In the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness;… we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”
At the conference, from left, Bernie Farber, CEO Canadian Jewish Congress, Jason Kenny, Minister of Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Gerald Grafstein, MP Irwin Cotler, Professor Gert Weisskirchen, outgoing personal representative of the OSCE Chairman-in-Office of the OSCE on Combating Anti-Ssemitism, and Hershell Ezrin, CEO CIJA.
As we joined with 125 parliamentarians representing 42 countries and 80 experts at the London Conference on Combating Anti-Semitism last week to devise practical ways to combat rising anti-Semitic trends, these thoughts echoed in our minds. Here, at the historic Palace of Westminster and the magisterial surroundings of Lancaster House, co-hosted by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and several British ministers, Jews and non-Jews were encouraged to form a common purpose and voice to eradicate anti-Semitism in all its manifestations.
Contrast those scenes to the daily sessions where horrific and disgusting examples of the rise of new forms of anti-Semitism were unveiled and analyzed. Added to classical forms and stereotyping of anti-Semitism was the linkage of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, the pernicious rise of Islamist extremist hate, and finally, state-encouraged or assisted anti-Semitism as practised by Iran and Venezuela.
By meeting’s end, the tabling of evidence was counterbalanced by the genuine, outspoken, public commitment of non-Jewish parliamentarians and their governments to act in solidarity and implement innovative ideas to fight this ancient scourge of the dislike and hatred of the unlike.
Beyond the physical threats and dangers rest the emotional turmoil and psychological damage of anti-Semitism, the sense of isolation. In one public session, representatives from across Europe, North America, and even Tunisia and Morocco, spoke about the need to act globally to eradicate anti-Semitism, and outlined concrete programs and plans. This time, Jews were not alone.
In the gilt-edged Lancaster House almost 60 years ago, 12 nations, including Canada, negotiated a permanent organization called NATO to protect Europe and North America. Today, in this same hall, a Canadian minister, Jason Kenney, accompanied by a group of 10 Canadian parliamentarians, Conservatives and Liberals, spelled out his government’s ambitious plan to fight anti-Semitism and to restore civil dialogue. We had the clear impression that a new, determined strategy to defend global Jewish communities was being articulated in the London Declaration pledging to fight anti-Semitism, signed on the final day of the conference on behalf of all participating nations. Kenney’s voice was joined by the foreign ministers of Italy and the Czech Republic, the vice-president of the German Bundestag, and numerous other leaders.
We face a long and hard battle, and our goal will suffer many ups and downs. But the London Declaration outlines a clear road map for action, best practices sharing and joint commitment.
Ironically, being able to capture with hard evidence different aspects of the current situation ultimately helps in harnessing broader intellectual and physical resources to act. For example, the U.K. Community Security Trust (CST), which co-hosted the London conference, has developed one of the leading evidentiary methodologies for tracking and understanding anti-Semitic incidents. Last week, it noted that a decrease in anti-Semitic incidents in 2008 (for the second year running) was totally overshadowed by an unprecedented rise during and after the Gaza operations. Other European countries present reported similar upswings. The implementation of a more sophisticated evidentiary system based on common standards is one of the goals of the London Declaration. Time and again during the conference, the need to have hard evidence and not let emotion overtake our demands for action was stressed.
The extent to which state-sponsored or encouraged anti-Semitism has grown was chillingly underscored by the current climate in Venezuela. An article that appeared in one of the most rabid Venezuelan government-sponsored media outlets has been rightly described as a call for a Venezuelan Kristallnacht. It states: “Denounce publicly with names and last names the members of the powerful Jewish groups present in Venezuela, indicting the companies they own in order to establish a boycott… in that respect, [for] capitalist agents, as these Zionist Hebrews are, the thing that hurts them most is the pocket. It is inappropriate to buy their products and go to their stores… Question the existence in Venezuela of educational institutions for Jews only, as if they were a different class from our population, since it is not possible for the existence of a state within a state… Publicly challenge every Jew that you find in the street, shopping centre or park, [and] take a stand shouting at them in favour of Palestine.”
