Anti-Semitism is a virus, European conference finds

VIENNA — There was no escaping the irony.

Sixty-five years ago, Adolf Hitler stood on a balcony in Vienna's Heldenplatz and triumphantly addressed hundreds of thousands of cheering Austrians after Nazi Germany annexed Austria into the Third Reich.

Last week, within earshot of that balcony, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe held the first-ever international governmental conference exclusively dedicated to the subject of anti-Semitism.

The two-day meeting brought together nearly 400 delegates from the 55 member states of the OSCE, an international body founded in 1995 that grew out of the Cold War era's "Helsinki process" of human rights monitoring and conflict resolution.

The forum produced no concrete actions or resolutions. But the very fact that it took place and recognized anti-Semitism as a unique form of prejudice that needs to be addressed on its own in an international context made it a historic event.

Even more important, said delegates, was the prospect that the issue would be addressed on an ongoing basis, thanks in part to an offer by Germany to hold a follow-up session next year in Berlin.

"We're not going to cure the evil of anti-Semitism in a two-day conference. But we've begun something," said Mark Levin, the executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of the Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who headed a large U.S. delegation, including Jewish leaders and members of Congress, declared himself "delighted and heartened" by the German invitation.

"It would be a shame to take a historic conference like this and to turn it into a one-off event," he said. "And what could be more historic than organizing a first meeting in Austria and following it up in Berlin?"

The conference stemmed from a decision taken by the OSCE foreign ministers' annual meeting last December and will be followed by another conference in September on discrimination, racism and xenophobia.

The United States was instrumental in pushing for the meeting — at times in the face of reluctance by some European states, who insisted that anti-Semitism should be addressed within the context of more general human rights and discrimination issues.

The format of the OSCE conference left little room for debate on issues that were emotional and at times highly politicized.

Members of government delegations and non-governmental organizations gave brief statements focused on specific areas of concern: legal and institutional mechanisms to combat anti-Semitism; and the role of governments, civil society, the media and education.

The shadow of history loomed large as speaker after speaker made reference to the ghost of Hitler and the legacy of the Holocaust.

But the dangers of the present — and the uncertainties of the future — loomed even larger.

In effect, the conference became a forum for a passionate enunciation of Jewish concerns at pernicious new mutations of what Giuliani termed "the Western world's oldest and most persistent species of hatred."

In particular, this included what many described as a new form of anti-Semitism that, while drawing on traditional anti-Jewish stereotypes, has increasingly appeared to shift the target of hatred to Israel as the collective embodiment of the Jewish people.

This was linked partly to fallout from the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and partly, too, to an increasing identification of Jews and Israel with the United States in a confluence of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism.

Speakers described a spike in violence against Jews and Jewish institutions in some countries since the fall 2000 outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, many of them attacks carried out by disaffected Muslim youths.

They also described a wave of hate mail and anti-Semitic Web sites on the Internet, and a demonization of Israel in the media and the political arena.

This, speakers said, was accompanied by an erosion of post-Holocaust taboos that enabled criticism, even legitimate criticism, of Israel's actions against the Palestinian intifada to "legitimize" traditional anti-Semitic expression.

"The history of this moment will be if it is not just a one-off event, but by recognizing that anti-Semitism is a virus and must be dealt with by civil society as a clear and present danger, for now and for the future," the Anti-Defamation League's national director, Abraham Foxman, said. "Maybe it took some pressure to get people here, but maybe this will lead to a conscious realization that it is to everyone's benefit," he said. "Anti-Semitism was, is and will continue to be the canary in the coal mine vis-a-vis democratic societies.''