By H. Knox Thames
The United States Helsinki Commission held a hearing May 22, 2002 on the continuing wave of anti-Semitic attacks that has swept across Europe this year. Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) chaired the hearing. Commissioners Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Senator George V. Voinovich (R-OH), and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) also participated.
Testifying before the Commission were Shimon Samuels, Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris; Mark B. Levin, Executive Director of NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia; Alexandra Arriaga, Director of Government Relations for Amnesty International USA; Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Jewish Affairs for the American Jewish Committee; and Kenneth Jacobson, Director of International Affairs Division for the Anti-Defamation League.
Co-Chairman Smith opened the hearing with an urgent appeal to combat increasingly frequent acts of anti-Semitism – including synagogue fire bombings, mob assaults, desecration of cultural property and armed attacks. He detailed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s strong position on anti-Semitism, but voiced dismay that some participating States have not taken appropriate measures to combat acts of violence and incitement.
“Anti-Semitism is not necessarily based on the hatred of the Judaic faith, but on the Jewish people themselves,” Smith said. “Consequently, the resurfacing of these . . . acts of violence is something that cannot be ignored by our European friends or the United States.”
In a submitted statement, Chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell stated, “The anti-Semitic violence spreading throughout the OSCE region gives cause for deep concern for its scope and viciousness.” Senator Campbell insisted “no longer can these acts of intolerance and violence be viewed as separate occurrences.... [Such] manifestations of anti-Semitism must not be tolerated, period, regardless of the source.”
Senator Voinovich expressed consternation over the increasing number of attacks in Europe. He stated he was “saddened and deeply disturbed by reports of anti-Semitism that have taken place recently in some of the world’s strongest democracies: France, Germany, Belgium.” Senator Voinovich added, “Many of Europe’s synagogues have become targets of arson and Molotov cocktails.”
Senator Clinton added, anti-Semitism “is something for which all of us have to not only be vigilant but prepared to take action.” She urged President Bush to raise the issue during his planned trip to Europe, and expressed hope that the OSCE commitments undertaken by European governments, in reference to anti-Semitism, would be “followed up by action.”
Rep. Cardin, in his opening statement, hoped the hearing would “remind OSCE participating States that they have pledged to unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism and take effective measures to both prosecute those committing such hate crimes and to protect individuals from anti-Semitic violence.” Rep. Cardin also expressed his disappointment that European governments had not taken a more aggressive stand.
Dr. Samuels presented chilling testimony on the extent of anti-Semitic attacks in Europe and the failure of European governments and the international community to respond effectively. “Every Jewish building in Paris requires protection,” Samuels testified, reading from a January 16, 2002 Le Monde article. “Any child leaving school may be beaten because he is Jewish, only because he is a Jew.”
Among the hundreds of attacks in France just this year, Samuels cited several compelling stories: An eight-year-old girl was wounded by a bullet when a Jewish school bus came under fire in suburban Paris. A rabbi’s car was defaced by graffiti that read “Death to the Jews.” Rather than documenting these incidents as anti-Semitic violence, the French Government identified them as a broken windshield and an act of vandalism, respectively. In effect, there exists what Dr. Samuels called a “black box of denial.” The perpetrators often go unpunished.
Mr. Levin addressed anti-Semitism in the former Soviet states, urging appropriate criticism of countries’ shortcomings and recognition of their successes when it comes to combating anti-Semitism. Enforcing existing laws, using the bully pulpit, outreach to the general public, furthering understanding through education, and encouraging a role for religious leaders are all important steps, Levin testified. He concluded, “It is our hope and it is our expectation that when President Bush meets with President Putin in Moscow. . . he will carry this message.”
Ms. Arriaga testified that Amnesty International strongly condemns the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks. “These acts are violations of the most fundamental human rights committed on the basis of an individual’s religion or identity,” she said. Ms. Arriaga made two recommendations. One, President Bush should raise issues of law enforcement accountability and other steps toward combating racist and anti-Semitic attitudes with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the late-May U.S.-Russia summit. Two, Congress should consider lifting the Jackson-Vanik amendment as a means of leveraging discussions.
Rabbi Baker made a compelling statement that further highlighted the severity of anti-Semitism. Like Samuels, Baker outlined three sources of hatred that have converged to create the situation in which Europe now finds itself. They include radicalized Muslims, incited by the scathing coverage of Israel in the Arabic press; the surge in popularity of Europe’s far right wing; and a growing hatred of Israel on Europe’s left wing.
“The image of an Israeli who is frequently portrayed as an aggressive violator of human rights is quickly conflated with the Jew,” Baker testified. Taking this one step further, Baker continued, cartoonists have depicted Israeli leaders with gross physical exaggerations just as the Nazis depicted the Jewish “villain.” Baker observed the need for U.S. political leaders to approach European leaders “in measured and sober tones.” Concluding his testimony, Baker acknowledged that the U.S. has been European Jewry’s strongest ally in the fight against anti-Semitism.
Mr. Jacobson’s testimony framed the issue of anti-Semitism as a national security matter for the United States. Anti-American and anti-Jewish sentiments often go hand-in-hand, he said. Typically, this sort of hatred spreads from one region in the Middle East to another in Europe, in large part, because of anti-Jewish invective spewed by Al Jazeera television, anti-Israel media coverage in France, and trans-ideological Internet propaganda.
Appealing for action, Jacobson recommended that Congress and the OSCE work to place this issue on the international diplomatic agenda. He also suggested the international community convene a conference on anti-Semitism. Finally, anti-bias education can help combat anti-Semitism, Jacobson said.
Commissioners pledged to raise the issue of anti-Semitism at the upcoming OSCE Berlin Parliamentary Assembly meeting in early July. Among the initiatives discussed was the introduction of a free-standing resolution on anti-Semitic violence in the OSCE region for consideration in Berlin.
An un-official transcript of the hearing and written statements submitted by Members and witnesses can be found on the Helsinki Commission’s Internet web site.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives, and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.
Helsinki Commission intern Derek N. Politzer contributed to this article.