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Durban conference a real threat to Israel

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NEW YORK, July 31 (JTA) — The renewed campaign to equate Zionism with racism — the presumed lowlight of an upcoming U.N. conference in South Africa — is not merely a quest by the Palestinians and their Arab allies for a symbolic or rhetorical victory, Jewish activists say.

Rather, the campaign aims to undermine the moral legitimacy of the State of Israel, these activists say, and subsequently would brand pro-Israel Jews everywhere as racists.

Delegates from some 100 nations are meeting in Geneva hammering out the language of the declaration that will be on the table at “The World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance,” beginning Aug. 31 in Durban, South Africa.

Among the phrases under consideration is whether Israel — founded on an ideology “based on racial supremacy” — is an “apartheid, racist and fascist state” committing a “holocaust,” “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” against the Palestinians in its “quest to create a Jewish settler state.”

Also upsetting to Jews is use of the term “holocaust” with a lower-case “h” — an intentional effort to demean the uniqueness of the Holocaust, they say — and portrayal of Jewish settlements on the West Bank as crimes against humanity.

“If this resolution were revived,” said Harris Schoenberg, chairman of the U.N. caucus of Jewish nongovernmental organizations, “the terrible impact would be renewed demonization of Israel, and it could have a devastating effect on the small and exposed Jewish communities around the world.”

Adds Amy Goldstein, national director of Israel, Zionist and international affairs for Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America: “This is a smoke screen to deny Jews a basic human right — the right of Jewish self-determination.”

In the process, Jewish observers say, the relative ease with which the huge bloc of Arab and Muslim states has been able to hijack preparations for the conference further erodes the image of the United Nations and underscores its need for reform.

It was essentially the same crowd that in May conspired to oust the United States from the Geneva-based U.N. Commission for Human Rights, and which repeatedly pushes for U.N. resolutions that lay all blame for the past 10 months of Middle East violence at Israel’s feet.

Observers say that such actions reinforce Israeli perceptions of the United Nations as irrevocably biased and unworthy of a significant role in the Mideast conflict.

If so, that would seem to damage Palestinian interests: Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat routinely pushes for the “internationalization” of the conflict and a diminished role for the United States.

Now, however, growing numbers of U.S. and U.N. officials are speaking out against reviving “Z=R,” the equation between Zionism and racism.

President George W. Bush’s administration is threatening to boycott the conference if the Z=R resolution — which his father helped defeat in 1991 after 16 years on the U.N. books — appears on the conference agenda.

The United States boycotted the two previous world conferences on racism, in 1978 and 1983, for the same reason.

The Bush administration also opposes the efforts of an African bloc to denounce the legacy of slavery and push for financial reparations from the United States and European colonial powers.

Jewish leaders, including Mortimer Zuckerman, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman, met with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on July 25 and pressed him to intervene.

“We made the point that these things have ramifications on the ground,” said Hoenlein, who described Annan as “very responsive.”

On Monday, Annan publicly addressed the issue, saying the Durban conference “must help heal old wounds without reopening them.”

Even U.N. human rights chief Mary Robinson, whom Israelis generally perceive as pro-Palestinian, urged the Arabs to abandon their Z=R efforts.

The conference falls under the purview of Robinson’s office.

“The United Nations has already dealt with this issue at great length,” Robinson said — though she didn’t criticize the resolution itself.

“It is inappropriate to reopen this issue in any form here, and anyone who seeks to do so is putting the success of the Durban conference at risk,” she said.

At least one Arab American activist disagrees.

“There’s no place on earth where you can find a situation worse than in the occupied territories, so to have a world conference and not talk about Jewish settlements would be a travesty, a sick joke, like having a conference on racism in the 1970s and not talking about the situation in South Africa,” said Hussein Ibish, spokesman for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

“While the U.S. is prepared to talk about racism elsewhere, we are not prepared to talk about racism that hits too close to home — our own history of racism or racism practiced by our most politically influential ally, Israel,” Ibish said.

Israel’s supporters, though, say the linkage between Zionism and racism is a gross distortion.

In boycotting the first world racism conference in 1978, President Carter said “…the definition of ‘racism’ has been perverted for political ends by including Zionism as one of its forms. The United States cannot associate itself with (it), so long as it endorses the patently false definition…”

Schoenberg remembers the atmosphere after the U.N. adopted the “Zionism Is Racism” resolution in 1975.

An expert on the workings of the U.N., Schoenberg recalls how Zionism became a bogeyman blamed for many global woes — from poor housing to mistreatment of women to “the economic and social evils” of developing lands.

Anti-Semitism — veiled as anti-Zionism — became fashionable.

Zionism was lumped in with Nazism and apartheid, used by the Soviets to justify anti-Semitic propaganda and by Muslim terrorists to justify airplane hijackings in Lebanon in 1985 and India in 1986, Schoenberg writes in his new book, “The World Conference on Racism: The Adoption and Repeal of the Z=R Resolution and the Implications for U.N. Reform.”

Many Jewish student groups in the United States and Great Britain were ostracized as racist and were shut out of discussions on discrimination, the book says.

“When a lie gets repeated over and over again, it tends to carry legitimacy through many parts of the world,” said Michael Colson, the outgoing executive director of the Geneva-based watchdog U.N. Watch. In much of the world, the United Nations is revered “as legitimate, authoritative and just.”

The threat of a U.S. boycott, together with the opposition of Annan and Robinson, may be enough to keep Z=R off the conference agenda and to tone down the anti-Israel vitriol. If not, the question is whether America indeed should boycott.

Many say the document’s credibility rests on whether the world’s sole superpower — and self-proclaimed beacon of democracy — signs it.

Jewish activists hope for a boycott. Ibish, the Arab American activist, urged Washington to attend and defend its stance.

A U.S. boycott, though, would dilute what was meant to be a warm, fuzzy international conference to condemn a universal evil — racism.

If that happens, Colson said, “the blame should be laid squarely on the Arab governments and their friends who insisted on holding the conference hostage on behalf of a specific, political conflict that does not belong there, without any regard for the impact of their behavior.”

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