Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein,
Head of the Delegation of Israel to the
OSCE Conference on Antisemitism
Vienna, June 19, 2003
It is with a deep sense of solemnity that I speak here today as the Attorney General of the State of Israel, the ancient and renewed homeland of the Jewish people, the only Jewish state. But in truth, on a personal basis, I am here as a result of providence, for my presence here is due to the fact that my father was almost the only member of his family to survive the Shoah – the Holocaust. His parents and his two sisters were shot in 1942 into a mass grave in their little town in Byelorus, with all their relatives and neighbors; his brother was killed in combat as a Red Army soldier. This awareness has been with me since my youth and continues to inform my very being (as well as my that of my wife, whose entire family from warsaw perished in Treblinka).
It should therefore come as no surprise that the issue of antisemitism has been for me, both personally and as a servant of my country, a national concern of the first order. Sixteen years ago I suggested to our government that a forum for monitoring antisemitic phenomena the world over be established. It was apparent, even then, that antisemitism had once again raised its ugly head, after being dormant for a while in the wake of the murder of six million Jews in the Shoah. We have been monitoring it ever since.
This conference is timely and its initiators and organizers should be warmly commended. The conference symbolizes an honest approach namely, that antisemitism should be a cause of concern not only to Jews in Jewish organizations of great importance over here – but to every decent human being. As Pehr Ahlmark, the Swedish political thinker said, "Not only the victims should worry about antisemitsm." Antisemitism in Europe was a mode of persecution of Jews for thousands of years, culminating in the Holocaust – it should worry every honest country.
We meet here, in Vienna, a city which witnessed flourishing Jewish life, but also vicious antisemitism; Jewish history here is a mirror of the story in its entirety. Jews lived here since the 12th century, were expelled time and again, but became 9% of the city’s population in the 20th century until the Nazis took over. Personalities like Werfel, Freud, Adler, Mahler, Schoenberg, Theodor Herzl – founder of modern Zionism – lived and worked here. But there was also the infamous antisemitic Mayor Lueger in 1897-1910: and when the Holocaust came, 60,000 of the city’s Jews were murdered during the Shoah period. We are conferring six decades after the murderous drive which engulfed Europe, six decades after the annihilation of one third of the world’s Jewish population, and yes – six decades after the heroic rebellion of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. We meet here to discuss, of all things, antisemitism. And I ask, judging by current events, have the people forgotten everything and learned nothing?!
I wish this conference would not be needed, but it is, it is badly needed.
Jewish history has for thousands of years been marked by high points as well as by tragedy. During the traditional seder meal on the evening of Passover we recite the sentence: "B’khol dor va-dor omdim alenu l’khaloteinu. In every generation there are those who rise up to destroy us – (and God Almighty saves us)." In our naivite born of optimism we thought that this generation, still in the shadow of the Shoah, would be different in its relation to antisemitism. Unfortunately, this has not been the case, but this gathering could be a touchstone for making a difference. This is the challenge before us:
How to fight antisemitism. How to ensure that it is universally recognized as shameful. How to make sure that it is consigned to the gutter, where it belongs.
For the last two and a half years there has been a highly disturbing rise in antisemitic activity, as Jews and Jewish institutions have been the targets of hateful acts and violence. According to the Steven Roth Institute for the Study of Antisemitism and Racism at Tel-Aviv University:
"Most antisemitic violence in 2002 took place in Western Europe, with 31 attacks (out of 56 recorded worldwide) and no fewer than 147 violent incidents (out of 255 worldwide). Most of the attacks in Western Europe took place in Belgium and France (25 out of 31), while violent incidents amounted to 96 cases in these two countries and the U.K." (Antisemitism Worldwide 2002/3)
I have quoted these statistics not to accuse any particular state but rather to draw attention to the gravity of the problem and thereby point towards a plan of action.
In the ancient Jewish text Pirkei Avot – "The Ethics of the Fathers", it is stated: "Hevei mitpallel bishlomah shel malkhut, she-ilmalei moraah ish et reihu haim ballahu." "Pray for the welfare of the government, for in its absence men would swallow each other alive." This maxim is as true today as it was 2000 years ago. The best and most effective way to combat antisemitism is for governments to do their duty, that is to maintain civil order and the personal security of those under their jurisdiction. The problem of antisemitism and of intolerance in general, must be confronted as a plague on the very fabric of a free and democratic society. You cannot be a decent government and not fight antisemitism.
It will not do to classify assaults on Jews, synagogues or Jewish communal institutions as mere hooliganism and vandalism, thereby minimizing the issue. Neither will it do to excuse antisemitic rhetoric and violence under the guise of freedom of speech, which has also happened.
History shows that antisemitism is not only a problem for the Jews, it is ultimately a danger to any society which tolerates it. societies which excuse antisemitism will be forced to confront other forms of racism and xenophobia.
