UNITED NATIONS, May 11 (JTA) — Israel commemorated 50 years of rocky membership at the United Nations by giving the world body a symbolic gift. At a brief ceremony in the U.N.’s towering headquarters in New York, Israel’s foreign minister presented Secretary-General Kofi Annan with a stone from a fourth-century synagogue in the northern Galilee. The stone “only emphasizes the uninterrupted Jewish existence for thousands of years in the land of Israel,” Ariel Sharon said in a speech that stressed Israel’s nationhood, making only tacit reference to the United Nations. In the years since the U.N. General Assembly admitted the fledgling nation into its ranks on May 11, 1949, Israel has faced almost continuous challenges by a majority of the U.N.’s 185 member-nations to its policies and even the ideology supporting its existence. In what many consider to be the nadir of Israel’s U.N. status, the assembly, led by the Soviet Union, resolved in 1975 that “Zionism is racism.” The resolution remained on the books for 16 years before it was repealed. Israel is regularly singled out at the United Nations, and Arab-Muslim member- states virtually ensures the passage of anti-Israel resolutions. Only the United States regularly votes in Israel’s favor. “Having criticism of governments is nothing new” at the U.N., said Felice Gaer, the director of Jacob Blaustein Institute of the American Jewish Committee. “But the relentless focus on Israel has really been unparalleled,” Gaer said, considering Israel’s size, the scope of the criticism — which has permeated “every area of the U.N. and its specialized agencies” — its persistence and intensity. Still, Gaer, who has been observing Israel at the United Nations for 25 years, said in an interview that she sees some subtle indications of progress and improving civility toward Israel at the United Nations, which she attributes in large part to Annan’s leadership. At the ceremony marking Israel’s 50-year milestone, it was Annan, generally regarded as a friend to Israel, who touched on the Jewish state’s turbulent U.N. history. Israel “has a home here at the U.N.,” Annan said, “I know at times it has not seemed like a home.” Of all of the 185 U.N. member-nations, Israel alone is prevented from belonging to a regional group and is, thereby, precluded from election to the Security Council, among other significant committees. So far even the West European and Others Group — which includes “others” as far-flung as Australia and New Zealand — has denied Israel’s entry. Speaking at an anniversary dinner Tuesday attended by Israel’s first U.N. representative, Abba Eban, and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Annan said Israel could “do much more” for the U.N. if it belonged to a regional group. He reiterated a pledge he made last year in Jerusalem to encourage a solution to this “anomaly.” The United Nation’s most recent inhospitable act came in February , when the General Assembly voted in favor of an Arab-sponsored resolution to convene an international conference to discuss Israeli construction plans for the Har Homa neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem. If convened, the July 15 meeting would be the first-ever gathering for any reason of the parties to the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of civilians during wartime. “The parties have never met in all these 50 years of the existence of the convention,” the director of U.N. affairs for B’nai B’rith, and a 30-year U.N. veteran, said. “Look what’s happened in Kosovo, but because Jews are building homes in Jerusalem, that’s why they want to meet,” said Harris Schoenberg, who attended the gift-giving ceremony. Israeli Ambassador to the United States Zalman Shoval, U.N. Ambassador Dore Gold and Consul General Shmuel Sisso attended the ceremony, and U.N. representatives of several Arab, African and European countries looked on. Also present were Melvin Salberg and Ronald Lauder, the chairman and chairman-elect of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive vice chairman. The Presidents Conference, an umbrella organization of Jewish groups, received a letter from President Clinton denouncing the Geneva conference as counterproductive “in that it would both damage the peace process and politicize the practice of humanitarian law.” In the April 1 letter, Clinton also said he raised the issue with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. Hoenlein said the Presidents Conference is launching a “worldwide campaign” to educate international leaders about the issue. He said Jewish leaders had already met with officials from Greece, Nigeria, Azerbaijan and Pakistan. The implications of the unprecedented Geneva meeting are unclear, said Hoenlein in an interview. It could “become a forum for ‘Zionism is racism’ in a 21st-century form.” Annan reportedly held a “very constructive” meeting with American Jewish leaders early this week to discuss their concerns over the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Palestinians’ increasing reference to U.N. Resolution 181 as a source of Palestinian sovereignty. Last month, the U.N. Human Rights Commission passed a resolution supporting the Palestinians’ right to self-determination based on that resolution and Resolution 194, which calls for the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Also known as the 1947 Partition Plan, Resolution 181 proposed dividing British Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, with Jerusalem under international control. In the past, such support was based on U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which call for the exchange of land for peace and for negotiating recognized borders. These resolutions served as the basis for the Israeli- Palestinian peace process. With these storm clouds looming on the United Nation’s horizon, Annan called for a “new climate” of cooperation between Israel and the United Nations based on their shared values of “freedom, democracy and tolerance,” and shared goals of “peace, security and an end to fear and upheaval.” Speaking moments after he and Sharon together removed the dark blue cloth to reveal the stone from Kfar Yasif— which bears carved Jewish symbols, including a seven-branched menorah — Annan drew parallels between Israel’s mission to be “a light unto nations” and the United Nation’s role as “a “torch of peace, freedom and human rights.” Many member-states have made similar gifts to the U.N. headquarters. Israel’s stone now stands on a pedestal facing Iraq’s 1977 gift, a pillar depicting the code of Hammurabi from 1792-1750 B.C.E. Just across the hallway is the corridor that leads to the chambers of the Economic and Social Committee — which Israel is ineligible to join.