Enough talk about fighting anti-Semitism lets act

In my 40-plus years, I’ve never felt the sting of anti-Semitism. Sure, my friends have jokingly taunted me about my (rather minor and almost endearing, in my mind) Jewish neurotic tendencies and my desire to get everyone eating and drinking within moments of arriving at my home. But it was nothing I couldn’t laugh at, or even play along with. “I’m Jewish and from New York; what do you want?” has been my mantra to explain away a lot of my behavior.

So it was rather ironic that my first experience with anti-Semitism came as I left my Mill Valley house three weeks ago for Berlin to attend a conference on anti-Semitism hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“Where’re you going?” asked the cab driver as we headed for the Marin Airporter bus stop. As I excitedly shared my destination and engaged in some small talk, we began talking about Jews. Increasingly, his remarks began to make me feel more and more uncomfortable. It went beyond discomfort when he said, “You know, sometimes I think it’s justified to hate Jews.”

Justified to hate Jews. I headed off to Germany with those words weighing much heavier than the bulging luggage I’d packed with way too many clothes and shoes.

They haunted me as I sat in the media room in the Foreign Ministry building, where the conference took place, watching the monitor and listening to official after official, statement after statement, acknowledging the increase in anti-Semitic acts and language across Europe and imploring all to, as Nazi death camp survivor Elie Wiesel so passionately stated, “Stop! Stop a disease that has lasted so long.” (Speaking of anti-Semitic language, it’s not just in Europe. Take a look at the hateful dialogue that occurs daily on Craigs List.)

There, and at the workshops that afternoon, I heard speakers talk eloquently about how we must denounce racist acts and language. But they were words I, and all Jews, have heard before. And for the first time I — a non-practicing Jew, a mother of two interfaith boys, a daughter of a Holocaust survivor — got angry.

Angry because there in Berlin, not far from the seat of Hitler’s government and the spot where the Holocaust — in which several of my relatives perished — was planned, I was surrounded by officials from all over the world saying basically the same things that have been said over and over again. This was the fourth conference on anti-Semitism in Europe in the past year.

I don’t want to make light of the conference. It was important for the world to see 55 countries go on record vowing to fight anti-Semitism. And it was especially important to have it in Germany. “Ten years ago, it would have been impossible. We would never have asked to have the conference here,” Claudia Roth, Germany’s commissioner for human rights policy and humanitarian aid, said in an interview with the small group of journalists and human rights activists I traveled with a day after the conference ended. “It is a signal to Germany that our democracy must be dedicated to the fight against anti-Semitism. The conference helps make it clear: never, never again, Auschwitz.”

But I don’t want words anymore. I want action. And although the 55 countries signed a Berlin Declaration, promising to work together to gather and share hate crime statistics, getting hate laws passed and increasing Holocaust education, I can’t help but wonder: Is that all we can do? Is that enough? Isn’t that what we have been doing?

In the library where a workshop on dealing with racism in the media and on the Internet, dozens of volunteers from various organizations stood behind tables that overflowed with brochures, booklets, papers and CD-ROMs filled with facts and figures, graphics and pictures documenting the rise in anti-Semitic acts and language. Haven’t we collected enough statistics?

As a mother I know that, no matter what rewards or punishments I may use to battle my boys’ undesirable behaviors, if the behaviors are still occurring, my methods are not working. Time for a change. Clearly, whatever has been done to fight anti-Semitism isn’t working.

What I wanted to hear from all those officials was, what exactly are they going to do to stop racist language and acts — not only against Jews and Israel, but against all people. How are they going to address the underlying problems — poverty, ignorance — that help breed intolerance and hate before they develop into lifelong beliefs and violent actions? It has to start in the home, in the preschools, on the street.

“I don’t want to be tolerated; I want to be accepted,” one conference speaker said. That simple sentence resonated with me more than most of what was said at the conference. Ultimately, isn’t that what we all want — and deserve?

Vicki Larson is a j. staff writer and was part of an international group on a human rights tour of Germany as guests of the Goethe-Institut and the German Embassy in late April-early May.