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Plenary Convention of the Conference of European Rabbis Gala dinner

Dear Chief Rabbis, dear Rabbis,
Distinguished Ambassadors,
Dear Friends,

I would like to start by thanking the Conference of European Rabbis as well as the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland for inviting me to address you today.

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. I feel honoured and deeply touched to be able to share this solemn anniversary with you.

As time passes and memories start to fade, we must never forget what happened on that shameful night here in Berlin.

We must never forget how Jews were slaughtered, how their shops were smashed.

We must never forget how places of worship – such as the Beth Zion Synagogue and the Neue Synagoge – were set ablaze, their Torah scrolls desecrated.

On the morning of November 10th seventy-five years ago, the streets of Berlin were strewn with broken glass.

But it was more than just glass that was shattered on that day.

Kristallnacht shattered Jewish life in Germany. It cracked Europe's moral conscience.

That is why this event in this city on this day is so special.

Being today here in Berlin in this place, with you, is also testimony to how – despite everything – Jewish life is being restored across our continent.

We see this here in Berlin. 

But above all we see this in all of you. This event marks the largest single gathering of rabbis in Germany since history's darkest chapter.

Dear Rabbis,

The Council of Europe was founded as a response to the horrors of World War II and of the Holocaust.

"Never again" – this phrase which is so significant for all of you - was the guiding principle of the European leaders who came together to create our organisation.

Still scarred by war, our founding fathers understood that lasting peace had to be built on solid foundations: on democracy, on human rights, on rule of law.

In order to make the promise of "never again" a reality, they crafted the European Convention on Human Rights, which to this day continues to be one of the strongest – and most functional – human rights instruments in the world.

Today, the Council of Europe is our continent's leading organisation responsible for combatting anti-Semitism and all others forms of racism and xenophobia.

As an organisation we believe that future generations of Europeans must continue to learn from the past.

That is why last year the Council of Europe and Yad Vashem signed a Memorandum of Understanding to promote Holocaust education throughout our 47 member states. 

This has deepened and enhanced Holocaust education in Europe.

We understand that we must remember, but that we must also act.

The Council of Europe will always stay true to its historical duty of standing up for human rights, standing up for freedom of religion and expression.

It is in this context that I would like to make one thing unequivocally clear to you right here and right now: in no way does the Council of Europe want to ban the practice of male circumcision.

Female genital mutilation violates human rights. Male circumcision does not.

That is my position. That is the position of the Council of Europe.

As I recently assured President Shimon Peres, the Council of Europe's commitment to tolerance and freedom of religion is resolute.

This is not only a moral imperative, it is a right protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.

We believe that the freedom of religion, thought, and conscience, together with the freedom of expression, laid down in Articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, are the cornerstones of our freedom.

Together they form Europe's moral architecture allowing for mutual respect and social justice to stand strong in our society.

We know our work is not yet finished, that we still have much to do.

But we remain committed to our shared responsibility.

We remain committed to what you would call "Tikkun Olam"[1] – putting the world aright.

Dear Friends,

 

The Council of Europe is very concerned by the reappearance of racial and religious hatred, often directed against the Jewish community but also against other minorities living in our midst.

Let us not forget that Kristallnacht did not happen out of the blue. 

First came words expressing the hatred of Jews, describing Jews as "untermenschen".

Then came the Nuremberg Laws and the forced adoption of additional middle-names for all Jews.

The language used against Jews gradually became bloodier, it became more hateful.

Kristallnacht was the turning-point. It was the transition from discrimination to outright violence.

One of the main lessons of Kristallnacht is that language matters, words matter. 

We must never forget that the use of words is the first step towards hate crimes.

Hate speech can and does escalate into violence.

We saw this in France a year ago, when a gunman went on a rampage at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

The victims included a 30-year old rabbi, his children aged four and five, as well as the daughter of the school's principal.

The 7-year-old girl, Miriam, died in her father's arms as medics tried to resuscitate her.

We also saw this two years ago in Norway, my home-country, when seventy-seven innocent civilians, most of them still in their teens, were gunned down by an extremist.

