In January 2000, a remarkable meeting took place in Stockholm, Sweden, when 23 heads of state or prime ministers, 14 deputy prime ministers and other senior politicians, diplomats, academics and civil society leaders from nearly 50 governments convened for an unprecedented conference on Holocaust commemoration and education.
The conference, in which I was privileged to participate as part of Australia’s delegation – led by the exemplary diplomat Steven Brady – adopted what became known as the Stockholm Declaration.
The declaration was built around the following idea: “With humanity still scarred by genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia, the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils. Together we must uphold the terrible truth of the Holocaust against those who deny it. We must strengthen the moral commitment of our peoples, and the political commitment of our governments, to ensure that future generations can understand the causes of the Holocaust and reflect upon its consequences”.
This became the foundation for the ITF, the International Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. This organisation now has 27 governments as members, six governments with liaison status, associated international organisations including the OSCE and the Council of Europe and academic advisors of the highest possible calibre.
The rotating chair of the ITF is this year held by Israel, which hosted a plenary session in Jerusalem in June.
Although Australia has not yet completed requirements for membership, representatives from this country were welcomed to sessions as “guests of the chair”, and I was again honoured to be included in the delegation.
After more than a decade of activity, the ITF still generates energy, enthusiasm and creativity. It serves as a facilitator of co-operation and the exchange of ideas designed to bring about “best practise” in combating the malevolent ideas which lay at the basis of Nazism and acts as a counterweight to those who seek to deny, diminish and misrepresent the nature, and abuse the memory, of the Shoah.
The ITF was preceded by an international conference hosted by Yad Vashem, which involved many of the ITF delegates as well as high-level academics and educators from many countries.
The working group in which I was involved looked at the place of contemporary antisemitism in the teaching of the Shoah, leading to a rigorous and sometimes passionate discussion on issues such as the relationship between neo-Nazis and anti-Israel Islamist extremists; the development of leftist antisemitism; Holocaust denial; and the use of comparisons with Nazism as a political tool in many debates.
A number of European delegates came with documentation of antisemitism from non-traditional sources, distressed by the way mainstream newspaper commentators, for example, stooped to pathetic anti-Jewish caricatures in discussions of, but not only of, Israel.
One Australian columnist – who made his reputation as a person who made people laugh with him but now has intelligent people laughing at him, with his descent into anti-Jewish stereotyping of the type he once successfully parodied – was presented as evidence that the phenomenon is global and not just European.
Another Australian arose as one of the two or three best international examples of a person who seemed “proud to be ashamed to be Jewish” – an ethnically Jewish person who published material which was, by any fair measure, pathetic anti-Jewish bigotry.
More positively, Australian examples of museums, educational endeavours, legal and political activities against racists and, in particular, our willingness to grapple with issues such as conveying understanding of the Holocaust to Asian and Muslim students, were seen as impressive and in some cases exemplary.
When our next government takes office, regardless of which party or parties are elected, I hope it will not be too long before Australia fomally joins the ITF – which would benefit us in our endeavours to develop the strongest possible civil society, and benefit the international community via Australia’s unique input.