NEW YORK, June 15 (JTA) — The first United Nations conference on anti-Semitism is a serious step forward, but the real test will be its outcome, Jewish groups say. The daylong conference for non-governmental organizations, set for June 21, came at the behest of Shashi Tharoor, the U.N.’s undersecretary general for communications and public information. Hundreds are expected to attend the seminar, in which addresses by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and officials from major Jewish organizations will give anti-Semitism its highest profile ever at a U.N. forum. For that reason alone, the event has caught Jews’ attention. “The very fact that they are having an all-day conference to address this subject at a time when the institution was not willing or able to condemn it is an important message,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who will address the conference. Throughout its history, the United Nations has been loathe to address anti-Semitism in its own right, instead condemning it together with other forms of bigotry. Last fall, Ireland drafted the first stand-alone resolution to explicitly condemn anti-Semitism, but, to the chagrin of Jewish officials, withdrew it due to fierce opposition from Arab and Muslim states. The U.N.’s one-sided resolutions and discussions against Israel not only delegitimize the Jewish state, but let “anti-Zionism become a legitimate mask for anti-Semitism,” said Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights. “In a way, Annan is trying to restore the credibility of the United Nations as a body that has a universal concern to prevent the promotion of hate bigotry, discrimination for everybody.” Both Annan and Tharoor are “saying they believe the U.N. should stand up for what’s right, not cower with fear at the bigotry of others who would silence the U.N.,” Gaer said. While praising the effort, Jewish officials said they hope the seminar results in an action plan. “We hope that the secretary-general will use this platform to announce concrete steps that the U.N. is ready to take in order to fight anti-Semitism,” said Arye Mekel, Israel’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations. Others say it’s up to Jewish groups to plant those seeds. Jewish officials are discussing the possibility of securing a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning anti-Semitism or the appointment of an official to monitor anti-Semitism. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations recently called on the General Assembly to adopt a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, similar to one passed at a conference on anti-Semitism of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, held in Berlin in April. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, will reiterate that plea and call for internal monitoring of U.N. agencies that occasionally fall prey to anti-Semitism. He cites, for example, statements involving Holocaust denial by members of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. At the June 21 seminar, the World Jewish Congress will plug consensus points worked out at a meeting of dozens of Jewish NGOs last week. In his statement, World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman is to call for a General Assembly resolution condemning anti-Semitism; an annual U.N. report listing anti-Semitic incidents and plans to combat them; and the appointment by Annan of an assistant to deal with the question of anti-Semitism, said the congress’ executive vice president, Elan Steinberg. Bronfman wants to ensure the seminar is not a “one-shot event,” Steinberg said. Eve Epstein, an adviser to the U.N.’s Department of Public Information, which is coordinating the event, said she thinks the seminar “signals the U.N.’s willingness to influence the world’s NGO’s, which have in large measure been so unwilling to confront the issue of anti-Semitism, and indeed have sometimes contributed to its resurgence.” Epstein stressed that she was expressing her personal opinion, not that of the public information department. “This conference is an answer to Durban,” she said, referring to the U.N.’s 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which erupted in a frenzy of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric and activism. Since assuming his post a few years ago, Tharoor has considered ways to combat rising anti-Semitism, Epstein said. Pointed editorials last winter in the Wall Street Journal and Commentary magazine, and conversations with Jewish leaders, served as further impetus for action. Anne Bayefsky, an adjunct professor at Columbia University Law School, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan — who has occasionally paid lip-service to the problem of anti-Semitism — ignored the requests of both NGOs and the state sponsors of the anti-Semitism resolution to weigh in on the importance of the issue with U.N. members, or to press the point with the Organization of the Islamic Conference, just as he has never convened a conference or written a report dedicated to anti-Semitism.” “The U.N. is an organization founded on the ashes of the Jewish people, and whose core human rights principles were drafted from the lessons of the Holocaust,” she wrote. “The inability of the organization to address seriously one of the very evils it was intended to prevent is a scandal of global proportions.” The United Nations held a meeting last fall in which mental health experts discussed anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and religious intolerance. But most Jewish officials found the meeting, which lasted only a couple of hours, wholly unsatisfactory. The June 21 meeting is a serious attempt to address the problem, they say. “It’s the first time ever the U.N. has done anything like this,” Mekel said, adding that Annan’s participation lends moral weight to the topic. But the real measure of success will be whether the conference results in a concrete follow-up plan, Mekel said. “If it’s just a matter of a talk-fest, then it’s not as effective as it could be,” he said.
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