Why?

Because they believed in a Norway proud of its diversity.  An open Norway defined by tolerance and equality.

I lost a lot of friends on that day.

The tragedy made me even more passionate about stamping out hate-speech, be it racial hatred, anti-Semitism or other forms of intolerance.

Hatred and intolerance are destabilizing, they threaten democratic stability.

Hate speech uproots our fundamental values.

I am proud that the Council of Europe has been a pioneer in tackling hate-speech targeted at religious and ethnic minorities. Both online and offline.

Condemning and sanctioning hate speech and hate crimes is a very important part of the European political agenda. The Council of Europe has a rich acquis of binding and non-binding legal instruments, plus the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights.

We cannot, of course, legislate society into becoming more tolerant. But we can – and we must – set limits through law.

Last month I met the leader of the French Jewish Students Union who succeeded in getting Twitter to stop the spreading of anti-Semitic hate speech.

After initial resistance, Twitter co-operated with the French prosecutors to identify the perpetrators and set up an early warning system to prevent the further dissemination of hate speech online.

We have invited the Student Union leader to our World Forum for Democracy later this month. I look forward to hearing him share this success story with an international audience.

These days, hate speech is rearing its head, using new forms of media to cross borders and reach a mass audience.

To this end, in March the Council of Europe launched a European campaign against hate speech online. Our campaign is about raising awareness but also reflects our capacity to stand up – and speak up – for the rights and values that we feel so strongly about.

Communication tools might be changing, technology might be evolving, but our commitment to the "Never Again" ethos will also remain constant.  

Europe and its leaders must never again shy away from responsibility. History shows us that we cannot simply look the other way.

The crippling financial crisis in some of our member states has sometimes been put forward as a reason for the banalisation of hostility towards those who are "the other" – but it can never be an excuse.

Politicians have the duty to lead and influence public opinion for the good, not to pander to populist slogans in the hope of winning votes.

When politicians or public figures use fiery rhetoric when addressing multi-culturalism, or when they use religion as a wedge issue, they embolden extremists.

They embolden anti-Semites.

Tolerating such behavior is a betrayal of European values; it is a betrayal of the Kristallnacht victims.

That is why the Council of Europe is so committed to promoting social cohesion and inter-religious dialogue.  It is one of my most important missions as Secretary-General of the Council of Europe.

Dear Friends,

In his speech earlier on Rabbi Goldschmidt discussed the central theme of today's conference:  "Is there a future for Jews in Europe?"

My personal answer to this question is a strong unequivocal "yes."

But for me, that is not enough. It is not enough to ensure a future for Jews in Europe – we must also ensure a future for Jewish life in Europe.

It is not enough to confine Jewish remembrance to the glass showcases of beautiful museums such as this one; Europe has the responsibility to give Jewish life room to breathe and to grow.

In this spirit, I would like to assure you that the Council of Europe will continue to be a body the Jewish community can count on.

I am happy to say that the European Conference of Rabbis is a regular participant in the annual "Exchanges on the religious dimension of intercultural dialogue", organised by the Committee of Ministers.

Let us now firm up this dialogue.

I would like to invite you to hold your next plenary meeting in spring 2014 at the seat of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

As the guardian of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, the Council of Europe would see it as a privilege to host the assembly of the Conference of European Rabbis.

Our destinies are linked. Our fight is the same.

Dear Rabbis,

I would like to conclude my speech with words from the Mishnah.

There is a line that says:  "mitzvah goreret mitzvah, averah goreret averah."

Just as "one good deed will bring another good deed, one transgression will bring another transgression."

It is therefore up to us, as Europeans, to remain vigilant.

It is up to us to resist injustice and intolerance and indifference.

It is up to us, on days like these, to bear witness.  We must ensure that the Kristallnacht Anniversary is never reduced to a footnote of history.

Thank you.

[1] Tikkum Olam – is one of the major concepts of Judaism which suggests humanity's share responsibility to heal, repair, transform and thus protect the world.