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Lawmakers discuss rise in anti-Semitism and look at World Conference on Racism with trepidation.
LONDON — Anti-Semitism is on the rise and something must be done to stop it. That was the view of a group of nearly 100 lawmakers from 35 countries who met in London this week for a conference on combating anti-Semitism.
But it was the changing nature of this oldest of hatreds that was really under discussion.
According to Denis MacShane, a British Labour parliamentarian, the xenophobia and anti-Muslim immigrant feeling that has fueled the growth of extreme right-wing parties across Europe has not lessened these groups' reliance on the "old anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish conspiracies to control the world."
It is hard to get a precise handle on just how big a rise there has been in anti-Semitic incidents in Britain.
There is no organization in Europe like the Anti-Defamation League, which has a small army of researchers collating information about Jews in the U.S. According to the Community Security Trust (the closest thing Britain has to an ADL) there were 250 anti-Semitic incidents in December and January, 10 times the number in the same period a year ago.
There was an attempted firebombing of a synagogue, and a Jewish man was dragged out of his car and punched by young Muslims. Some graffiti has been sprayed around the Jewish neighborhood of Golder's Green.
But most of the incidents were of verbal harassment, or involved public figures making odious comparisons between Zionism and Nazism. This is typical. Whenever Israel is involved in major actions against its neighbors, or in Gaza and the West Bank, there is a corresponding jump in attacks on Jewish targets around Europe and a ratcheting up of rhetoric that blurs the distinction between Israeli government actions and the Jewish community in general.
The irony is that there are so few Jews left in Europe for the far right to worry about. Not quite 300,000 live in the United Kingdom, a country of 60 million people, while a little over half a million live in France, a country of about the same size. Those are the largest Jewish communities left on the continent.
"It is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel and express disapproval when it uses white phosphorous bombs," points out MacShane. "But it is anti-Semitic to use language that talks about cabals or conspiracies or to use violent language like 'Kill the Jews.'"
MacShane's interest in organizing against anti-Semitism began because he was concerned about the rise of these right-wing parties. He began working on the issue in the summer of 2005 — long before the Gaza incursion to crush Hamas and even before the attack on Lebanon to root out Hezbollah led to an increase in anti-Semitic incidents around Europe.
But it is not likely that recent incidents of anti-Semitism alone would have brought the parliamentarians to London.
The real reason for the timing of the conference was not so much a dramatic rise in violent anti-Semitism as the approach of the second World Conference on Racism, to be held in Geneva in April. The first such conference, held in Durban, South Africa in 2001, became one of the most notorious get-togethers in the history of human rights activism.
At the conference, Israel was singled out for criticism by Arab and African countries in a way that many impartial observers thought crossed a line into blatant anti-Semitism. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell walked out of the Durban conference.
With "Durban II" approaching, many at the conference in London were there to lobby against European and American participation at Geneva. The conference's final communique urged the international community to “not be witness or party to another gathering like Durban in 2001.”
The Canadian government has already said it would not participate. The British government has given strong indications that it will not if it is not satisfied that the Durban II agenda is fair. The Obama administration has indicated that it will at least be involved in preparatory work for the conference.
Attending Tuesday's conference in London was Florida congressman Alcee Hastings, a Democrat. The congressman acknowledged that U.S. participation in the conference had an "aura of controversy" about it. Many in the U.S. Congress were against participation in any form, but Hastings says that the U.S. should remain engaged in planning for the conference.
The other reason for today's conference is the fear that out in cyberspace a whole new generation and new style of anti-Semitism is being fomented. "The internet is a pernicious place casting a wide net of anti-Semitism and xenophobia," Hastings said. "It will require collective action by governments to say 'Don't put that garbage out there.'"
MacShane agrees, pointing out that notorious anti-Semitic literature, such as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," is easily obtained online.
"There will be no peace in the world while kids are getting this stuff on the web," MacShane said. No one at the conference had any practical ideas for how to deal with the internet being used to spread messages of hate, but MacShane says the legislators need to find one.
"It's better to try and kill the snake before it grows into a dragon," he said.