NEW YORK – It was a meeting that should never have been called, but on Thursday morning in New York, prominent European ministers and diplomats gathered for the first-ever informal discussion on the rising tide of global anti-Semitism.
The United Nations' first general assembly conference on the scourge of anti-Semitism, called the "longest hatred" by its secretary-general, is an "important moment" in the effort to combat the phenomenon, US President Barack Obama said on Thursday.
"Anti-Semitic attacks like the recent terrorist attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris pose a threat that extends beyond the Jewish community," Obama said in a statement. "They also threaten the values we hold dear – pluralism, diversity, and the freedoms of religion and expression."
In his State of the Union address two days earlier, Obama said that defending Jewish peoples worldwide was a moral imperative for the United States.
"When the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Jews are repressed, the rights and freedoms of other minorities and other sectors are often not far behind," he said on Thursday. "Every nation, every region, and every community must do its part.
"I call on the members of the UN General Assembly," he continued, "to lend their voice to this struggle, and pledge the unwavering support of the United States as we wage this fight together."
Perhaps indicative of how much emphasis the UN places on the topic, the conference was sparsely attended.
Headline speakers included French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who gave an impassioned speech tracing the history of anti-Semitism to its modern roots, touching on everything from blood libels and Christ killings to the present antipathy against Israel, and how all societies could be affected by this vindictiveness.
“In Paris, just a few days ago, we heard once again the infamous cry ‘Death to the Jews’ and cartoonists were killed because of cartooning, police for policing and Jews just for shopping and being Jews,” Lévy said.
“In other capitals in Europe and elsewhere, faulting the Jews is once again becoming the rallying cry of a new order of assassins, unless it is the same but cloaked in new habits.
“This assembly was given the sacred task of preventing those terrible spirits from re-awakening, but they have returned and that is why we are here,” Lévy continued, turning to Israel, he said that the nation of the Jews will never be free from blame.
“Even if Israel was exemplary – a nation of angels – even if they granted the Palestinians a state which is their right, even then, this enigmatic and old hatred would not dissipate one iota,” he said. “When a Jew is struck, humanity falls to the ground. A world without the Jews would not be a world.
This hate against Israel will not dissipate.”
The idea of anti-Semitism as a precursor of all racism and discrimination was a common thread linking the speeches, including Saudi Arabian ambassador Abdullah al-Mouallimi.
Speaking on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Countries he began his speech by condemning “all discrimination, including [that] based on religion or religious beliefs,” and ended his speech by saying, “colonization and occupation fuels anti-Semitism...
occupation is an act of anti-Semitism.
It threatens human rights and human kind.”
This utterance effectively counteracted the message that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon had delivered merely an hour before, in which he stressed that, “grievances about Israeli actions must never be used as an excuse to attack Jews. In the same vein, criticisms of Israeli actions should not be summarily dismissed as anti-Semitism.
This only suppresses dialogue and hinders the search for peace.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, the Anti-Defamation League’s Michael Salberg pointed specifically to this discrepancy as an example of how much work still had to be done. “It is appropriate that the UN, which is the center of the international community, address this issue separately and distinctly – it’s long overdue,” Salberg said. “This idea that anti-Semitism has to be dealt with in the place where it is most needed to be dealt with – in the Arab and Muslim world – is probably greatest challenge that we face.”
Israel’s ambassador Ron Prosor, who revealed that he was about the become a grandfather for the first time, said he was saddened that his granddaughter would be born into a world “still stained by anti-Semitism.”
“Violent anti-Semitism is casting a shadow over Europe,” he said, and called out UN member states for anti-Semitic statements made at the UN. “This summer, disguised as humanitarian concern, delegates have used this podium to commit anti-Semitism, accusing Israel of behaving like Nazis,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter how much you’re angered or frustrated by our conflict.
There is no excuse for statements like that.”
Prosor invoked Israeli writer Amos Oz, who pointed out that in the 1930s, anti-Semites in Europe were calling for the Jews to go to Palestine. “Now they shout ‘Jews out of Palestine.’ They don’t want us to be here, they don’t want us to be there. They don’t want us to be.”
US Ambassador Samantha Power noted that it was historic that the UN was taking the step to hold the conference, but that “government cannot do this alone” – that is, routing anti-Semitism – “ we have to rally civil society partners. Attacks on Jews are attacks on us all.”
French European Affairs Secretary of State Harlem Désir and German Europe Minister Michael Roth spoke and also addressed reporters after the talks about what the future of European security and cooperation might look like, especially in the wake of the attacks in Paris earlier this month. The turned their attention to current laws on hate speech. “We need a new legal framework concerning Internet companies and the diffusion of racist and anti-Semitic speech,” Désir said. “We would like this to be discussed at the global level.”
“Europe is an immigration continent, Germany is an immigration country,” Roth said. “Most of those who have come to Germany have enriched our country... But we still need them to adhere to our European values.”
Michael Gourary, CEO of the Israeli Jewish Congress, told the Post he hoped that the conference would not just be “words, words, words.” He had come to the UN with a clear proposal for how EU states could go about implementing stronger laws, including; a comprehensive definition of anti-Semitism; better regulation of the Internet; not allowing radicalized jihadists who travel to Yemen or Syria or Iraq to come back; and stronger protection for Jewish communities.
“Instead of speaking about what they can do concretely, all the discussion right now is about freedom of speech, and spying versus not-spying,” Gourary said. “But the real main issue is that in Europe there are so many terror attacks directly targeting Jews.”
Thursday afternoon featured a panel discussion with US representative Theodore Deutsch, Canadian MP and former justice minister Prof. Irwin Cotler and the heads of several human rights NGOs.