Alarm over rising anti-Semitism in Europe

Anti-Semitism is also a problem in Switzerland Keystone

Switzerland has urged fellow European countries to address the reality of rising anti-Semitism at an international conference in Berlin.

This content was published on April 28, 2004

The meeting, hosted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), ended on Thursday with a declaration to combat prejudice.

The Berlin Declaration - signed by some 55 countries present at the meeting - states that "international developments or political issues, including those in Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East, never justify anti-Semitism".

Franz von Däniken, state secretary for foreign affairs, represented Switzerland at the two-day event which grouped around 500 delegates from 55 countries.

He told swissinfo that it was imperative for the international community to face up to the fact that anti-Semitism was on the rise.

“This conference is needed… because anti-Semitic incidents are becoming more frequent… and this is a phenomenon which we are seeing across Europe,” said von Däniken.

“No country is totally excluded from this tendency. In Switzerland we have seen a rise in the number of incidents related to anti-Semitism over the past few years,” he said.

The meeting was held less than a month after a report by the Vienna-based European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia found that incidents of anti-Semitism had increased in Europe - particularly in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain.

The independent watchdog has called on European countries to work together to fight racism.

Hardening attitudes

Alfred Donath, head of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, who also attended the conference, agrees that anti-Semitic attitudes have been hardening.

“Anti-Semitism is reappearing after being in standby mode for 50 years after the Shoah [Holocaust],” said Donath.

“Today it’s practically a universal problem, as the presence of 55 counties at the Berlin conference shows,” he added.

Doris Angst of the Federal Commission against Racism says concerns about anti-Semitism in Switzerland and the rest of western Europe have been heightened by the tensions in the Middle East.

“Maybe what is making people anxious are these new forms of anti-Semitism connected with the Middle East. There are certain immigrant groups speaking out strongly against Jews in general and the Israelis in particular,” Angst told swissinfo.

“This adds to the feeling of insecurity expressed by Jewish people here in Switzerland,” she added.

A report published on Monday by the Jewish-American Anti-Defamation League said there had actually been a decrease in anti-Jewish sentiment in eight out of ten western European countries since 2002.

Combating prejudice

The Berlin conference was organised at the invitation of the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, and included sessions on the roles of government, civil society, education and the media in “combating prejudice and promoting tolerance”.

Von Däniken used the conference to highlight ways in which Switzerland is seeking to tackle the rising tide of anti-Semitism.

“The introduction in the 1990s of anti-racist legislation in our penal code was one of the important decisions we have taken,” he said.

The senior diplomat also points to a decision taken by the Swiss government two years ago to establish a fund for community projects which seek to prevent racism and anti-Semitism.

“We should also include in all this the issue of education, which can play an important role in fighting prejudice,” said von Däniken.

Under fire

Switzerland has come under fire in the past for its handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities has accused Switzerland of bias against Israel, claiming that the government’s stance encourages anti-Semitism.

Von Däniken rejects the accusation: “We have a very clear guiding line, and this is international law.”

“Israel is a member of various conventions and like all other states has to behave according to international – and in particular humanitarian – laws,” he added.

“So when we speak out about possible violations of these laws, we cannot be accused of being either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.”

Role of media

Von Däniken said it was important to discuss how the media can shape or inform public opinion.

“We have to increase awareness that in the public media there can be racist and anti-Semitic expressions... even with relatively objective reporting.”

Last month a study of Switzerland's German-speaking media conducted by researchers at Zurich University found that reporting was generally of an objective and sensitive nature.

But the survey also concluded that the media was often guarded when it came to reporting on the Middle East.


Key facts

The OSCE is made up of 55 countries, including the United States, Canada and European nations.
Switzerland's state secretary for foreign affairs, Franz von Däniken, led the Swiss delegation at this week's OSCE conference on anti-Semitism in Berlin.
Delegates sought to identify ways of combating prejudice and promoting tolerance.

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