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Rights Agencies: Surge in Anti-Semitism Shows Need for Action on Hate Crimes



International organizations and rights activists say the global outbreak of anti-Semitism earlier this year highlights the need for many countries to take stronger action against hate crimes. They say governments can combat future waves of violence against Jews and other religious and ethnic groups through better monitoring of incidents and passing laws to punish the perpetrators more firmly.

New York-based rights group "Human Rights First" says the recent surge in global anti-Semitism shows that many countries have failed to take comprehensive action against violent hate crimes.

Governments encouraged to do more

Human Rights First's Paul LeGendre says these governments must do more to try to prevent future waves of violence targeting Jews and other religious and ethnic groups.

"Human Rights First has articulated a whole series of steps that governments need to be taking - not just responding to individual cases, individual outbreaks - but to develop adequate legislation, to develop adequate monitoring systems, to train police, to train the people who need to be reaching out to vulnerable communities when these types of attacks occur," LeGendre said.

The rights group says one step governments must take is to publicly condemn violent hate crimes in a swift manner. It praised the British and French governments for issuing quick condemnations of anti-Semitic incidents in their countries in late December and January.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez responded to a January 31 desecration of a Caracas synagogue with a condemnation the next day.

He said his government condemns the attack just as it condemned the setting of fires in mountains north of Caracas by opposition students in mid-January. Mr. Chavez also said violence must be condemned and combated no matter what the source.

But, Jewish rights group the "Simon Wiesenthal Center" says the Venezuelan president's condemnation did not go far enough. It accuses him of failing repeatedly to investigate anti-Semitic incidents in the country and punish the culprits.

Monitoring is key part of investigation

International experts say a key element of investigating violent hate crimes is to monitor them on a regular basis.

LeGendre of Human Rights First says that of the 56 nations in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, only one-quarter have systems in place to monitor hate crimes.

"There is really a huge data deficit which results in a lack of knowledge at the level of government," he said. "It results in not being prepared for backlash attacks like what we saw in January of this year, when governments are not aware of the extent of the problem, and are not making their police and not making resources available to those who need to respond to outbreaks of waves of such violence."

LeGendre says even fewer nations specifically monitor anti-Semitic violence. They include Austria, Britain, France, Germany and Sweden.

The European Union "Fundamental Rights Agency" says the lack of monitoring is a particular problem in countries that have small Jewish communities. Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos is the agency's head of research and data collection.

"There are a number of countries where we have no response regarding our efforts to persuade them to collect data," Dimitrakopoulos said, "and I would cite here countries such as Hungary, Romania, Greece, but also others, So there are many countries where things need to move along faster."

Washington-based Rabbi Andrew Baker is a special OSCE envoy on combating anti-Semitism. He says that even some countries that do monitor anti-Semitic violence do not record the perpetrators, making it harder to deal with the problem.

Should comparisons of Jews, Israelis to Nazi Germany be outlawed?

The EU Fundamental Rights Agency says another step governments should take to combat anti-Semitism is to outlaw public comparisons of Jews and Israelis to Nazi Germany and the crimes of the Holocaust.

Dimitrakopoulos says Germany and Austria ban such displays of anti-Semitism and other EU nations should do the same.

OSCE envoy Baker does not believe countries should go that far. He says the United States tolerates Nazi and Holocaust imagery, however distasteful, because of its commitment to free speech.

"Unless it is such clear and direct linkage to incitement and physical harm, we would certainly permit it here," Baker said. "Now, permissible speech can still be anti-Semitic, it can be racist. And I think that that is a distinction we need to acknowledge."

Human Rights First says many governments also should take legal steps to deal with violent hate crimes, by passing laws imposing tougher penalties for the perpetrators. It says 22 OSCE member states have no such laws.

But, the rights group says the number of OSCE nations that have hate crime laws has increased in recent years to more than 30, with the most recent additions being Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia.

Police training aids response to hate-crimes

Baker says the OSCE's human rights agency has been working with member states to train police in responding to anti-Semitic crimes. He says he also meets with judicial authorities to ensure that judges and prosecutors know how to deal with suspects.

"It makes no good sense to have police aware of this, but then when a case is brought to prosecution, you do not have a judge as well that is sensitive to the special nature of these things. So these are some of the areas in which the OSCE is working," he said.

Baker says another way in which the OSCE is combating anti-Semitism is through education. It has developed teaching materials about the Holocaust and the history of Jewish communities for use in schools in Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Spain and Ukraine.

The EU rights agency runs a similar a program with Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. Dimitrakopoulos says children from Austria, Hungary and Slovakia have come to the agency's Vienna office to speak with Holocaust survivors by video conference.

"We are focusing all our work, first of all, on education because we believe that it is through education that we will be able to get to the heart of the issue, and that young people should be taught the lessons of the Holocaust," Dimitrakopoulos explained.

Dimitrakopoulos says civil society also has an important role to play in fighting hate crimes.

He says Jewish and Muslim groups in Belgium, Britain and France have made significant efforts to calm recent tensions between their communities through joint statements denouncing violence and stressing unity.



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