DURBAN, South Africa, Sept. 5 (JTA) — Some of the non-Jewish groups at the U.N. World Conference Against Racism that looked on as Israel was labeled a “racist, apartheid” state now are lining up to denounce the declaration as deeply flawed and anti-Semitic.
And perhaps in response to mounting criticism that they went too far, the Palestinian and other Arab caucuses released a statement Wednesday in which they seemed to backtrack from the harshest language in the declaration.
The conference ends Friday, and its success is very much in doubt following the walkout earlier this week by the American and Israeli delegations and the Jewish caucus.
Because of that, it appeared Wednesday that the anti-Israel tide was turning somewhat. But it still was considered likely that a final declaration would cite deep concerns about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Sources speculated that the apparent Arab retreat was an effort to seek compromise language for a final declaration of the governmental portion of the U.N. conference. The harshest condemnations of Israel appeared in a document approved over the weekend by nongovernmental organizations that met before the governmental conference began.
France appeared to be pressing for such a compromise Wednesday, when a French Cabinet member quoted Prime Minister Lionel Jospin as saying that France and its European partners might withdraw from the conference if a declaration labeling Israel as racist were not dropped.
Canadian Foreign Minister John Manley also left the conference in protest. Lower-level Canadian delegates are remaining in Durban to try to ameliorate draft language that is “absolutely unacceptable to us,” Multiculturalism Minister Hedy Fry said.
On Tuesday, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, whom Jewish leaders and activists say has done little to silence the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish vitriol here, said she was so “distressed and disturbed” by the NGO document that she could not recommend it to the governmental delegates hammering out their own declaration.
In particular, Robinson said it was unacceptable to accuse Israel of genocide.
Toward the end of the day Wednesday, the Palestinian and Arab caucuses released a statement saying they were “shocked and dismayed” by Robinson’s refusal to recommend the NGO declaration.
“Mrs. Robinson has rejected the voices of all the victims of racism and the thousands of delegates who were present at the NGO Forum,” the press release read.
The caucuses also sought to clarify — and seemingly tone down — the NGOs’ charges that Israel is guilty, for example, of “genocide.”
Instead, the Arab groups said, Israel should be accused of “acts of genocide” related to the 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during the Lebanon War. The massacres were carried out by Lebanese Christian militias allied to Israel.
The press release also condemned “in the strongest terms any and all anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish materials, including any that may have been circulated at the conference. Those materials that condemn the State of Israel for its systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, or condemn those racist practices conducted in the name of Zionism, are not anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish.”
According to one Arab activist here, Jamil Dakwar, an Israeli Arab lawyer with Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, “The statement is to make it clear that the Palestinian NGOs’ position is well-based on international law and norms, and that the victims of racism should not be blamed for any failure of this conference.
“According to international law, it’s not accurate to use the term genocide with regard to the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the suffering of the Palestinian people,” Dakwar told JTA. “Accuracy is important so as to not undermine other genocides, such as the Armenians, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and the horrors of the Holocaust.”
It’s not totally clear why so many non-Jewish groups waited nearly four full days to dissociate themselves from the NGO declaration indicting Israel for “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.”
They blame the confusion prevalent during the conference, and say they worried that publicly disavowing the declaration might undermine a resolution whose other portions were well-intentioned.
In the end, though, a growing number of NGO representatives now say they are obliged to distance themselves from the declaration because the anti-Jewish section flew in the face of the conference’s declared aim — to extinguish racism.
While expressing concern for “abuses” Israel allegedly has committed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they say the language used was inaccurate and inflammatory.
On Wednesday, the head of one caucus, the Asian and Asian Descendants Caucus, took the extraordinary step of confessing that amid the chaos of the late-night approval session — during which the Jewish caucus walked out in protest — she inadvertently voted to strike the passage Jewish activists had inserted that identified anti-Zionism as a virulent new form of anti-Semitism.
“I found to my embarrassment and dismay that I had mistakenly voted” for the motion, said Karen Narasaki of the United States, president and executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium.
At the same news conference Wednesday, several groups, led by a key Washington-based coalition of multicultural groups, also spoke out against the “fervently rhetorical attacks” on Israel.
Without mentioning the groups responsible, they rued the fact that media coverage of the Palestinian question had drowned out virtually all other issues at the conference.
While much of the NGO declaration’s language is valid and crucial for fighting racism, some of it “clearly crosses the line into elements of anti-Semitism, which we believe is totally unacceptable,” said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. “We think it’s extremely important for the NGO community to stand up and make clear where it stands on these issues.”
Jewish activists were encouraged by the statements.
“We’re very pleased to hear them speak out and are very proud that they are our coalition partners,” said Reva Price, Washington representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “The heartfelt emotion and understanding of our issues is very gratifying. It’s tragic that the issues that they’ve come to talk about in Durban have not gotten the same attention as the Middle East and Israel.”
The Eastern and Central Europe Caucus weighed in later Wednesday afternoon, saying it could not endorse the NGO declaration, which was generated by a process that had been “hijacked” and was “neither democratic or transparent.”
Indeed, final approval of Saturday’s NGO declaration came nearly six hours into the meeting, at 1:30 a.m., with only 100 delegates from the 8,000 who attended the conference reportedly ratifying it with applause.
Representatives of the Eastern and Central Europe Caucus said Wednesday that a petition they are circulating opposing the NGO declaration has attracted signatures from 77 groups so far.
“We must emphasize that the language of the chapter ‘Palestinians and Palestine,’ as well as the deliberate distortions made to the chapter ‘Anti-Semitism,’ is extremely intolerant, disrespectful and contrary to the very spirit” of the conference, said caucus head Yuri Dzhibladze, president of the Center for Development of Democracy and Human Rights in Russia.
(JTA correspondent Bill Gladstone in Toronto contributed to this report.)