Italian parliamentarian Fiamma Nirenstein spoke of how the Italian Parliament handled the presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a UNFood and Agriculture Organization conference in Rome last year. No official member of the Italian government’s Chambers of Deputies or leadership met with him. This was the most direct way to send a message that his Holocaust denier’s views and threats to Israel’s existence are unacceptable. Other parliamentarians agree that political isolation combined with stricter adherence to international commitments on combating anti-Semitism are tools to be used more frequently.
Denis MacShane, a former minister for Europe in the U.K. Labour government and founder of the all-party enquiry into anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom, was one of a number of speakers to call on the left to be “as vocal in denouncing anti-Semitism as it is in criticizing Israel.”
In a current article in Progress, he says that “to attack what the government of Israel does is legitimate politics. But what is not legitimate is to turn criticism of Israel into a condemnation of Jews and to paint them again today, as in the past, in negative stereotypes that deny their faith, their birth, their right not to be frightened and their right to support their affiliations and their causes.”
MacShane notes that “parts of the British, European and world left have now thrown in their lot with the rise of a new reactionary anti-Semitism… We only hear hate against Israel… open anti-Semitic attacks that took place by Jew-haters who used the anger over the Gaza conflict to attack Jews… for the many who revealed the depth of their hatred of Jews… the issue is not Israel but the very existence of the Jews… There will be no peace in the Middle East unless anti-Semitism is removed as a component ideology of those who oppose Israel. The left has to be as tough in denouncing the Hamas charter, with its litany of hate against Jews, as it is tough in demanding more jaw-jaw and less war-war from Israel.”
Other participants focused on Islamist extremist anti-Semitism.
In the expert sessions, several trends that create a new world of anti-Semitism were identified that require different strategic responses. They included the emergence and the exponential growth of the Internet – anti-Semitism, which was once marginalized, is now readily available. As David Harris of the American Jewish Committee said, “the Internet is the greatest single incubator, repository and distribution channel of anti-Semitism.”
A number of innovative strategies were identified, including legal and cyberspace definitions. There was universal agreement that legal sanctions coupled with education and cyber technology must work in tandem. One of the most unusual was the establishment of a critical reasoning and use program in education curricula when using Internet sources because so much of what is on the Internet is not verified or anything more than rumour or hearsay. Another idea gaining ground is the assignment of study programs by university professors to critique Internet entries and identify mistakes.
A second trend was dealing with the newly globalized western communities and new and emerging communities that are unfamiliar with Jews or their issues. We need to go back to basics with these communities in order to establish new relationships not only to tackle anti-Semitism, but also to protect the general fabric of a pluralistic society.
With the aging of a Holocaust generation of survivors, liberators and eyewitnesses, Jewish communities need a whole new dimension and vocabulary to present the Holocaust narrative, which is in danger of being hijacked by opposing forces.
Finally, several experts discussed the vulnerability of Israel’s losing a perception of like-mindedness to liberal societies, especially with a younger generation.
Of all the strategies and tactics reviewed, one stood out for broader emulation. It was the development of all-party enquiries into the state of anti-Semitism in individual countries. Such a committee establishes a clear focus and accountabilities, a specific timeline for co-ordinated action by government ministries, agencies and law enforcement groups and a political check against any attempts at appeasement. It ensures that the fight against anti-Semitism becomes validated by all parties, and avoids anti-Semitism serving as a wedge issue among politicians. It puts the onus for leadership of the battle on non-Jews who have the most credibility in pushing this agenda within civil society.
John Mann was the driving force behind the London conference. With his steering committee members, including Irwin Cotler, the battle against anti-Semitism has been taken to a new level. In our view, the committee’s goal to adopt an effective framework to confront anti-Semitism on a global level is being achieved. Kol hakavod to the leaders for their vision.
Hershell Ezrin is CEO of the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA). Bernie Farber is CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress.