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For Some Israelis, U.N. Forum Revives Memories of Persecution

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Israelis had little time to savor, with grim gratification, the United States’ walkout from the U.N. World Conference Against Racism early this week.

Early the following morning, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up outside a hospital in downtown Jerusalem, gravely injuring a policeman and wounding a dozen passers-by.

While Israel was raked over the coals in Durban, South Africa, for its “aggression” and “racism” in response to Palestinian violence, Palestinian terror bombings in the heart of civilian areas — the ultimate act of racism — got little attention at the conference.

In such bombings, men, women and children are targeted only because they are Jews. There is no attempt to narrow down the field of victims by applying other criteria such as age or fighting ability. Race is the sole death warrant.

While Tuesday’s bomb belongs in the context of a conflict in which both sides have bitter grievances, the irony of Israel being physically attacked on the streets of Jerusalem while being verbally assailed in the meeting rooms of Durban was not lost on Israelis.

The public is united behind the government’s decision Monday to follow the United States in walking out of the conference.

“This is the first time that the opposition entirely endorses the government’s position,” opposition leader Yossi Sarid said Tuesday.

However, important differences of opinion, which transcend the usual hawk-dove divide, are emerging here as a traumatized nation begins to take stock.

The fault line that seems to be forming is between those seeking rational explanations and advocating rational responses to the harsh anti-Israeli criticism at Durban, and others who feel the surge of anti-Semitism on display has deep and dark roots that can’t by plumbed by reason, throwing some Israelis back into a fortress mentality they thought had been left behind.

Leftist-rationalists like Sarid do not excuse the Israel-bashers at the U.N. conference or the NGO conference that preceded it. Yet they maintain that Israel’s 34-year occupation of land the Palestinians claim in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has blighted Israel’s image in much of the world, especially among Western liberals and among nations that were former colonies.

Rationalists on the right say Israel has failed to respond with enough toughness and resilience to the past year of Palestinian violence, leading haters of Israel to conclude they can attack the Jewish state in the international arena with impunity.

Politicians on both sides, among them former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party and leading Labor Party dove Yossi Beilin, criticize the government for not fighting hard enough before and at the Durban conference.

These critics say Israel should have sent a top-level delegation — including public relations whizzes such as Netanyahu, who fought unsuccessfully to be included in Israel’s delegation — to counter Arab and Muslim polemicists who postured at Durban before thousands of journalists from around the world.

Some critics fault international Jewish organizations for sending limited representation to Durban following the decisions of the American and Israeli governments to send low-level delegations.

The critics say that international Jewish organizations and Israeli human rights groups should have mobilized their top leadership, and also brought vociferous groups of Jewish students to demonstrate against the large Muslim contingents. In fact, Ha’aretz journalist Yair Sheleg noted this week how much coverage Israeli students had won at Durban by handing out flowers to Arab students who were haranguing them with hatred and threats.

Some Israeli commentators sought to downplay the long-term repercussions of Durban, placing it in the context of the worldwide anti-globalization movement that in recent years has exploded into violence in Seattle, Prague, Genoa, Italy, and other venues.

Because of Israel’s close alliance with Washington, these rationalists say, Israel is a vicarious victim of the Durban demonstrators’ anti-American fervor, not their primary target.

This school echoes the views of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who noted that most Western or developed countries opposed the harsh criticism of Israel that prompted the U.S. to leave.

“We regret very much the very bizarre show in Durban,” Peres said Monday. “An important convention that was supposed to defend human rights became a source of hatred, a show of unfounded accusation, a reverse to every responsibility on the international arena.”

European nations, in particular, said they were as opposed as the United States to the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments on display, but believed they could be more effective by remaining in Durban and trying to tone down the criticism. One such attempt by Norway, which continued after the United States and Israel pulled their delegations, was believed to have little chance of success.

Peres suggested that the backroom support for Israel represented something of a diplomatic victory, given the immense pressure that Arab and Muslim states had exerted on Western countries, India, Japan and Russia to support anti-Israel resolutions. Some even predicted a backlash by developed countries against Durban and the embarrassment it had caused them.

But there are other Israelis who find themselves unable to explain away what happened at Durban. The media here are full of dire allusions to the pre-Holocaust period in Europe, and to other, more distant waves of historical anti- Semitism.

“We have all of us been marked as targets for extermination,” columnist Amnon Dankner wrote in the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. “Countries compared to whose crimes our own are as the driven snow have singled us out for death.

“Throughout history it has been that way,” Dankner wrote. “Before a pogrom they hold a conference, and take decisions effectively excluding the Jews from the legitimate comity of nations.”

Writing in the Jerusalem Post, commentator Yossi Olmert wrote: “Not all the participants in Durban are Nazis, maybe not even a majority of them, but too many are, and they clearly give this shameful gathering its true character, that of an unmitigated wild hatred toward everything Jewish.

“We are strong enough to stand up to our enemies, but in order to do so, we need to realize the scope and true objectives of their hatred,” Olmert wrote. “Here is the only advantage of Durban. It enables us, albeit grudgingly, to better understand the realities of our existence.”

Other observers noted that in recent years anti-Semitism has increased even in countries where virtually no Jews remain after the Holocaust. At Durban, this bizarre phenomenon progressed still further: Countries that never had a Jewish population or any dealings with Jews jumped on the Arabs’ anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bandwagon, enthusiastically endorsing language evoking the darkest annals of Jewish history.

The emotional distress of the “irrationalists” was compounded by the knowledge that Israel — the realization of the Zionist dream — was supposed to end the age-old scourge of anti-Semitism.

If there is one clear lesson that Israelis draw from the anti-racism conference at Durban, it is that this particular form of racism is still very much alive.

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