JBI Director Felice Gaer Addresses UN Conference on Anti-Semitism

JBI Director Felice Gaer Addresses UN Conference on Anti-Semitism

June 21, 2004

Unlearning Intolerance
Antisemitic Incidents Are Not Hooliganism -
They Are Human Rights Abuse

The United Nations Should Address Them As Such

Remarks of
Felice D. Gaer,
Director, Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights

of the American Jewish Committee

United Nations Conference on Antisemitism

June 21, 2004

More than 59 years ago, in the wake of the worst war the world has ever known, after the Holocaust which brought the genocide murder of six million Jews, a million of whom were children not yet in their teens -- the United Nations was created. In San Francisco, it was agreed that human rights would be one of the new body's four purposes, and a Commission on Human Rights was required. Non-governmental organizations pressed hard to ensure that this world organization would be different from its predecessor, the League of Nations. The rights of the individual would be guaranteed. Non-discrimination was affirmed and the word went forth: Your rights are human rights, and human rights are universal.

Slowly and surely the concept that human rights applied to everybody took hold. It was whispered in the GULAGS and passed from hand to shackled hand in the jails where men and women were thrown for the simple crime of seeking freedom. It was borne on the winds of short wave radios and floated on a tide of forbidden books and tapes. Men heard it. Women heard it. And children heard it. And in the end, those words went everywhere: Your rights are human rights and human rights are universal. It was a glorious and empowering concept. It has transformed the global moral climate. But implementing these human rights has had a checkered history.

Words are only words. They can be measured by actions, and by whether they protect and empower individuals from abuse.

Antisemitism is an abuse with historic dimensions, both ancient and pernicious. The UN was founded to look forward, not backward: "To save succeeding generations" and "to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and the worth of the human person..." Intolerance had no place in this institution, or in the future it is building. In fact, the fight against antisemitism as manifested in the Holocaust gave wings to the modern international human rights movement. Yet intolerance has remained, has grown and has spread. Sadly, antisemitism has been shunted to the margins of the UN's human rights programs: the concept is little studied and rarely mentioned by UN specialists.

Throughout the ages, antisemitic policies have sought to push Jews to the margins of society – through discriminatory restrictions on their own religious observance, education, jobs, political participation, residence, and other human rights. Tragically, there has been a steady stream of expulsions and murder, too long to describe here. Antisemitism has taken many forms: religious, racial, economic, political. What persists is its exclusionary and often delusional elements.

A human rights approach seeks to change all that: to promote inclusion, equality, participation and most of all, respect for the human rights and dignity of every individual, regardless of religion, race, sex, political opinion, etc.

We have come together today at the United Nations to discuss a way of "unlearning intolerance," first of all by addressing the scourge of antisemitism.

Since 2001, the number of antisemitic incidents in the world has spiked, dangerously. Yet as this was happening it was common for leaders to deny that these incidents were antisemitic at all – they were dismissed as youngsters playing pranks in Russia or as a problem of minority immigrants in France. But this was simply denial -- antisemitic incidents are not hooliganism, they are human rights abuses.

Attacks against members of a particular community and their communal institutions (religious, charitable, etc.) are a human rights concern. The promotion of hate and incitement to violence against them is a human rights concern. The retention and repetition of pernicious stereotypes is a human rights concern – one that must be "unlearned" as this conference suggests. These issues certainly should be the concern of the human rights bodies and mechanisms of the United Nations. Sadly, those bodies have received information on antisemitism, but not sought it out. In response, there have been efforts to explicitly include antisemitism in the mandates of relevant human rights mechanisms, such as the special rapporteur on contemporary racial discrimination. Too often, this mandate is met with a minimal response: publishing excerpts from the reports of others on antisemitic incidents, without seeking information, or analyzing the findings. Such minimal acts diminish the human rights mechanisms of the United Nations.

It will not be easy to "unlearn" the antisemitism that has been "pounded into" the hearts and minds of so many young people over the generations, as a European official recently described it to me. But one part of this equation must include learning how better to protect the human rights of everyone –as the Universal Declaration reminds us – and that "everyone" includes Jews too. It is time for the mechanisms of the United Nations to address antisemitism seriously.

