how to define the limits of legitimate criticism of Israel.

In his address, Secretary of State Colin Powell said it was “not antisemitic to criticize the state of Israel” but that the line was crossed when Israel or its leaders were demonized and vilified, for example by the use of Nazi symbols and racist caricatures.

European officials, however, emphasized the need to preserve room for a healthy debate on Israeli policies.

Most participants at the OSCE conference avoided explicit reference to another contentious issue — the identity of perpetrators of antisemitic acts — thus leaving aside the politically sensitive issue of Muslim antisemitism that has bedeviled many European countries in recent years. European officials have been more outspoken in denouncing the phenomenon in recent months and also took the opportunity at the conference to raise the problem of antisemitism in Arab countries and Arab media. For the most part, however, Berlin conference attendees skirted the issue of Muslim antisemitism in Europe.

The tensions surrounding the issue, however, were on full display about six week ago, after a European Union watchdog group released a comprehensive report on antisemitism. The report, released March 31, indicated that young Muslims perpetrated most antisemitic acts. But a press release accompanying the report said that the largest group of perpetrators appeared to be young, disaffected white Europeans, prompting claims from Jewish communal leaders in Europe and America that the E.U. was playing politics. In later interviews, several Jewish communal officials said they believed the press release reflected a misguided, mid-level attempt at balance, rather than a deliberate attempt by top E.U. leaders to shade the study’s findings.

Jewish groups had previously criticized the racism watchdog for withholding a preliminary report earlier this year, allegedly because it pointed to young Muslims as the main perpetrators of antisemitic violence in the E.U.

Pierre Lellouche, a French legislator who sponsored legislation that would mete out harsher penalties for antisemitic speech, told the Forward that it was more accurate to say that antisemitism is now being imported from today’s Middle East, rather than inherited from the Europe of the 1930s.

“There is a big misunderstanding when people say France or Europe are antisemitic,” Lellouche said. “This is not a European problem, but a Muslim problem. We need to call a spade a spade and we should also hold such a conference in Cairo and Amman.”

In the end, Jewish advocates expressed satisfaction that the Israel issue had indeed been tackled, and they argued that it was a way of indirectly addressing the impact of Islamic antisemitism.

Jewish communal leaders also offered broad praise for what they described as stepped-up European efforts.

Last year, “many Europeans did not speak like they do now,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hoenlein’s comments echoed the sentiments of other important Jewish leaders who have eased their criticism of Europe in recent months.

Among the European officials at the conference who urged tangible results in the fight against antisemitism was the event’s host, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. One of the most concrete decisions made during the conference was a pledge by the 55 participating countries to collect reliable information and statistics on hate crimes, including antisemitic acts, and to communicate them to a central body.

U.S. delegates told the Forward that the Bush administration had committed itself to provide additional funding to the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which will be in charge of the monitoring.

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