NEW YORK, Jan. 31 (JTA) — Although it has been nearly a decade since the United Nations repealed its “Zionism Is Racism” resolution, Jewish nationalism apparently still sparks debate in the international body.
Citing concerns about its Zionist ties, representatives of Lebanon and other Arab countries are putting up roadblocks against the largest Jewish women’s organization in the United States in its efforts to achieve greater involvement in the U.N.’s humanitarian work.
At a Jan. 26 hearing before the U.N. Economic and Social Council, Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America requested consultative status, which would enable it to participate in the Commission on the Status of Women and work with nongovernmental organizations around the world on humanitarian issues.
Seven other Jewish groups, including B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee, have consultative status on the committee, along with more than 1,000 other nongovernmental organizations.
Hassan Najem, Lebanon’s representative to the 19-member committee — which is chaired by Tunisia and includes several countries that are hostile to Israel — moved to reject Hadassah’s application. In the hearing, Najem and representatives of other Arab countries, including Syria and the Palestinian Authority, which are observers on the committee, described Zionism as racism and questioned Hadassah repeatedly about its Zionist ties.
A decision on whether to accept Hadassah was deferred until the committee’s next meeting, scheduled for May.
According to Amy Goldstein, the director of Israeli, Zionist and international affairs for Hadassah, an organization best known for its hospitals in Jerusalem that serve Jews and Palestinians, representatives on the U.N. committee “saluted our work,” but repeatedly asked Hadassah officials to clarify their definition of Zionism.
“They stated that our definition of Zionism is not Zionism and insisted that Zionism is not just a political movement but inherently racist,” said Goldstein, explaining that Hadassah describes its philosophy as “practical Zionism.”
This philosophy includes establishing projects that address social, educational and health needs in Israel.
At the more than hourlong hearing, Hadassah was questioned about the nature of its efforts in Palestine at the time of the group’s founding 88 years ago and why the founders chose to work in Palestine rather than “other places in the world that had the same problems,” Goldstein said.
Lebanon’s Najem did not return phone calls requesting comment.
Israel’s mission to the United Nations issued a statement criticizing Lebanon’s and Syria’s behavior, stating that attacks on Zionism are “an affront to the Jewish people as a whole.” The statement concludes by saying, “it is hoped that these anachronistic and confrontational remarks do not reflect the position of the government of Syria today as it faces Israel across the negotiating table.”
Harris Schoenberg, the chair of the caucus of Jewish nongovernmental organizations at the United Nations, said the line of questioning, which he described as a “vicious onslaught” and “bullying,” was “very surprising because we’re supposed to be in the middle of a peace process.”
Following the meeting, Hadassah President Bonnie Lipton said, “While Syria and Lebanon speak the language of peace in negotiations with Israel, their behavior yesterday in the United Nations was most objectionable. By raising the rescinded and repudiated ‘Zionism Is Racism’ resolution, they once again identify themselves with the rejectionist camp rather than those seeking peace in the Middle East.”
“Syria and Lebanon crossed the line in describing Zionism as racist and elitist,” said an official with the U.S. mission to the United Nations. “I don’t think a lot of Jewish organizations are looked at favorably in this committee, and unfortunately Hadassah’s name has the word ‘Zionist’ and that tends to make people upset.”
According to Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights and a former member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Hadassah is not the only Jewish nongovernmental organization to be singled out for attack in the Economic and Social Council.
In the 1980s, council members “would attack Jewish groups by asking if they agreed with every U.N. resolution about the Middle East,” recalled Gaer, adding that this behavior subsided after the demise of the Soviet Union but has recently increased.
Gaer noted that at the last three sessions, the Israel Women’s Network, Israel’s largest feminist organization, has been “harassed with technical questions,” and its application has been continually deferred.
The European branch of the Women’s International Zionist Organization dropped its application after similar questioning, stating that the process was too political.