Confronting Anti-Semitism: Education for Tolerance and Understanding

UN Chronicle, June-August 2004 | Go to article overview

Confronting Anti-Semitism: Education for Tolerance and Understanding


It was a day of reflection, introspection and education for tolerance at the first United Nations conference on confronting anti-Semitism, part of a series of seminars on "Unlearning Intolerance" organized by the Department of Public Information (DPI) at UN Headquarters. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in his opening statement: "The fight against anti-Semitism must be our fight, and Jews everywhere must feel that the United Nations is their home too."

Explaining that future seminars would deal with other specific groups against whom intolerance was directed in many parts of the world, including Muslims and migrants, Mr. Annan said that throughout history anti-Semitism had been a unique manifestation of hatred, intolerance and persecution. Its rise was a threat to people everywhere, he added. In fighting it, the world was fighting for the future of all humanity. Fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, noted in his keynote speech that anti-Semitism was the oldest collective bigotry in recorded history and said many in the room knew what the consequences of that had meant. "We were there. We saw our parents, we saw our friends die because of anti-Semitism."

The day-long programme was moderated by UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Shashi Tharoor and Raymond Sommereyns, Director of the Outreach Division, DPI. In the ensuing discussion, academics, educators, civil society leaders and members of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu groups spoke against anti-Semitism and intolerance in general.

The first discussion focused on "Perspectives of Anti-Semitism Today", with panelists Jacob Levy, founder of Gallup, Israel and co-Chairman of Trendum; James H. Charlesworth, George L. Collard Professor of New Testament, Languages and Literature, Princeton Theological Seminary; Melvyn Weiss, Israel Policy Forum, and founding partner, Milberg Weiss; Anne Bayefsky, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute, and Adjunct Professor of Law, Columbia University Law School; and Mark Weitzman, Director, Task Force Against Hate, Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Mr. Levy, whose expertise lay with examining hate on the Internet, said that there was a borderless world on the Internet, where group hatred was becoming a world problem. He noted that the United Nations needed to adopt an anti-hatred index. Mr. Charlesworth said that the evolution of humankind had been marked by a lack of moral advances and a distinct propensity for demonizing those who were different. What was needed was a celebration of difference. He said that the origins of anti-Semitism were complex and not well understood, while they could sometimes be traced to the perception that Jews held themselves separately from other communities and claimed that they alone were God's chosen people. A more sensitive translation of biblical texts was needed, he added.

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Bringing the discussion closer to the United Nations, Ms. Bayefsky said that the relationship between Jews and the United Nations was at an all-time low. The Secretary-General's criticism of Israel's construction of a security barrier on the West Bank and its targeting of Hamas leaders had made no mention of Israeli victims of terrorism. The Seminar could be a turning point if the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution and the Secretary-General appointed a special rapporteur on anti-Semitism. Echoing her views, Mr. Weitzman said that to speak of anti-Semitism at the United Nations gave rise to the hope that the Organization might condemn and even outlaw it.

Mr. Weiss recalled the attacks against the Israeli Embassy and cultural centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina, saying that it had resulted in casualties that were comparable to those of the Oklahoma City bombing in the United States. The international community must join in proclaiming that no international developments or political actions in the Middle East could justify attacks against Jews. …

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