Guests said to include a 'sizable representation' from the Muslim world

Amid controversy, Foreign Ministry kicks off anti-Semitism conference

Critics bash forum for hosting top officials from Hungary, Greece, Lithuania and Ireland — countries with ‘tainted records’ — on battling Jew hatred

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

An Egyptian man chants anti-Israeli slogans during a Muslim Brotherhood-staged anti-Israel rally in Cairo, May 11 (photo credit: Khalil Hamra/AP)
An Egyptian man chants anti-Israeli slogans during a Muslim Brotherhood-staged anti-Israel rally in Cairo, May 11 (photo credit: Khalil Hamra/AP)

Early Sunday morning, a 26-year-old German called the police and said he was insulted and beaten up outside a Berlin discotheque because he is Jewish. The alleged victim was wearing a T-shirt with a “pro-Israeli” slogan printed on it when three men, who apparently overheard conversations in which he revealed his Jewishness, started to attack him before disappearing into the night, according to local reports.

This incident, which wasn’t reported in the Israeli press, is just one example of what the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem means when it laments the “continuing rise of anti-Semitic incidents around the world.”

To help facilitate the worldwide fight against Jew hatred, the Foreign Ministry and the newly created Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, led by Naftali Bennett, are hosting some of the foremost anti-Semitism experts for a three-day conference starting in the capital on Tuesday.

Israel stands “at the forefront” of the fight against anti-Semitism “in all its manifestations,” Bennett and Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin wrote in the forward to the event’s program.

But it’s not all that simple. In the run-up to the 4th Conference of the Global Forum for Combating anti-Semitism, the lineup of speakers sparked controversy, with some experts bashing organizers for inviting dignitaries from countries with questionable records on the fight against anti-Jewish activity.

More than 500 delegates, from over 50 countries and representing six religions, gathered in Jerusalem, with the declared goal to “develop a specific and proactive plan of response” to increasing anti-Semitism, according to organizers.

Anti-Jewish sentiment — and violence — is on the rise globally, according to the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report published by the US government. “Even well into the 21st century, traditional forms of anti-Semitism, such as conspiracy theories, use of the discredited myth of ‘blood libel,’ and cartoons demonizing Jews, continued to flourish,” the report states.

“The time for simply monitoring and discussing the growth of anti-Semitism is over,” said Gideon Behar, the director of the Foreign Ministry’s department for Holocaust remembrance and combating Jew hatred, who chairs this week’s conference. “Now we need to come together to determine what actions need to be taken to counter this alarming trend and to move quickly forward with their execution.”

‘Hungary, Lithuania, Greece and Ireland have tainted records when it comes to the current struggle against anti-Semitism… Is this the best that the Israeli Foreign Ministry can do?’

Anti-Semitism in Arab countries will be a special focus of the program, organizers said, adding that a “sizable representation is expected from the Muslim world.”

Ten working groups will attempt to “develop a work plan to combat anti-Semitism including anti-Semitism on the Internet and in Social Media; in the Muslim and Arab world and on university campuses,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Key speakers include Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Neris Germanas; Greek Deputy Justice Minister Konstantinos Karagounis; Hungarian Deputy Justice Minister of Hungary Bence Retvari and the chairman of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, Mario Silva. Irish Justice Minister Alan Shatter was originally scheduled to attend as well but he had to cancel on short notice to attend to urgent parliamentary matters.

The fact that many of the conference’s top speakers represent countries that, according to critics, don’t have a good-enough record fighting anti-Semitism or have problematic policies vis-à-vis Israel sparked controversy weeks before its opening ceremony.

Simon Wiesenthal Center's Efraim Zuroff. (Photo credit: JTA via Creative Commons)
Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Efraim Zuroff. (Photo credit: JTA via Creative Commons)

“The opportunity to address the conference by visiting dignitaries should be a prize given to people who are leading the fight against anti-Semitism, and not to individuals representing countries in which the problem is among the worst in Europe, if not the worst,” Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, told The Times of Israel last month, kicking off a storm of debate surrounding the conference. “I don’t think it is a wise idea to give representatives of those countries a platform to try to whitewash the sins of the past, which will only pave the way for worse sins in the future.”

Responding to Zuroff’s allegations, a senior Greek government official accused him of having targeted her country unfairly for years. His “bitter statements make me feel sad, particularly if someone knows and live[s] the Greek reality every day, as I do and of course some other thousand and millions [of] Greeks,” Photini Tomai-Constantopoulou, Athens’ special envoy for Holocaust issues, wrote in an online forum discussing criticism of the conference. “A reality that so strongly differs from what Mr Zuroff relentlessly during a number of years tries unsuccessfully to reconstruct.”

But Zuroff isn’t the only one to find fault with the conference’s line-up. Hungary, Lithuania, Greece and Ireland all have “tainted records (to say the least) when it comes to the current struggle against anti-Semitism,” leading anti-Semitism scholar Robert Wistrich, of the Hebrew University, wrote in a newspaper column last week. “And so I wonder: Is this the best that the Israeli Foreign Ministry can do?”

The ministry’s spokesman, Yigal Palmor, dismissed the criticism, saying all speakers at the conference are very relevant to its subject matter.

“The point of the conference is to discuss the phenomenon of anti-Semitism not in any abstract manner, but in its realized manifestation and in the concrete efforts of fighting it,” Palmor told The Times of Israel in April. “As for the assessment of the quality of diplomatic relations with Israel, I believe the Foreign Ministry is a better judge of that. There are many good reasons to hold this Global Forum exactly the way it is.”

A member of the steering committee for this week’s conference, Andre Oboler, likewise rejected the notion that the celebrity speakers’ origins taint the entire conference.

“The Global Forum conference will not be a talking shop for VIPs, it will be a gathering of experts, community leaders, law makers and diplomats,” Oboler wrote in a blog post. “The core work will not take place in plenary sessions, but rather in 10 topic specific working groups. These working groups are all chaired by leading international experts in each groups chosen topic.”

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