The dangers of intolerance, anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia are just as pressing as the nuclear weaponization of countries like Iran and North Korea, according to Moshe Kantor, vice-chairman of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation, whose inaugural meeting was held in Paris on Tuesday.
Sitting around a conference table in a chandeliered room of the Académie Diplomatique Intérnationale building near Champs Elysee, members of the ECTR, a non-governmental organization made up of former European leaders, began the introductory discussion on tackling the intolerance and bigotry issues facing Europe.
They also layed out, at least in general terms, their plans for the future.
“Unfortunately there is no pill we can take with a glass of water so that we’ll wake up tomorrow morning with full tolerance for our neighbors,” said Kantor, who is also president of the European Jewish Congress. “But we are starting our work just a few days after Rosh Hashana, and there is a special prayer we have in Judaism, which is not only for Jewish people, but everyone, which says that if you want to fertilize God’s salvation from above, you have to plant the seeds down here on earth. Today we are putting into the Earth the first seeds of tolerance, and I believe we will all do our best to further this goal.”
Still, Kantor added, the results of the council’s efforts may not be seen fully for another 20 years – until the next generation is able to bring them to fruition.
Members present at Tuesday’s session included ECTR chairman and former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski; former Slovenian president Milan Kucan; former Albanian president Alfred Moisiu; former Swedish prime minister Goran Persson, initiator of the International Forum on the Holocaust; and Vilma Trajkovska, president of the Boris Trajkovski Foundation in Macedonia.
While many of the council members are from countries with troubling pasts regarding the very intolerance and racial discrimination the council hopes to combat – including countries like Slovenia, which the Simon Wiesenthal Center has given a near-failing grade for their efforts, or lack thereof, to prosecute Nazi war criminals – Kwasniewski noted that such experience could actually be “an important asset.”
“We know what intolerance looks like,” Kwasniewski said of Poland and other member countries. “Our members from the Balkans, in particular, have seen the freshest and most recent manifestations of intolerance in their region.”
However, Kwasniewski added, “in Poland we also know about reconciliation. We’ve dealt with it in regards to Germany, Russia and Ukraine, and it’s a very important part of the equation. Having a concrete conception of reconciliation is also necessary to furthering tolerance and fighting racism and xenophobia.”
Among the initiatives discussed at Tuesday’s meeting was the establishment of a “European Day of Tolerance,” which will coincide with the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht on November 10. The ECTR hopes this event will draw the attention of policy-makers to the issues of racism and xenophobia in Europe, while giving them the opportunity to formally present the statutes and principles of the ECTR to the European Parliament.
The ECTR has outlined those principles and tactics in a draft called the “White Book of Tolerance,” proposing that the European parliament adopt them as policy. Some procedures include suggestions on education, the role of media and the Internet – especially on combating incitement to hatred in a sphere that is increasingly difficult to control – as well as housing, labor and even sports.
While the initiatives themselves aren’t necessarily a new phenomenon – the UN initiated an International Day of Tolerance in 1996 – the emphasis and high profile of the voices included in the council are. Never before have such a variety of former leaders and heads of state been brought together to further the cause of tolerance in Europe, and the strength of such a union is not lost on them.
“We have chosen, in particular, famous politicians who have finished their terms, and who are not running for office,” Kwasniewski said. “We all have our own experiences in the fight for tolerance, and this gives us the ability to cooperate and use our various experiences in the areas of legislation, local administration, culture, and others to cause real change and make things happen.”
However, Kwasniewski cautioned, “the fight for tolerance is not a one-year or 10-year effort. It will take decades and generations.”