Prejudice, of any kind, is a cancer. Just as in medical terms, a patient cannot have a "touch" of cancer so too society cannot have a "touch" of prejudice. Just as physicians fight cancer in its entirety, so too we must fight antisemitism and other forms of racism and prejudice. Just as cancer treatment must involve a follow-up plan, so it is with antisemitism.
There are three major areas in which the fight should take place. First, political and diplomatic efforts. Every antisemitic phenomenon should be condemned by governments and their leaders, to make antisemites pariahs – unwelcome anywhere.
Second, the legal area: It is imperative for those states assembled at this conference to bolster and enforce laws regarding ‘hate speech’. Hatred directed at any group cannot be protected. it is time to consider, in the light of recent events, whether antisemitism should be specifically designated in hate speech laws as being a criminal offence whenever it is not.
The legislative and law enforcement branches of government are vital. Parliaments must enact legislation, law enforcement organs must investigate and prosecute offenders and the courts must adjudicate these matters effectively and sentence the perpetrators seriously.
However, an appropriate strategy to combat antisemitism and all forms of intolerance must aim at the eradication of the breeding grounds of such aberrations. This is the third point – education. We need to focus on the next generation, to make sure that a constant effort is made by the education systems of the various states to teach tolerance and the acceptance of the other. It is important that the next generation be exposed to the results of antisemitism and intolerance on the European continent during the years 1939-1945, the period of the Shoah, as well as during other periods. A young person should not leave school without a basic knowledge of it. I am pleased to know that many European states are moving in this direction. The Living History Project initiated by Prime Minister Persson of Sweden some years ago should be highly commended. The work of the Task Force for International Cooperation on the Rememberance of the Holocaust is another extremely important project. These efforts should be encouraged and those countries that have not yet joined in these efforts should do so without delay.
We are disturbed however, that even as we agree upon the need to learn from the catastrophe that befell the Jews of Europe during the Shoah, we still encounter various forms of Holocaust denial. A number of states have taken decisive legislative steps to thwart the Holocaust deniers; in other countries court cases have been successfully prosecuted. Because it is such a dramatic and traumatic event in our history, you can readily understand my government’s deep surprise and dismay last week at the statement of a minister of the government of Romania that "there was no Holocaust inside Romanian borders between the years 1940-1945." The fact is that the government of Romania, at that time, its police and army bear direct responsibility for the murder of a large number of Jews, among which were 240,000 Romanian citizens. While the government of Romania has now taken steps to rectify this unfortunate statement (including the romanian representative’s statement today – which we appreciate), this incident shows how vigilant we must be. We cannot take for granted that the lessons of the past have been properly learned and passed on.
This brings me to my final and very painful point. It has unfortunately become in vogue, among the "chattering classes", to speak about, excuse and even understand "anti-Zionism". This is the new antisemitism, which is basically anti-Israel, covered by a guise. As if this phenomenon is somehow divorced from the issue at hand. To justify antisemitic phenomena by presenting them as anti-Zionism is to present the same ugly ideology with fresh makeup.
Classical antisemitism sought to deprive the Jew, as an individual, of his place in society. The current recourse to anti-Zionism is an attempt to deny the Jewish people its place among the family of nations. As such it is merely an amplification of the most ancient and persistent form of hatred in human history, that which is directed at the Jewish people.
Last year I witnessed a poignant example of the effects of this recurring hatred. A friend of ours lost her 22-year-old niece, Michal Franklin, in one of the suicide terrorist attacks in Jerusalem almost a year ago. When visiting the family, I could not help but notice the Auschwitz concentration camp number tatooed on the arm of the victim’s grandmother. She had lost both of her parents at age 15 in the Holocaust and her granddaughter in a terrorist attack. This scene continues to haunt me – the great-grandparents and their great-granddaughter, both victims of murderous antisemitism. When a relative of ours died a year ago in Jerusalem, I saw in the hospital, the Auschwitz number on his arm. I said to my wife, another witness is passing away.
Antisemitism, as odious as it may be, is not a mystical or metaphysical phenomenon. It is a practical, ugly, problem and as such it must be confronted in a practical manner. This OSCE Conference on Antisemitism should be a milestone and a call to arms. Let us remember the immortal words of Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing!" Let us do what is needed.
This conference should, in my view, be the beginning of a process. If it is a two-day event, it will serve a very limited purpose. The conference should establish a monitoring forum which will meet up on a regular basis to follow up on the work of the conference, to prepare a plan of action and to encourage steps to be taken by the member and observer states and organizations. Such conferences should continue periodically. The idea of a conference in berlin is a good suggestion. and our country will readily participate in all such fora. Let this conference be the beginning of a new era of persistence and determination.