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With racism forum set to begin, Jewish leaders brace for the worst

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NEW YORK, Aug. 22 (JTA) — To go, or not to go?

That remains the question for the Bush administration hardly a week before the U.N. World Conference Against Racism begins in Durban, South Africa.

Within the Jewish community, too, the question is stirring debate.

Jewish activists assume that Israel will be singled out for harsh criticism at the conference, and are divided as to whether U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell should attend, should boycott and send a lower-level delegation, or should withhold all U.S. representation.

The State Department is expected to announce a decision within days.

Its verdict may determine if the conference — to run from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7 — ultimately succeeds or fails.

Powell indeed is the linchpin, analysts say: His appearance would give the proceedings a stamp of credibility, while his absence would indicate that the world’s lone superpower believes Arab and Muslim efforts to turn the meeting into an anti-Israel vehicle have robbed the conference of its seriousness.

To enable Powell to attend, U.S. officials continue to work behind the scenes to remove from the conference agenda the anti-Israel vitriol and a proposed discussion of slavery reparations, according to a State Department official.

“We’re talking to every country we think could be helpful,” the source told JTA.

Early this week, the odds seemed to be that Powell would not go to Durban but would send a lower-level delegation.

Regardless, Jewish activists on their way to Durban to monitor the proceedings are resigned to the likelihood that Israel will take a rhetorical beating.

In the U.N. system of democracy, which bestows one vote per country, the huge Arab-Muslim bloc easily can dictate meeting agendas and wording of resolutions, analysts say.

Among the broadsides expected in Durban, conference participants may: denigrate Zionism as racism; accuse Israel of being an apartheid state; exclude anti-Semitism from the various forms of racism; minimize the Holocaust as merely one of many instances of genocide rather than a unique event; and equate the suffering of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to that of Jews under the Nazis.

Activists also are bracing for anti-Israel demonstrations. For example, some 10,000 Muslim South Africans reportedly protested against Israel in Cape Town on Tuesday, some holding signs comparing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Hitler.

“We’re going there with our eyes wide open, knowing that the next two weeks won’t be a picnic,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an observer of numerous U.N. preparatory meetings.

Cooper said the collaboration among Jewish groups before the conference can only be compared with the era of the 1967 Six-Day War.

“It’s not because we’ve all found religion,” Cooper said, “but because we all understand how difficult a situation we’ll be facing in Durban collectively. We’ll be fighting collectively for the dignity of the Jewish people.”

While most Jewish activists are pessimistic about the conference, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center wants Powell to attend — “as long as the possibility exists that the noxious language might be removed, or modified in a way which would make it acceptable,” RAC Director Rabbi David Saperstein wrote in an Aug. 16 letter to Powell.

At a news conference Tuesday, Richard Heideman, president of B’nai B’rith International, and Amy Goldstein, director of Israel, Zionist and International affairs for Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, said they hope the United States will send a senior delegation to Durban, but the decision is up to the Bush administration.

If Bush decides that it’s appropriate to send Powell, that would be “terrific,” Heideman said. But the two said the delegation should walk out of the conference, if necessary, over anti-Israel language.

But activists like Cooper who are familiar with the workings of international conferences say that the proposed declarations are “95 percent” set in stone before the dignitaries touch down on the tarmac, making the pre- formulated language virtually a fait accompli.

There was a flicker of hope last week that, from Israel’s perspective, the conference could be salvaged.

A South African official — whose country, as host, has a vested interest in the conference’s success — proclaimed that a compromise had been reached and “Zionism equals racism” was off the agenda.

But American Jewish activists rejected the notion.

What anti-Israel states actually had done at the final preparatory meeting in Geneva earlier this month, the Jewish activists asserted, was to present cosmetic alterations that merely substituted the term “occupying power” for “Zionism.”

The intent remained the same, however — to single out Israel as the most egregious practitioner of racism in the world.

” ‘Occupying power’ is written in a way that it is a direct and exclusive reference to Israel; it can be interpreted in no other way, and was written for no other purpose,” said Jason Isaacson, director of government and international relations for the American Jewish Committee. “It is not a compromise at all; it is subterfuge.”

In fact, Jewish activists say, they left the Geneva meetings with a sense that Israel’s fate at the Durban conference was sealed.

In a private meeting with Jewish groups in Geneva, U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, under whose purview the conference falls, is said to have implied that she supports efforts to remove the harshest anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic language.

At the same time, Robinson — whom pro-Israel advocates long have accused of hostility toward the Jewish state — also indicated her belief that the Durban conference must address Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, even if that means spotlighting Israel at the conference.

“We tried to explain that in a conference about racism, to mention only one country implies that country is the worst offender in the world,” said Stacy Burdett, the Anti-Defamation League’s associate director of government affairs.

On the other hand, Jewish leaders across the board have praised the Bush administration for its “principled” stance.

The Anti-Defamation League has called on Washington to boycott the conference outright.

The American Jewish Committee has taken a slightly more nuanced tone, saying it trusts Washington will adhere to the criteria it has laid out for participating in the conference — that it won’t be involved in a declaration that singles out Israel for criticism, diminishes the memory and singularity of the Holocaust or downplays the problem of anti-Semitism.

“Our message to the administration has been that it laid down certain markers for what would be acceptable and what would not be acceptable,” said Isaacson, who also will attend the conference. “There are principles involved, and we would like to see the administration stick to its principles.”

If Powell does not attend, other Jewish groups, including the Religious Action Center, hope that Washington will send at least a lower-level delegation.

“You don’t want to legitimate what’s going on, but you also don’t want to leave the battlefield defenseless,” said Dina Siegal Vann, director for Latin America and U.N. affairs for B’nai B’rith International.

Vann said that if the conference is indeed hijacked by the Arab-Muslim bloc, the credibility of the United Nations will be at stake.

B’nai B’rith and others would want the American delegation to try to tone down the language. If it fails, they hope, the American delegation will either denounce the declaration, walk out in protest or both.

If Washington takes such a stand, the activists say, they hope other allies will follow suit.

Meanwhile, activists say they also are trying to ensure that “the Jews” not be blamed for destroying what was originally a well-intentioned conference on the need to eradicate racism.

To this end, their efforts include reiterating the reasons for Jewish opposition to the conference.

“It would be a tragedy if Powell couldn’t go, because we’d hoped he’d be able to attend it proudly,” Burdett said. “But we don’t think the conference organizers or the Arab members have left him any choice.”

(JTA correspondent Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this report.)

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