A number of attendees at The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s 10th anniversary conference on anti-Semitism in Berlin last week looked quizzically at me when I said that I was with the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality.
I could see them trying to figure out what an LGBT activist was doing at this particular conference.
But really, the answer is very simple. As Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which organized a delegation of prominent US civil rights leaders to the conference, put it, “anti-Semitism is a direct assault on democracy, and we all share the responsibility to fight it – as indeed, we all share the responsibility to confront Islamophobia, racism, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, sexism and other forms of hate.”
Anti-Semitism is not a “Jewish problem” – rather, like most other forms of hate, it is a sign, or a symptom, of much deeper societal problems. As US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said in her keynote address to the assembly, “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. Unique as the horrors experienced by Jews in Europe are, and as essential as it is to give the Jewish community special vigilance, we must constantly situate our efforts to defend the human rights of the Jewish people within the struggle to advance universal human rights more broadly.”
The victims of those hatreds should not have to bear the responsibility alone for eradicating them – that should be a shared responsibility among us.
And so it was that this unprecedented delegation from the US stood out at the conference for its diversity and its inclusion. There were representatives from the African- American, Muslim, Asian, Latino, Sikh, LGBT and women’s communities, standing together in coalition against this particular pernicious and destructive form of hate that is seeing a current resurgence in the heart of Europe, in the countries where the Holocaust ended just seven decades ago.
Over the past few months, countries like France, Britain, Belgium and Germany itself have all suffered dramatic attacks on Jewish institutions, resulting in loss of life, loss of security and a certain amount of questioning about the future of Jews in Europe.
Echoes of the past come flooding back, even as new forms of anti-Semitism, much of it in the form of criticism and rejection of Israel, take hold.
Sadly though, our delegation was unique at the conference.
Not only was the US one of the few countries represented at the cabinet level, but no other civil society delegation formally included representatives from other discriminated-against groups, or other victim groups of the Holocaust.
But working in coalition is part of the American experience.
The US civil rights movement that has been in the forefront of this country’s seismic changes of the 20th century has always been based on the principles that the struggles for freedom from discrimination, and for equality and justice, are shared struggles, and that our society is stronger when these rights have been won.
The presence of a broad civil rights delegation from the US sent two powerful messages.
The first is that all those who are discriminated against for who they are will stand together in the face of all hatreds, and the second is the important acknowledgment that LGBT rights are accepted and integral to the contemporary mainstream human and civil rights movement.
One of the most important lessons I learned from my years of working at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is that anti-Semites often also hate others who are not like them. So when, one day in June 2009, a man armed with a rifle drove up to the Holocaust Museum with the express intent of doing harm to Jews, it turned out that not only was he an avowed anti-Semite, but hated and despised African Americans and the LGBT community as well. And while the Nazis singled out the Jews for extermination, they of course also targeted homosexuals, other religious minorities, the Roma and Sinti, the disabled and their political opponents.
And it turns out that standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies not only feels like the right thing to do, but is also practically and strategically the best way to confront the problem of hate in our societies. When Matthew Shepard was attacked by young homophobes and left to die on a fence in Wyoming some 16 years ago, his death was mourned not only by the LGBT community, but by people of conscience throughout the country. And the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 was pushed through Congress by a broad coalition of people who saw the opportunity to broaden civil and human rights protections, not just for the LGBT community, but for everyone.
Coming together on a rainy November 10 in Berlin, just one day after the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the anniversary of Kristallnacht – the long night in 1938 during which the Nazis assaulted Jews and their homes, their places of worship and their businesses, and hauled off more than 30,000 to concentration camps – the hundreds of people gathered to address the pressing problem of anti-Semitism today could not help but notice our large, diverse contingent from the United States. We stood together, strengthened by our differences, ready to speak out for the rights of all people, whoever they may be.The author is deputy director of HRC Global, and recently returned from Berlin as part of the US’s delegation to the OSCE’s 10th anniversary anti-Semitism conference. She was there as part of a wide coalition of civil rights activists.