Students vent about anti-Semitism, but express hopes for future

berlin | Teasing is an unfortunate but inevitable part of growing up. But when fellow students at Olga Berlin’s high school asked her tauntingly if anyone had ever thrown stones at her because she was Jewish, she didn’t laugh it off.

Instead, Berlin, 18, moved to a different school in her hometown of Stuttgart. She described her experience at an international conference on anti-Semitism.

The student event, organized by the Jerusalem-based World Union of Jewish Students and held at the Jewish Museum of Berlin, brought together about 50 young Jews from 23 countries to share their frustrations and hopes about the anti-Semitism they face in their communities and educational institutions. The program was supported in part by the World Jewish Congress.

Colin Powell was one of the first speakers at the conference. “Today we confront the ugly reality that anti-Semitism is not just a fact of history, but a current event,” the U.S. secretary of state said Wednesday, May 26, speaking to hundreds gathered for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s event. “It is not anti-Semitic to criticize the policies of the state of Israel, but the line is crossed” when Nazi symbols are used to portray Israeli policies.

Powell said it is important to help build democracy in Iraq and work to establish a Palestinian state. “We should be working toward this purpose and not using rhetoric that keeps us from this purpose.”

As if directly illustrating Powell’s remarks, students talked about their experiences in school and in public.

“When people hear I’m Jewish, they say, ‘Oh, you are not Italian,'” said Gad Lazarov, 20, of Milan.

Sweden’s Jewish community has seen an increase in threatening phone calls, said Daniel Schatz, 24, of the Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism. He said verbal attacks on Israel were modern expressions of traditional anti-Semitism, which “attacks the core of Jewish identity.”

Aylin Varon, 26, of Istanbul, said the Jewish community there “is much more fearful” since the bombings of two Istanbul synagogues in November. “There is much more security. Some Jewish businesses have received threatening calls,” she said.

Many students described facing anti-Israel views on campus and an intensifying anti-Semitic atmosphere in academia and the media.

The Jewish students agreed they have to be proactive in leading the fight against anti-Semitism, and that both the general public and Jewish students need to be better educated about Judaism. They shared ideas and tactics.

“I think it’s important to teach people not to be lazy, but to react,” said Chananya Daniel, 20, of Amsterdam. “It’s true that students are always doing more things, not just talking.”

Her words echoed those of Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, who told students they have an obligation “to take the most gross malefactors and expose them. You can be more free to express less-establishment views because that’s what students are supposed to do.”

Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, advised students to “reach out to non-Jewish partners. Maximize your approach. And be prepared and engage in mock debates.”

Both Berger and Singer, along with the Central Council of Jews in Germany and other groups, organized their own events preceding the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s anti-Semitism conference here.

Peleg Reshef, head of the World Union of Jewish Students, said that only knowledge of Jewish history and culture would enable the students to battle and beat anti-Semitism.”So study tonight and tomorrow if you can, because tomorrow you have to go out and teach,” he said.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.