U.N. Conference Has Groups Worrying About Durban Sequel

Jewish groups are casting a watchful eye on the first preparatory meetings for what some are calling Durban II, the follow-up to the infamous U.N.-sponsored conference against racism in 2001.

The World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa on the eve of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was a scandal of global proportions, according to Jewish officials who were present. Representatives of Jewish non-governmental organizations were harassed, sometimes physically, while anti-Semitic propaganda — including copies of “Mein Kampf” and the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — were freely distributed. The Israeli and American delegations walked out in protest.

On Monday, governments will meet in Geneva to begin preparations for a follow-up conference, due to be held in 2009, that has some groups worried that a repeat of the 2001 debacle is in the works.

“What we saw emerge from there is the script that the Jewish world is struggling with right now,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “Apartheid was consecrated there. Divestment, apartheid, sanctions — in some ways also the first sort of introduction of an approach in which it was no longer a matter of where Israel’s borders should be, it was an assault on Israel’s right to exist.”

Several decisions that may be taken next week are considered key determinants of whether the 2009 conference will follow the lead of Durban I — among them, the conference’s size and location, the extent to which NGOs will participate, and whether the final document from the Durban conference, known as the plan of action, will be reconsidered.

Already, some developments are worrying Jewish activists. Libya has been selected as the chair of the planning committee, which also includes Iran and Cuba. The U.N. Human Rights Council, the body deemed by many in the Jewish world to be even worse for Israel than its discredited predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights, was designated to oversee the preparations. And the United States, which could potentially blunt the worst anti-Israel excesses, will not officially participate in the planning meeting.

On Thursday, the United Nations released a list of NGOs wishing to participate in the 2009 conference that includes a number of Palestinian and Arab groups known for their vigorous opposition to Zionism and the Jewish state.

Adding to the anti-Israel atmosphere is a second conference, due to open Thursday in Brussels, organized by a U.N. committee on Palestinian rights that pro-Israel activists view as unfailingly hostile to the Jewish state. The United Nations International Conference of Civil Society in Support of Israeli-Palestinian Peace is being held at the European Parliament, adding the imprimateur of the European Union to what some Jewish leaders say is certain to be two days of vilification and condemnation of Israel.

“We’re very concerned,” said Sybil Kessler, director of U.N. affairs for B??????nai Brith International, of the Durban preparatory conference. “The composition of the bureau is problematic. The legacy of Durban is hanging above us. This session is going to decide potentially whether this is going to be another fiasco or whether this is going to help redirect the U.N. agenda on racism and move beyond the problematic legacy of Durban.”

While Jewish observers widely agree that coordination among Jewish groups and outreach to sympathetic allies will be crucial, there is little evidence that such coordination is in the making. Groups already differ on how seriously to take next week’s conference. U.N. Watch, an American Jewish Committee-affiliated watchdog group, and the Wiesenthal Center will have delegates on hand for the Geneva meetings, while the Anti-Defamation League is electing not to attend and the World Jewish Congress is sending a representative, Shai Franklin, only because he happened to have previous plans to be in Geneva.

“We’re trying to keep a sense of proportion, which doesn’t mean downplaying things, it means seeing what’s going on and where this might head,” Franklin said.

Groups also differ on strategy. Some are calling for reaching out to NGOs, which were responsible for some of the fiercest anti-Israel language to emerge from Durban. Hillel Neuer, of U.N. Watch, says the Europeans are the key actors given the absence of the United States. Anne Bayefsky, the director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust and editor of Eye on the UN, says attention should be directed to Washington — not Geneva.

“Congress holds the purse strings,” Bayefsky said. “Congress decides whether or not its foreign operations budget is used for the funding of U.N. meetings, and which U.N. meetings. We can’t do anything in Geneva.”

Shimon Samuels, the Paris-based representative of the Wiesenthal Center who says he was thrown off an NGO steering committee related to the first Durban conference because he was Jewish, thinks little can be done to stop a recurrence of 2001.

“I don’t think we can avert a recurrence,” said Samuels, who intends to be in Geneva next week. “I think what we can do is be informed. We can this time reach out, because there are many, many frustrated NGOs who are brought in at their own cost to exotic places with money they don’t have to be window dressing. They are cheerleaders. We did not take advantage of them last time.”

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