WASHINGTON, July 17 (JTA) Lawmakers and Jewish activists are working to block a U.N. panel from bringing back the infamous declaration that “Zionism is racism.”
The current draft of a resolution for next month’s U.N. Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa notes “with deep concern the increase in racist practices of Zionism.” The conference’s proposed declaration also minimizes the importance of the Holocaust by writing it with a small “h,” and notes the “ethnic cleansing of the Arab population in historic Palestine.”
“It’s a sinister attempt to hijack the whole conference,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “They are turning it into a political forum for private agendas.”
The Durban conference appears to be not an isolated event but merely one strand in a widening net of Arab attempts to paint Israel as a pariah in the international community.
“This is a watershed event,” Hoenlein said of the Durban conference, as the Arab states are trying to build “a body of evidence that says Israelis are war criminals.”
Most notably, a group of 28 Palestinians recently filed suit in Belgium accusing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of war crimes for his role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon. Sharon, who theoretically could be arrested if he sets foot in Belgium, canceled a planned visit during his European trip earlier this month.
Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said Arab countries see the United Nations as a place where their voice is as powerful as those of Israel and its allies, and where given their numerical superiority they can easily pass anti-Israel resolutions. Only a U.S. veto in the Security Council, or the threat of such, has forestalled several particularly hostile broadsides against Israel in recent years.
With the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks last year and the outbreak of violence, the racism conference “came about at the right time,” giving the Arab world an opportunity to bash Israel, Baker said.
Considering the rising hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians, the revival of anti-Israel animus at the United Nations “flows naturally,” Baker said. “There is no need for a conspiracy theory.”
The resolution equating Zionism with racism first passed in the United Nations in 1975, largely on the strength of the Arab and Soviet voting blocs. It was repealed in 1991 after President George Bush, riding on the heels of the Persian Gulf War, said reversing the language would enhance the U.N.’s credibility.
“Zionism is not a policy, it is an ideal that led to the creation of a home for the Jewish people, to the State of Israel,” Bush said. “And to equate Zionism with the intolerable sin of racism is to twist history and to forget the terrible plight of Jews in World War II and, indeed, throughout history.”
The phrase returned to the international lexicon last year, when Arab states inserted it into a regional draft for the racism conference at around the time the violent Palestinian uprising began in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In an attempt to chastise Israel, the Asian contingent of the conference, meeting in Tehran, also added paragraphs expressing concern about “the practices of racial discrimination against the Palestinians” and “Zionist practices against Semitism.”
The offending paragraphs have been bracketed by the conference’s steering committee, indicating that they are not consensual and require further debate. A preparatory conference is scheduled for Geneva later this month to tackle the divisive issues in the declaration, but they are not expected to be resolved before the Durban conference begins Aug. 31.
Jewish officials say there is a significant chance that the “Zionism is racism” sentiment could make it into the report’s final version. If so, it would be a “rocket booster” to those who wish to delegitimize Israel and justify violence and terror against the Jewish state, Hoenlein said.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to forestall this, but it’s by no means a closed question,” Hoenlein said. “The results of” the Geneva “pre-conference are going to be critical.”
Hoenlein said the Conference of Presidents has been trying to build European support against the anti-Israel clauses, with uncertain success.
On Tuesday, however, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told the Simon Wiesenthal Center that “anti-Zionism inevitably leads to anti-Semitism.”
American Jewish groups had been looking forward to the conference because, for the first time, a declaration is on the agenda that would condemn anti-Semitic practices. Now, however, they are focusing on controlling the damage from anti-Israeli sentiments.
“It casts an obscene notion on the meaning of Zionism,” said Baker, who is part of a team of American Jewish officials working to cut the offending references from the proclamation, and who will be part of a large delegation in Durban.
“The fate of the document really relies on the countries that have been silent until now,” said Stacey Burdett, associate director of government and national affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, who will be attending the Geneva preparatory conference.
“Our success will depend on getting governments who support our position to stand up and be counted,” Burdett said.
The ADL has sent a letter to foreign ministers urging them to participate in the conference, but to “assert that divisive language driven by hatred has no place in a conference against racism.”
A similar letter was sent to President Bush. American Jewish leaders have been impressed by the White House’s support for their stance.
Greg Sullivan, spokesman for the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs division, said the administration supports the goals of the racism conference, but is concerned the focus could be moved away from the key issues.
“Serious work has to be done to get away from unbalanced and inflammatory language on the Middle East,” Sullivan said.
The White House also is concerned about the conference’s call for reparations from the United States for the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Secretary of State Colin Powell is believed to be eager to attend the conference because of his personal interest in race issues, and because the American civil rights community sees the conference as an important event. But Sullivan said the level of U.S. participation has not been determined and will depend on the final language on the topics of Israel and the slave trade.
Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) is asking colleagues to sign a letter to Powell and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, asking them to intercede and prevent the “Zionism is racism” language from passing.
“Language, when it is almost institutionalized within the United Nations and international diplomacy, is a tool that will be used against the Israeli people,” Crowley told JTA.
The topic is divisive and doesn’t belong in a conference that is supposed “to bring people together and build a foundation for peace and reconciliation,” Crowley said, but added that the United States should not boycott the conference.
The United States did not participate in the first two racism conferences in 1978 and 1983, partially to protest the “Zionism is racism” philosophy.
(JTA Managing Editor Michael S. Arnold in New York contributed to this report.)