Walls coming down in Berlin

By Jonathan Arkush, Vice President

Does the Organisation on Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) ring any bells?  Possibly not, unless you have long memories.  The OSCE traces its origins to the détente phase of the early 1970s, when the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) was created to serve as a multilateral forum for dialogue and negotiation between East and West.  Meeting over two years in Helsinki and Geneva, the CSCE reached agreement on the Helsinki Final Act, which was signed on 1 August 1975. This document contained a number of key commitments on polito-military, economic and environmental and human rights issues that became central to the so-called ‘Helsinki process’.  That might stir some memories, especially for those of us who were around during the campaign for Soviet Jewry – whose outcome was one of the great Jewish stories of our time.

The Helsinki process proved to be a potent agent for the change which opened the gates for Jews to leave the old Soviet Union for Israel and elsewhere and which led to the implosion of the Russian Communist Party and Russian domination of Eastern Europe.  The impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall cannot be overstated and few would argue that it brought about an immeasurable improvement for many millions whose lives had been blighted by 75 years of suffering under totalitarianism.

Let us celebrate the fact that the Helsinki process is not dead and indeed has renewed life.

The OSCE now comprises no less than 57 participating States across western and eastern Europe, America and Central Asia.

Let it be noted with approval that one of its major areas of focus is antisemitism.  Here is the opening statement from a key webpage at https://www.osce.org/odihr/126498 which I would strongly encourage you to look at:

Antisemitism is still a problem. In recent months, angry protesters have attacked synagogues and kosher grocery stores, and threats and hate speech have targeted Jewish communities. While antisemitism has been around in parts of the world for centuries, there has been much progress in countering this problem in recent decades.  In the Berlin Declaration, ten years ago, the OSCE committed to countering antisemitism in all its forms.

Last week, 10 years after the Berlin Conference 2004, representatives of non-governmental organisations (‘civil society’ in OSCE-speak) and participating States met again in Berlin to review progress and decide on new steps to counter antisemitism.

As the representative body for one of the most significant diaspora Jewish communities, and the second-largest in Europe, the Board rightly accepted the invitation to attend and participate and I was proud to represent the Board, supported by Director of Public Affairs Phil Rosenberg.  As you would expect of us, our community played a strong and visible role.  The superb Mike Whine, our former Defence Director, whose expertise on policing and extremism is respected by governments across the world, was one of those who steered the proceedings.  The Board’s own Professor David Katz spoke at a workshop I attended on protecting Jewish religious practice, where we secured the inclusion of this vital matter in the matters to go forward.

The outcome of ‘Berlin plus 10’ was a set of recommendations for adoption by the participating States to address antisemitism more effectively.  A commitment to protect Jewish religious practices including shechita and brit milah was new and key.  Adoption is by no means a foregone conclusion.  There now begins a process of haggling between governments, in which the Board will use such lobbying power as it has.

Now if the 57 participating States were to pledge to uphold shechita and brit milah, that would be a real step forward.


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