By Dr. Mischa Thompson, senior policy advisor
and Erika Schlager, counsel for international law
From February 5-6, 2019, Slovakia, the 2019 OSCE Chair-in-Office, convened government officials and civil society representatives in Bratislava to discuss best practices to combat anti-Semitism in the OSCE region. The event followed the 2018 Italian Chairmanship’s conference in Rome and took place shortly after International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27).
The OSCE Chair-in-Office, Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcik, opened the meeting, which was Slovakia’s first event of the year. Senator Ben Cardin, who serves as the OSCE Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, participated by video and shared his most recent report prepared for the OSCE PA. U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia Adam Sterling represented the United States at the conference opening.
We are witnessing today a growth in anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric across Europe and North America, not just on the fringes, but by political leaders who are fostering a permissive environment of hate. Today’s conference is a timely call to action… As leaders, I ask that you join me today in working across the OSCE community to ensure that all people in our borders are able to live and worship in safety and dignity. I also call on you to act by adopting a Plan of Action to Address Violence and Discrimination across the OSCE region so that we can win this fight.
Sen. Ben Cardin, OSCE PA Special Representative
On the opening day of the conference, the White House announced the appointment of Elan S. Carr as the United States Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Many members of the Helsinki Commission, including Chairman Alcee L. Hastings, had urged the president to fill this Congressionally mandated position.
As part of his first official trip, Carr participated in the Bratislava conference, where he met with representatives of civil society in his new capacity and held consultations with OSCE officials.
Conference Follows Deadliest Anti-Semitic Attack in U.S. History
For a second year in a row, an OSCE conference on anti-Semitism convened in the months following a deadly attack, fueled by anti-Semitism and extremism, in the United States. Just as the August 2017 events in Charlottesville were present in the minds of those gathering in Rome in January 2018, the memory of Jewish worshippers massacred at the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 27, 2018, where 11 people were murdered and several others wounded, underpinned every moment of the Bratislava conference.
A January 29, 2019, indictment of the alleged shooter specifically asserts that he “willfully caused bodily injury to 11 deceased and 2 surviving victims because of their actual and perceived religion.” The charges illustrate the relationship between “ordinary” criminal acts such as murder, targeting individuals because of their identity, and other criminal violations of civil rights (in this case, obstruction of the free exercise of religious beliefs).
“Last October, in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, a gunman killed eleven Jews as they gathered for services at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. As the White House stated: ‘This atrocity was chilling act of mass murder. It was an act of hatred. Above all, it was an act of evil. … We all have a duty to confront anti-Semitism in all its forms everywhere and anywhere it appears.’”
U.S. Ambassador Adam Sterling
Government Officials Pledge to Continue OSCE Efforts
The first day of the conference featured OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) Director Ingiborg Gisladottir, World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer, and President of the Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Slovakia Igor Rintel.
Rabbi Andrew Baker, the Chair-in-Office’s Personal Representative on Combating Anti-Semitism, reviewed progress that had been made in combating anti-Semitism over the past 15 years. Nevertheless, he observed that recent surveys indicate “[s]ignificant numbers of Jews have witnessed or experienced anti-Semitic attacks. Over a third are reluctant to wear anything in public that would identify them as being Jewish. A similar percentage will even avoid attending Jewish events for fear of an anti-Semitic encounter.”
While asserting that, “[w]e can claim credit that through these years the OSCE has been in the forefront of the struggle,” he also observed that the “general climate has worsened, with growing racist and populist movements, a coarsening of public discourse in the easy ability of social media to amplify anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance.”
Government representatives reflected on the problem of anti-Semitism in their own countries, with some presenting rather favorable pictures. Many speakers during the conference noted the importance the definition of anti-Semitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (adopted in May 2016); several government officials reported how their countries are implementing the definition in practice.
Four other panels focused on security of Jewish communities and individuals; the role of education in addressing anti-Semitism and promoting Holocaust remembrance initiatives; the role of media and social media; and the role of civil society and coalition building to address anti-Semitism and all forms of intolerance and discrimination.
Dr. Mischa E. Thompson, Helsinki Commission Senior Policy Advisor,
speaking at the conference on media and social media.
Christina Finch, the head of Head of ODIHR’s Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department, reported on the completion of ODIHR’s unprecedented multi-year project, “Turning Words into to Action to Address Anti-Semitism.” Grounded in the 2014 Basel Ministerial Declaration and funded by the German government, the project focused on security, education, and coalition building. She outlined additional steps ODIHR is taking to help participating States implement the Security Guide developed as part of the “Words Into Action” project and the upcoming roll-out of an on-line Hate Incident Reporting Platform.
Hungary in Focus
During the conference, remarks by Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl and Hungarian State Secretary Szabolc Takacs were notable for their broad negative portrayals of Muslims, refugees, and migrants as a source of anti-Semitism.
One civil society speaker subsequently noted, “It gave me great unease that at a conference on anti-Semitism, far-right backed politicians are able to have a stage, to have a platform, to put forward highly Islamophobic content. It gave me great unease that speakers from countries that have a terrible record with their Jewish communities, where Jewish communities face some of the most complicated struggles today, are able to say ‘everything is okay in my country.’ I was very happy that . . . our panel called out Hungary as a place where we have seen recently a lot of conspiracy theories, a lot of this very tactical rhetoric that without being blatantly anti-Semitic still manages to put anti-Semitic messages out there.”
State Secretary Takacs also warned of the threat from extremist parties such as Jobbik, Hungary’s own far-right party. In fact, Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, generally has remained silent in the face of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma messages from Jobbik, implemented parts of Jobbik’s political program (including the adoption of the 2017 anti-NGO law), and amplified Fidesz’s own most notorious anti-Semitic and anti-Roma propagandist.