Rift Marks Conference on Antisemitism

By Nacha Cattan, With Reporting by Jta.

Published June 27, 2003, issue of June 27, 2003.
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The first-ever international, governmental conference dedicated exclusively to antisemitism ended in Vienna this week, amid a German-Austrian squabble over accusations that Vienna was a less than gracious host.

The two-day meeting brought together nearly 400 delegates from the 55 member-states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an international body founded in 1995 as an outgrowth of the so-called “Helsinki process,” a Cold War-era effort at human-rights monitoring and conflict resolution.

Jewish communal leaders who attended as members of the American delegation said that the fact that the meeting took place, putting antisemitism formally on the international agenda as a form of prejudice to be addressed on its own, made it a historic event.

During the conference, Germany’s commissioner for human rights policy, Claudia Roth, criticized Austria, which houses OSCE headquarters, for “not properly recognizing the importance of this two-day antisemitism conference,” according to a BBC translation of a news report published in Die Presse, a Vienna daily. Roth, a Green Party member of the Bundestag, was quoted in the report as admonishing Vienna for failing to take this “good opportunity to look at its own history of antisemitism critically” and for not ensuring that the conference received “greater publicity.”

Roth appeared to be exploiting longstanding political tensions between the two countries, which have been exacerbated in recent days because of rivalry between Germany’s left-wing government and Austria’s right-wing coalition. But Roth’s criticism appeared to be also an extension of a deliberate policy of her Green Party of allying itself with the Jewish community. That attitude is most visibly embodied in the actions of Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the Green Party leader who has emerged over the last two years as the leading defender of Israel in European politics.

American delegates to the conference were divided on the significance of Roth’s complaint. According to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, several members of the American delegation agreed that “the publicity and the level of representation of the Austrian government” had been insufficient. “I certainly feel it did not get the attention it should have,” Hoenlein said. He pointed out that Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner did not attend the conference; Austrian officials said that the minister was tied up at a European Union summit in Greece.

But the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, played down the spat, calling it a “side show.”

The main attraction, Foxman said, was an apparent “consensus” among member countries to hold another conference next year. The conference might meet on an ongoing basis, thanks in part to an offer by Germany to hold a follow-up session next year in Berlin. The rift between Austria and Germany recently widened over Vienna’s reluctance to pick up the tab for its Jewish community’s increased security needs and other communal services. Germany recently tripled government funding of its Jewish community to $3 million and has criticized Austria for not acting similarly. The Austrian government has been accused by Jewish groups in Vienna for underfunding the country’s organized Jewish community and forcing it to sell off its buildings.

The staging of the OSCE conference came largely at the initiative of the United States, which had pressed for such a meeting over the past year despite reluctance by some European states, which had taken the position that antisemitism should be addressed within the context of more general human-rights issues. The German parliament worked closely with a human-rights committee of the U.S. Congress to push the conference forward.

Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani put forward an eight-point plan that could serve as a framework for action. This included a recommendation that OSCE member states formulate a uniform system to track antisemitic incidents so that statistics could be monitored and compared in a meaningful way.

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