Before the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998, the Secretary General urged that the occasion was a time for member states, inter alia, "to denounce antisemitism in all of its forms." That occasion has not yet come and it should. States do not need to wait for consensus to make their positions known: they can do this one by one. They could come to this meeting, or, for that matter, to a meeting of the General Assembly, and state their views on this subject. Recently, in Berlin, 55 states did so. Perhaps they will reiterate those views here at the UN? Perhaps they will speak out in their own parliaments on the subject? And perhaps they will make the instruments of human rights protection, at the national, regional, and at the international level, work to protect Jews from antisemitic manifestations. I urge them today to speak out clearly and urgently on this subject.

Human Rights instruments proscribe antisemitism:

Major human rights issues are at stake. Indeed, their very credibility as universal instruments and principles are at stake.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that everyone is born free and equal in rights, and that "everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms" set forth in it – on a non-discriminatory basis, regardless of race, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, language, or sex. [This clearly includes Jews, however one defines or classifies them.] The term "everyone" should be clear: everyone means everyone. It may not be limited by states or individuals. Indeed, the revelations of unbridled discrimination of Jews during the Holocaust, and how this led to deliberate mass murder amounting to genocide in large part motivated the drafting of the Declaration. The Declaration recalls that "disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind..." The Declaration provides an equal protection clause (art 7) and proclaims that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (art 18). Freedom of expression, association, and other rights are affirmed. Finally, the Declaration concludes that "Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any state, group or person to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein." The legislative history of this article shows the framers specifically intended this to prohibit the actions of Nazi and other hate-based groups from aiming to destroy the rights of Jews, blacks, or others.

Other international human rights treaties entrenched in law the principles of the Universal Declaration, and the obligation of states that ratify them to ensure the rights are effective, and that remedies are in place to ensure this. Freedom of religion, equal protection before the law, non-discrimination, protection of religious minorities (who shall not be denied the right to enjoy their culture, profess and practice their religion, etc.) all apply to individual Jews and the Jewish people more generally.

After a wave of swastika daubing and other incidents, the 1960 Commission on Human Rights adopted its only stand-alone resolution addressing "Manifestations of Antisemitism..." and condemned these incidents as "violations" of the principles of the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration, and "the human rights of the groups against which they are directed, and as a threat to the human rights ... of all peoples." The UN then began to draft a new instrument, which was later divided into two, one on racial discrimination and the other on religious intolerance. Although triggered by a wave of antisemitism, and often focused on combating this scourge the 1965 Racial Discrimination Convention (ICERD) did not specifically mention the topic of antisemitism. Article one clearly defines "racial discrimination" as any restriction (etc.) "based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin" that nullifies or impairs rights. The 1981 Religious Intolerance Declaration similarly, and without specific mention of antisemitism, prohibited discrimination on grounds of religion or belief and affirmed a variety of rights which would protect Jews and others. And Jewish non-governmental organizations associated with the United Nations fought fiercely for the adoption of these instruments.

The Cold War and the politics of the Arab-Israeli dispute kept these instruments and the bodies that supervised their implementation from mentioning antisemitism specifically. The resolution and others related to it pushed Jews to the margins of the UN, isolating them, defaming them, and robbing from them the same respect that is supposed to be applied to everyone.

Political events turned the human rights instruments on their heads, as acknowledged previously by many expert observers and the Secretary General who has described the infamous "Zionism is Racism" resolution as a "low point" in the UN's history. Many others have outlined how this resolution, in classic example of name-calling and the willful distortion of reality, "branded the national aspirations of one people, and one people only, as illegitimate -- a people that had been homeless, dispersed, and exiled for the better part of two millennia. It labeled as racist the national aspirations of the one people more victimized by racism than any other." [A/46/PV.74, p.12] Although the resolution was revoked in 1991, after the Cold War (with 25 states still opposing its revocation), its resonance today continues. An official NGO conference sponsored by the United Nations before the Durban World Conference even called for it to be reintroduced and re-affirmed. And when the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights declared this defamatory incitement should not be included in the Durban World Conference, some of the NGOs that introduced the language called for her resignation on the grounds that she – not they – was being political. The Durban NGO conference descended even more deeply into antisemitic name-calling and defamation, misusing other human rights concepts, and even re-defining the term antisemitism in a way that would deny the victim group – Jews – the name used plainly to apply to Jew-hatred.

