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Europeans Ponder Remedies for Intolerance

Disappointed by government inaction, many look to education, individual courage

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 9, 1994



STRASBOURG, FRANCE

HOME to Pandora's Box, the old continent of Europe has seen that box open in recent years to release new waves of racism, xenophobia, and nationalism.

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What a growing number of leaders, intellectuals, and citizens are wondering is how or if Europe can defy the legend, push back the plagues, and shut the box tight.

Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and created a wider and profoundly unsettled Europe, multilateral organizations for human rights and high-level meetings dedicated to cooperation have multiplied in response to what Europeans call their ``demons.'' But signs of intolerance - from skinheads in Germany to antiforeigner laws in France and inter-ethnic warfare in ex-Yugoslavia - have only worsened.

``We must ask ourselves why Europe has such difficulty establishing the very values it promotes as its own,'' says Catherine Lalumiere, secretary-general of the 32-nation Council of Europe. ``It's as if we on this old continent are still convulsed by the question, `Who am I?,' and it's corollary, `Who are you?' ''

Mindful of where unbridled racism and nationalism led Europe in the not-so-distant past, the Council of Europe on March 3-4 held a conference as the debut of a three-year action plan to engage governments, public-service organizations, schools, and private citizens in the fight against intolerance.

The conference was organized with the help of the American Jewish Committee. As AJC representatives at the Strasbourg conference poignantly noted, several of their members are former Europeans who fled their old home when it fell prey to the sirens of Nazism.

Participants from Russia to Spain heard that the causes of Europe's retreat into intolerance range from deteriorating economies and the incomplete march of some East European countries from empire to nationhood, to the inability of governments to foresee the continent's upheaval.

As for solutions, a profound disappointment in Europe's governments - especially their failure to stop the war in ex-Yugoslavia - left many participants concluding that it is primarily up to individuals to make a difference. And that, they said, highlights a need for better education and opportunities for youths to begin to know those they consider ``others.''

As more than one conference participant noted wryly, the changes Europe has experienced since 1989 - something Europe had been seeking for four decades - came at a difficult time for Western Europe.

``1989 is perceived as a victory for democracy and the market economy, but [it took place] when these notions were ... already destabilized,'' says Nelly Hansson, a French historian. That political and economic ``destabilization'' added to fears in the West, disappointment in the East, and growing mistrust of any people representing a newly opening Europe, she adds.

Some participants noted that politicians and analysts in the West tend to emphasize East Europe when offering examples of the continent's mounting nationalism and xenophobia. But they added that the challenges, while often different, are just as pronounced in the West.

Western Europe's 12 members of the European Union counted some 7 million votes for ``parties with fascist tendencies'' in the last European Parliament elections in 1989, according to Simon Rahamin of Searchlight, an anti-fascist magazine in London. And the Netherlands, considered a haven of tolerance, was stunned by March 2 elections in Rotterdam where xenophobic and neo-Nazi parties gained 14 percent.

West European governments were faulted at the conference for falling prey to xenophobic tendencies and failing to provide the moral leadership necessary to build a tolerant Europe.

``[Our governments] are unable to back up the principles that we ourselves have decided,'' said Michel Foucher, director of the European Geopolitical Observatory in Lyon, France. Government leaders proclaimed ``with much fanfare [their] refusal of any displacement of borders by force, but that is a principle that for Europe is about to die in Bosnia.''

In the search for solutions, participants said government had to play a central role - in proposing and enforcing hate crime laws, for example. But given the disappointments in government, people are looking elsewhere for answers - including to education.

Since 1989, many Eastern European countries face the need to rewrite history textbooks - and thus to choose what history to teach. Educators are working to encourage cross-border research and writing teams to ``sweep the debris of hate'' from textbooks, according to Mr. Foucher.

But some said the solution likely remained with individuals to make the task of developing a tolerant Europe their own. ``I have to wonder if the only solution isn't individual courage,'' said Petr Janyska, a journalist for Prague's Lidove Noviny, who told a story of three simple Czech women who stood down a group of neo-Nazis accosting Vietnamese immigrants in his city.

But that left some in a quandary: How does society develop such values as character and honor, asked Jacek Wozniakowski, head of Krakow's Center for International Culture, when to so many, those ideas and such ``Christian values'' as loving your neighbor seem anachronistic?

Noting that the conference took place as Steven Spielberg's ``Schindler's List'' opened across Europe, Wolfgang Nowak, culture minister of the east German state of Saxony, cited the movie as ``proof that one cannot say that the individual can do nothing.'' Adding that he is making sure students in his area see the film, he said, ``I don't think those youths ... will go out to throw Molotov cocktails at immigrants.''