Holocaust survivors urge fighting anti-Semitism

Thursday, April 29, 2004

BERLIN -- Western governments pledged Wednesday to redouble efforts to protect Jews as a 55-nation meeting heard Nazi death camp survivor Elie Wiesel warn of the spreading "disease" of anti-Semitism. Foreign ministers from Germany, Britain and other European countries conceded on the conference's first day that combating anti-Semitism requires a fresh push to educate young people about the Holocaust and punish perpetrators of hate crimes. Secretary of State Colin Powell told participants the two-day meeting was necessary "to stamp out the new fires of anti-Semitism" -- and to take a stand against any criticism in which Israeli leaders are "demonized or vilified."

Israeli President Moshe Katsav, in Berlin on an official visit coinciding with the conference, said "European leaders have done a lot lately, but not enough."

"Jews are again afraid to walk in the streets with a Star of David and a yarmulke. Jewish children are again a target of violence and the streets of Europe are again not safe for Jews, only because they are Jews," Katsav told a dinner hosted by German President Johannes Rau.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said it was fitting that the meeting was being held in the capital where Nazi Germany planned the destruction of Europe's Jews.

"Every attack on a Jewish citizen, every desecration of a Jewish cemetery, every single anti-Semitic utterance threatens not only Jewish people and the Jewish community in Germany and elsewhere, but it also threatens our open and democratic society as a whole," Fischer said.

Held amid extremely tight police security, the gathering of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is the third major conference in Europe to address anti-Semitism in the past year.

An Israeli anti-Semitism watchdog group said last week that worldwide incidents of attacks on Jews and vandalism against Jewish sites increased 15 percent in 2003 from the previous year, while the Stephen Roth Institute of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism said France, Britain, Russia, Germany and Canada had the highest rates of anti-Semitic incidents.

"The reality is that no country is ever free from intolerance, including anti-Semitism," said Britain's chief delegate, Bill Rammell. "The U.K. is no exception. And all governments have a duty to combat these phenomena."

While delegates broadly agreed more must be done against anti-Semitism, many cautioned that not all criticism of Israel should be construed as hate.

Youths from large Arab communities in France, Belgium and other European countries have been blamed for attacks on Jewish property and individuals that have increased since 2002 as violence surged in the Middle East.

Powell said, "It is not anti-Semitism to criticize the state of Israel, but the line is crossed when the leaders of Israel are demonized or vilified by the use of Nazi symbols."

Katsav told reporters that such portrayals "are hate propaganda, and hate propaganda should be forbidden."

But Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, speaking for the European Union, cautioned, "We cannot and should not expect reasonable criticism and fair comment about specific Israeli government policies to fall silent."

The most emotional appeal came from Wiesel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his writings on the Holocaust and campaigning against evils in the world.

"Stop! Stop a disease that has lasted so long. Stop the poison from spreading," he implored delegates.

"The Jew I am belongs to a traumatized generation. We have antennas. Better yet, we are antennas," he said. "If we tell you that the signals we receive are disturbing, that we are alarmed, ... people had better listen."

He urged the conference to adopt a manifesto that should be read aloud in schools across the world every year.

The conference is being held at Berlin's Foreign Ministry, a huge building that once served as Nazi Germany's central bank.

In a catalogue of recommendations for the officials, Jewish groups urged them to devote more resources to fighting anti-Semitism, strengthen law enforcement, promote education about the Holocaust and appoint a high-profile official to check whether countries are meeting their commitments.

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