Let us proclaim today what we all know: that Zionism is not racism. It is the national self-determination movement of the Jewish people, a people subjected to racism, persecution, and genocide. It is about the human right of Jews to live their lives without discrimination, persecution, antisemitism. It is about saving a persecuted people from persecution. The most brutal and systematic persecutions visited on Jews in the past century –those of Nazi Germany -- did not target Jewish beliefs or religious practices per se: they targeted the Jews as a people, on racist grounds. International law has recognized that the protection of a people that has suffered such persecution can only be secured through genuine self-determination – able to ensure the independence of that people from oppression. Those who promote the "Zionism is Racism" formula themselves ignore the international legal prohibition against incitement to racial and ethnic hatred. This is a human rights issue, not a matter of political ideology. Trying to redefine it as such is a further example of denial and of distortion.

The institutional response of the United Nations to antisemitism has been inadequate.

One of the characteristics of antisemitism is its capacity to mutate and change forms. But the classic stereotypes often re-emerge. Mention of deicide, blood libels, poisoning of wells and one recalls persecutions of the past. Global conspiracy by a people who think themselves superior? -- A "chosen people" engaged in a global conspiracy to dominate and subvert the rest of the world. These and other characterizations have spurred and been a part of a pernicious history of persecution of Jews throughout history. And they recur in new forms and new places. The United Nations has been one of those places.

A few examples will suffice. In a special rapporteur report, reference is made to "allegations" that a 41-part TV series was based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious forged document purporting to show a global conspiracy by Jews, and the country concerned (Egypt) was not named. Another Special Rapporteur referred to a report showing how classic European antisemitic themes were being used in publications in many Middle Eastern countries – and was forced to rescind the report by a formal decision of the Commission on Human Rights – the only time in its history that a rapporteur was so censured. At a World Conference against Racism, a leader of a regional organization condemned "the racist policy of Israeli politicians, based on haughtiness, cynicism, so-called racial superiority, the idea of a chosen people..." in classic and well-recognized antisemitic stereotypes. The use of these terms about Israelis was not accidental. No one commented on it and the UN's own public information service repeated his remarks in its summary of the discussion on the Middle East conflict.

The UN's own human rights organs need to do better. Unlearning intolerance requires understanding what intolerance is.


To begin to "unlearn intolerance" and combat antisemitism as a human rights issue, UN leaders, special human rights experts, governmental representatives should:

  • Speak out and take action to put the United Nations squarely on record as being opposed to antisemitism in all its forms—as the Secretary General has repeatedly asked.

  • Exercise moral and political leadership in opposing antisemitism in all its forms. Speak out when anyone promotes antisemitic stereotypes or incites to hatred in UN forums. Remind the speaker that this is unacceptable.

  • Produce fair and regular reporting on antisemitism by existing UN human rights bodies.

  • Issue an annual statement on antisemitism by the Secretary General and efforts to combat it.

  • Establish a permanent exhibit at UN headquarters to commemorate the Holocaust.

It is long overdue for the UN to speak plainly about its history and ensure that its mission includes fighting antisemitism.

Put the UN's machinery created to address discrimination, hatred, incitement to violence, to work for Jews too — monitoring and combating antisemitism. The issue of antisemitism must not continue to be shunted off to the side, ghettoized and treated as a "political" issue. UN human rights special rapporteurs don't need special resolutions to address antisemitism – unless they don't want to mention it, unless they are afraid to examine the subject, unless they are fearful of speaking out. And if their silence, their reluctance to name antisemitism and their failure to examine the issue on its own because they don't recognize or understand the issue, then we – our Institute, our community, our lawyers, our human rights experts – who have had so much experience with this subject – are ready to help them learn about antisemitism's past and its present. (We don't want this subject to have a future.) We're ready to help them unlearn intolerance and combat antisemitism as the human rights problem it is.

In short, for Jews and everyone else – your rights are human rights, and human rights are universal. The UN must be true to its founding spirit and look to the future.

I commend the organizers of this seminar for the steps they have taken in moving in this direction, and the Secretary General for being present, and for his leadership on this issue.

Contact: Kenneth Bandler (212) 891-6771 PR@ajc.org
Copyright 2014/2015 AJC