Full circle in Berlin

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Two weeks ago in Berlin, where the Nazis launched the Final Solution, 600 delegates from 55 governments and NGOs met under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to review the alarming global upsurge of anti-Semitism.

The very act of holding such a conference in Berlin, in the foreign ministry building where the Nazis housed their Central Bank, conveyed an important message. It signaled that at long last European leaders had come to the realization that the oldest disease had to be taken seriously.

European Union President Romano Prodi had already broken ground at the earlier Brussels EU Seminar. But it was only in Berlin that the demonization and delegitimization of Israel was recognized as a form of anti-Semitic incitement. To quote Diaspora Affairs Minister Natan Sharansky: “We succeeded in breaking that taboo in Berlin.”

The Berlin declaration, unanimously carried by applause at the close of the conference, stated that anti-Semitism posed “a threat to democracy” and declared “that international developments or political issues, including those in Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East, never justify anti-Semitism.”

It incorporated binding commitments that member states pledged to uphold: the creation of monitoring procedures to provide data on anti-Semitic crimes; the promotion of educational initiatives to counteract anti-Semitic prejudice; and an offer by the OSCE office to assist member states to formulate national legislation against hate crimes.

It was in every sense a singular victory for the Jewish people and vindicated those leaders who had refused to remain silent and demanded action.

Keynote speakers set the tone. As in Brussels, Elie Wiesel held the 600 delegates spellbound, warning that “we Jews have antennas. Better yet, we are antennas. If we tell you that the signals we receive are disturbing people had better listen.”

Wiesel urged delegates to “send a powerful message not to allow the anti-Semitic poison to spread, for it brings dishonor to civilization wherever it erupts.”

The presence of US Secretary of State Colin Powell conveyed a powerful signal that the Bush administration was firmly committed to the battle against anti-Semitism. To criticize was perfectly legitimate, he said, but warned that “the line is crossed when Israel or its leaders are demonized or vilified, for example by the use of Nazi symbols and racial caricatures.”

IF THE Berlin Conference emerges as a turning point in the struggle against anti-Semitism, much of the credit is attributable to the German hosts who left no stone unturned in guiding the deliberations in the desired direction.

At the opening session, German President Johannes Rau insisted that demonization of Israel was simply a new technique for Jew baiting. “Everyone knows that massive anti-Semitism is behind some of the criticism of the Israeli government’s policies.”

He was supported by German Foreign Minister Joschke Fischer, who again and again stressed how appropriate it was for the city of Berlin to host a conference designed to confront the revival of the evil disease.

The conference also crystallized the conflicting emotions felt by many of the Jews present: One did not forget for a moment the heinous German crimes committed against us any more than one could dismiss the profound contrition now being expressed by German leaders.

Today there is less anti-Semitism in Germany than in most other European countries. It is notable that successive German governments have been more supportive of Israel and the Jewish people than other European nations.

The event was widely reported throughout Germany. Thus on the day prior to the OSCE meeting, when I delivered a highly critical presentation of the double standards and bias employed by European governments towards the Jewish state, it was translated and relayed in full on German TV at peak viewing time. That could not have happened in any other European country.

Hence, although I had always been emotionally inclined to avoid visiting Germany, I now sensed the need to respond positively to these constructive developments.

Certainly there are still many unreconstructed German anti-Semites and others resentful about constant reminders of their guilt for the Holocaust. But many decent Germans are also struggling to compensate for the unspeakable crimes their nation committed.

And when one observes a man like Joschke Fischer, a left-wing intellectual Green, profoundly dedicated to German-Jewish reconciliation, one cannot fail to be impressed. Fischer is not an exception.

The Berlin conference demonstrated that our efforts to expose and shame governments tolerating anti-Semitism can achieve results.

A op-ed published in January 2004 by Edgar Bronfman and Cobi Benatoff, presidents respectively of the World Jewish Congress and the European Jewish Congress, in the Financial Times condemned the inadequate response to anti-Semitism by the EU. It was criticized in some Jewish quarters – by those who preferred to rely on shtadlanut or silent diplomacy. But it is now undeniable that the ensuing debate ignited by that article paved the way for the positive responses in Berlin.

Before that, Europeans were still in denial, insisting that violence against Jews was merely hooliganism, and refusing to concede that the demonization of Israel was motivated by hatred of Jews. The Berlin Conference unquestionably eclipsed this approach.

OF COURSE the conference, laudable though it was, represented only the opening salvo of a long battle, and there is much to be done. The next OSCE conference is tentatively scheduled to take place in Cordoba, Spain, coinciding with the 800th commemoration of Maimonides’s birth.

The new Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Moratinos, former EU representative to Israel, with whom I had previously clashed in a Jerusalem Post op-ed, invited me to visit him in his country to discuss the forthcoming conference – an invitation I was pleased to accept.

In this context, mention must be made of the letter sent by Senator Hilary Clinton via the World Jewish Congress undertaking to call on the Senate to promote a resolution condemning anti-Semitism at the UN. This in itself is an important step, one that will strengthen the WJC campaign to reintroduce the Irish UN resolution which condemns anti-Semitism.

It may even encourage UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to sack his personal envoy in Iraq, Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahmi, who singled out the only democratic state in the Middle East as being “the greatest poison in the region.”

This is a classic example of the anti-Semitism which the next OSCE Conference in Spain must tackle head-on.

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