WASHINGTON, Aug. 27 (JTA) — Sending a strong signal to the international community, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will boycott the U.N. World Conference Against Racism that begins this week because of statements that denigrate Zionism as racism.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Powell will not attend the conference in Durban, South Africa, because it continues to single out Israel for criticism.
“There was a whole series of references to one particular government, to one particular country, and to its policies as being racist,” Boucher said Monday. “That’s what we object to.”
Powell had expressed his interest in attending the conference, which begins Friday, and was being encouraged to do so by black and civil rights groups. But U.S. efforts failed to remove anti-Israel statements from the conference agenda, prompting Powell to opt out.
The United States is still debating whether to send a lower-level delegation to Durban, Boucher said, noting that Powell spoke several times over the weekend with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan about the conference.
It is believed the United States may boycott the conference completely if the anti-Israel language is not removed, or may send the lowest-level delegation possible, who will be there only as observers.
Following the U.S. cue, Israel and American Jewish groups also indicated they would boycott the conference or drastically reduce their presence.
Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America has been following the issue for two years. Hadassah sent a delegation to Durban, but by midweek was considering walking out.
“The countries of the world are making a decision right now to allow the Arab states and the Palestinians to hijack the conference and cynically manipulate the human condition to achieve narrow political victories,” said Amy Goldstein, Hadassah’s director of Israel, Zionist and international affairs. “The Jewish people have a lot to say on the issue of racism, but unfortunately they’re preventing Jewish civil society from speaking out by forcing us to defend our existence.”
Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, said that after Washington’s announcement, the WJC, the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel decided to boycott the Durban conference.
“There’s very little to hope for, given the wording of the declaration and the hopelessness of ‘friendly countries’ not supporting us,” Singer said. “We want people to know that those who have put out this statement have undercut international organizations and the cause for human rights. We shall continue to support both international organizations and human rights, but not through this machinery.”
The State Department decision was foreshadowed Friday when President Bush told reporters that he did not want to send a delegation of any kind to Durban unless the language on the agenda was changed substantively.
“We have made it very clear, through Colin Powell’s office, that we will have no representative there so long as they pick on Israel, so long as they continue to say Zionism is racism,” Bush said in a press conference in Texas Friday. “If they use the forum as a way to isolate our friend and strong ally, we will not participate.”
The United States also is concerned about demands for slave trade reparations, but Boucher said the major sticking point was the language relating to Jews and Israel. It includes writing the Holocaust with a small h — minimizing its uniqueness — and criticizing the supposed “ethnic cleansing of the Arab population in historic Palestine.”
Arab and Muslim states inserted the anti-Israeli rhetoric during preparatory conferences in which countries submitted referenda for debate. American Jewish groups, who will attend the conference as non-governmental organizations, worked with the United State and Israel to remove the language, to no avail.
The American Jewish community has had mixed views on whether Powell or a lower-level American delegation should go to Durban, but many felt Powell sent a strong message to the international community by deciding to boycott.
“It shows the Bush administration’s commitment to not allowing those who are opposed to peace to use this conference for their anti-Israel agenda,” said Rebecca Needler, spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“That message is ultimately more important than coming here and trying to get the conference back on track,” said Michael Salberg, a national commissioner for the Anti-Defamation League who is in Durban preparing for the summit.
Jason Isaacson, director of governmental and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said Powell’s presence at the conference would have been significant because he is “emblematic of the struggle and the prospects of overcoming the hurdles of racism.”
“He would have been a fitting representative of the United States at the conference, and the fact that those who are hijacking the conference have cost it the stature that would have come from his participation is significant,” Isaacson said. “It has got to send a message to the rest of the world.”
B’nai B’rith International President Richard Heideman last week called on the State Department to send the “most experienced delegation possible” to Durban. But he said Monday that Powell’s decision balanced the need for experienced leadership with the need to distance the United States from the inflammatory statements.
“Sending Secretary Powell dignifies the conference,” Heideman said. “By refusing to send Powell, the statement is being made very clear that the United States disapproves of the language of the conference and disapproves of the environment of hate that is surrounding the conference.”
A week before the forum begins, literature denigrating Zionism as racism and apartheid already has sprung up in Durban. One packet, sponsored by an Arab lawyers association, has the Star of David superimposed on a swastika.
Posters around the convention hall feature the image of Mohammed Dura, a Palestinian boy killed in Israeli-Palestinian crossfire in the first few weeks of violence last fall. The posters read “Israel = Colonialism = Apartheid.”
(JTA Correspondent Michael J. Jordan contributed to this report.)