updated 4/28/2004 1:04:42 PM ET 2004-04-28T17:04:42

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel warned European and North American countries Wednesday that anti-Semitism is on the rise and fervently urged them to keep “the poison from spreading.”

The appeal by Wiesel, a survivor of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp, marked the start of a 55-nation conference of foreign ministers called to debate ways to fight anti-Semitism, including more education and stricter law enforcement.

“Stop! Stop a disease that has lasted so long. Stop the poison from spreading,” Wiesel said.

While most foreign participants agreed that more must be done against anti-Semitism, many cautioned that not all criticism of Israel should be construed as hate.

Wiesel said he found “particularly contemptuous” comparisons of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to Nazi Germany’s atrocities against the Jews.

But Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, speaking for the European Union, said, “We cannot and should not expect reasonable criticism and fair comment about specific Israeli government policies to fall silent.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “It is not anti-Semitism to criticize the state of Israel, but the line is crossed when the leaders of Israel are demonized or vilified by the use of Nazi symbols.”

Wiesel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his writings on the Holocaust and campaigning against evil in the world, pointed to violence against Jews and desecration of cemeteries in many countries.

“The Jew I am belongs to a traumatized generation. We have antennas. Better yet, we are antennas,” he said.

“If we tell you that the signals we receive are disturbing, that we are alarmed ... people had better listen.”

Rise in anti-Semitic attacks
Foreign ministers from Europe and Secretary of State Colin Powell were expected to address the two-day meeting, which follows a rise in anti-Semitic incidents and attacks last year in France, Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

Held amid extremely tight security, the gathering of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is the third major conference in Europe to address anti-Semitism in the past year.

Wiesel said it was fitting that the conference was taking place in the German capital, where the Nazis developed their plans to destroy the world’s Jews. The venue is the German Foreign Ministry, a huge building that once served as Nazi Germany’s central bank.

“It is precisely because it takes place in Berlin that a powerful message ... should be composed here,” Wiesel said, urging the leaders to send a manifesto against anti-Semitism in all languages to everyone in the world.

He said he found “particularly contemptuous” comparisons of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians to Nazi Germany’s atrocities against the Jews.

Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor who became a French Cabinet minister and president of the European Parliament, said anti-Semitism has grown in France but the government has taken commendable steps to protect Europe’s largest Jewish community.

Still, Veil said, “It’s less and less a good thing to be Jewish in France or have a Jewish name or even display a Hebrew letter.”

An Israeli anti-Semitism watchdog group said last week that worldwide incidents of attacks on Jews and vandalism against Jewish sites increased 15 percent in 2003 from the previous year.

The Stephen Roth Institute of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism said France, Britain, Russia, Germany and Canada had the highest rates of anti-Semitic incidents.

The conference’s timing has focused attention on eight former Soviet bloc countries joining the European Union on Sunday. Some say the eastern European nations have lagged in tackling anti-Semitism.

“The anti-Semitic potential in the EU is going to get bigger,” Salomon Korn, the vice president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, said in the Berliner Zeitung daily newspaper.

Anti-Semitism vs. criticism of Israel
Jewish organizations urged the OSCE governments to devote more resources to fighting anti-Semitism, strengthen law enforcement, promote education about the Holocaust and appoint a high-profile official to ensure countries are meeting their commitments.

Youths from large Arab communities in France, Belgium and other European countries have been blamed for attacks on Jewish property and individuals that have increased as violence surged in the Middle East.

German President Johannes Rau said it was important to distinguish between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel, although he acknowledged that “massive anti-Semitism” is behind much of the opposition to Israeli policy.

“I know many friends of Israel who criticize Israeli policies toward the Palestinians because they are greatly concerned about the state of Israel and Israeli society,” Rau said. “Friends have the right to be told openly what others think about what they are doing.”

But he said critics of Israeli policy had to temper their views — and sometimes keep it private — with the understanding Israelis have lived since the founding of their state under a threat to their existence.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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