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U.N. meetings raise fears of Durban II

An anti-Israel sign at a rally at the U.N. World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001. (Simon Wiesenthal Center)

An anti-Israel sign at a rally at the U.N. World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001. (Simon Wiesenthal Center)

NEW YORK (JTA) – Jewish groups cast a watchful eye on this week’s 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 opened meetings 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 emerged from the first Durban conference 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 were expected to be taken this 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. On Monday, Libya was elected 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, is overseeing the preparations. And the United States, which could potentially blunt the worst anti-Israel excesses, did not officially participate in the planning meeting.

The first day of meetings seemed to confirm the worst. Egypt, speaking on behalf of the African Group, singled out Israel for its “continued occupation of Palestine and violations arising therefrom.” Pakistan, speaking for the Organization of the Islamic Conference, urged the conference to “move the spotlight on the continued plight of Palestinian people” and accused watchdog groups of waging a “smear campaign” against the gathering.

Anne Bayefsky, director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust and editor of Eye on the U.N., called the opening session “a slap in the face to every state and non-governmental organization that really cares about equality and non-discrimination.”

Adding to the anti-Israel atmosphere is a second conference, due to open Aug. 30 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 was to be 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 B’rith International, of the 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 had delegates on hand for the Geneva meetings, while the Anti-Defamation League chose not to attend. The World Jewish Congress sent 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. Bayefsky 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 repeat 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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