UNITED NATIONS — Before making his way over to the United Nations headquarters in New York to attend the first-ever General Assembly session on anti-Semitism on Thursday, Rabbi Yaacov Monsonego of Toulouse, France, made a quick stop at Grand Central Terminal. There, he said, he saw something that in its casualness was rather remarkable — Jewish men wearing kippot without a second thought for their safety.
The sight underscored the need to fight rising anti-Semitism around the world, said Monsonego, whose 8-year-old daughter Miriam was killed in a 2012 terrorist attack outside the Ohr Torah School in Toulouse.
Monsonego attended the UN conference as a special guest of the World Jewish Congress.
“Before the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the HyperCacher market, the speeches [by French leaders] against anti-Semitism were sincere but largely symbolic. Now I have no doubt that there will be a conscious effort to do something,” Monsonego told The Times of Israel.
With Israel leading the way, 37 nations called on the UN to respond to the sharp spike in violent anti-Semitism around the world. The UN missions of the US, Canada and those of all 28 members of the European Union partnered with Israel to bring about the informal meeting.
“It says a lot that so many countries have partnered with Israel to raise this issue of anti-Semitism to the top of the UN’s agenda. We have a great deal of work to do to move this issue from the headlines to the history books,” said Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
But because it was an informal meeting, the only action the assembly could take was to issue a joint declaration. So far, more than 40 countries have signed the statement.
“The United Nations must step forward and play a pivotal role in combating anti-Semitism as well as intolerance, discrimination and violence based on religion of belief. It is a moral imperative for this institution to call on governments around the world to promote tolerance and mutual respect in their societies,” according to the statement.
The statement urged all nations to “declare their categorical rejection of anti-Semitism,” strengthen laws to combat discrimination, and prosecute those responsible for anti-Semitic crimes.
“The determination to eradicate the conditions that gave rise to the Holocaust was a guiding principle among the founders of this organization over six decades ago,” their statement said. “Let us rededicate ourselves to that principle and endeavor to eliminate anti-Semitism in all forms.”
Many Jewish groups welcomed the declaration, but want the UN to take more specific action.
“Meetings and speeches aren’t enough. The results of this gathering must be concrete. All states should resolve to crack down on anti-Semitism, and not to allow it to carry on under the guise of debate about Israel,” said Jonathan Sacerdoti, director of communications for the UK-based Campaign Against Antisemitism.
Sacerdoti said governments and law-enforcement organizations must take a zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism.
Governments might consider taking a page from the US State Department, said Michael Salberg, director of international affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. Created in 2004 by Congressional mandate, the Office of the Special Envoy monitors the status of anti-Semitism and safety of Jewish communities in 193 countries.
“It’s on the foreign policy agenda in the US. That should be the case everywhere. That kind of thing would give fragile Jewish communities around the world a sense that their government is protecting them,” Salberg said, adding that the UN’s own history regarding anti-Semitism is checkered.
In 1974, the General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution equating Zionism with racism. While the UN repealed that resolution in 1991, Israel was the only nation in the world singled out for censure in the 2001 World Conference on Racism’s Durban Declaration.
Thursday’s daylong special session was sparsely attended, with more than half of the 193-members’s representatives not showing up.. Still, more than 50 people spoke, including the noted French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy who called anti-Semitism a “radical inhumanity” in his keynote address.
The idea for the meeting took seed after a series of anti-Semitic incidents erupted across Europe early last year, including the shooting deaths of four people outside the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May. It gained momentum this past summer when protests against the Gaza war disintegrated into violence against Jews.
“Rising anti-Semitism is rarely the lone or the last manifestation of intolerance. When the human rights of Jews are repressed, the rights of other religious and ethnic groups are often not far behind,” said US Ambassador Samantha Power at the conference
For his part, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador Abdallah Al-Moualimi took a different tack. Speaking on behalf of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, he linked anti-Semitism with Islamophobia. He also said the situation between Israel and Palestine is “very closely linked to the increase in hate crimes, extremism, and violence and anti-Semitism.”
Power responded that while the United States accepts criticism of policies it rejects “anything that would suggest that there is a justification for anti-Semitism.”
She said it mustn’t be forgotten that Holocaust denial is still commonplace in the Middle East and North Africa “or that there are violent extremist groups who preach a radical form of Islam and believe they are doing God’s work by killing Jews.”
Because of Germany’s historic role in the Holocaust, German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth said his country will always be in the forefront of fighting anti-Semitism and pursuing “a zero-tolerance policy.”
France’s minister of state for Europe Harlem Desire urged the world to act “with the utmost firmness, wherever anti-Semitism rears its head in the world.”
“Without the Jews of Europe, Europe would no longer be Europe,” he warned, echoing a statement made by French PM Manual Valls after the kosher market killings on January 9 that France would no longer be France without French Jews.
Roth and Desire called for a new legal framework at the European Union and internationally to address the diffusion of racist and anti-Semitic speeches and material.
Prior to the meeting, the ADL wrote to 19 countries where anti-Semitic incidents and incitement increased during the summer of 2014, including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Costa Rica, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey and the United Kingdom. The letter urged their heads of delegation to condemn anti-Semitism during their remarks at the conference.
According to the ADL’s 2014 Global Survey, 26 percent of the world’s population holds anti-Semitic views. In France, the survey found that 37 percent of respondents held opinions that were hateful to Jews, as did 27 percent of poll-takers in Belgium and 29 in Spain.
“It would be a big mistake to think that this is just a European problem. This is a global problem. It is a problem in the United States, despite our long and proud history of religious freedom and our thorough efforts to combat anti-Semitism,” Power said.
According to a 2012 Federal Bureau of Investigation report, nearly two-thirds of religious-driven hate crimes in the United States target Jews.
AP contributed to this report.
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