DURBAN, South Africa, Sept. 11 (JTA) — As terror struck New York and Washington, Jewish activists were still recovering from the ideological bomb of a U.N. conference that lashed out at Israel as racist and apartheid.
The final governmental declaration adopted here last Saturday by the U.N. World Conference Against Racism was dramatically toned down in its criticism of Israel.
But an earlier declaration by non-governmental organizations remains on the ledger as, in the view of Jewish activists, the most damning indictment of Jews since World War II.
The impact of the NGO declaration may be seen when a series of U.N. forums resumes later this month.
Israel and the United States withdrew their delegations from Durban several days after the NGO declaration, and vigorous lobbying by European governments managed to remove direct references to Israel from the conference’s final governmental declaration.
That prompted back-slapping in Jerusalem — but the document nevertheless criticizes the Jewish state by implication.
Compromise language adopted Saturday, after the conference had been extended a day in the search for a settlement, condemned anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The Arab bloc’s last-minute effort to label foreign occupation “among the forms and sources of racial discrimination” was also rejected.
But the conference did recognize the “plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation.”
In Israel, Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior breathed a sigh of relief that the document did not “include one word condemning Israel.” Foreign Minister Shimon Peres described it as an “accomplishment for Israeli foreign policy.”
Beneath the spin, though, lay a more ominous truth.
It would be one thing for the United Nations to acknowledge the Palestinian “plight” at say, the U.N. General Assembly. It’s another when the linkage is made at an anti-racism conference.
The implication is that Palestinian suffering is a result of racism — and that Israel therefore must be practicing racism.
In contrast to the governmental declaration, the NGO declaration requires no parsing. It accuses Israel of “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” “racism” and “apartheid.”
It calls for the creation of an international tribunal to investigate war crimes and other crimes that Israel allegedly has committed against the Palestinians.
And it unveils what Jewish observers say is a strategy aimed at dismantling Israel through extreme international isolation.
In linking Israel with the old South Africa as pariah apartheid states based on notions of racial superiority, the NGO declaration proposes a similar recipe for dismantlement — “mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel” and the “launch of an international anti-Israel apartheid movement” through “a global solidarity campaign network of international civil society, U.N. bodies and agencies, business communities, and to end the conspiracy of silence among states, particularly the European Union and the United States.”
While the “apartheid” tag is new, some Jewish activists suggested it is merely an escalation in the Palestinian diplomatic offensive against Israel.
“No doubt, the language adopted here is another brick in the wall for those using international human-rights mechanisms to delegitimize or even dismantle the Jewish state,” said Stacy Burdett, the Anti-Defamation League’s associate director of government affairs. “This movement has always existed. But our opponents have demonstrated an unprecedented sophistication and cunning.”
While the language may have changed, the intent remains the same, said Irwin Cotler, a Canadian parliamentarian and renowned human rights lawyer.
“In a world in which human rights has emerged as the secular religion of our time, Israel, portrayed as the worst of human-rights violators, is the new anti-Christ,” said Cotler, who worked closely with the Jewish caucus in Durban.
“Classical anti-Semitism was discrimination against or denial of the right of individual Jews to live as equal members of a free society,” he said. “The new anti-Jewishness is discrimination against or denial of the right of the Jewish state to live as an equal member of the family of nations.”
The declaration was so harsh that U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said she would not recommend it to governmental delegates as a guideline for their own declaration.
However, Robinson said she also was determined that the final declaration recognize the Palestinians’ “suffering” — indicating her belief that a racism conference was the proper context for Palestinian complaints.
While some observers and activists dismissed the NGO declaration as irrelevant, the Palestinians and their allies will be able to claim that the “voice of civil society” has spoken, since roughly 8,000 NGO delegates from around the world were on hand.
Jewish activists suggested that the NGO statement was so caustic that Palestinian sympathizers felt they could ease off in the government document, appearing magnanimous and open to compromise.
But Jewish observers said they wouldn’t be surprised if the “racist, apartheid” mantra comes up again when the U.N. General Assembly reconvenes in New York later this month, at an upcoming U.N. conference on children, at the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and in other forums.
In addition, pro-Palestinian student groups plan to launch a nationwide campaign on Oct. 12-14, urging people and institutions to divest from “Israeli apartheid,” a la South Africa.
The declaration raises other questions.
Some wonder whether the European defense of Israel in the waning days of the conference was motived by a sense of justice or Europe’s long-time desire to play a more influential role in the Mideast crisis.
Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, whose country currently holds the E.U.’s rotating presidency, hinted as much when, at a press conference late Friday night, he boasted that the continent is emerging as a “peace power.”
Since the intifada broke out a year ago, the Palestinians have been pushing to marginalize the Americans — who the Arab world considers hopelessly allied to Israel — and to “internationalize” the Mideast crisis by bringing in other parties.
When the European Union came to Israel’s defense at Durban, a Jordanian journalist lashed out at Michel, suggesting that the E.U.’s hard bargaining was damaging its status as a “neutral” player.
Finally, with the Mideast conflict drowning out practically all other causes at Durban — and detracting from a potentially historic apology for slavery — there was concern about who would be blamed for the missed opportunity.
Some at Durban grumbled about U.S. Jewish groups and Israel, alleging that they have too much influence in Washington and orchestrated the U.S. pullout.
“Those groups who didn’t get their issues aired fully will be looking for someone to blame,” said Alan Gold, a spokesman for B’nai B’rith International. “And the historic scapegoating is of the Jews.”