NEW YORK, Aug. 15 (JTA) As Jewish activists scramble to block an effort to resurrect the “Zionism is Racism” canard, they also are working to defuse potential problems with the black community over the issue of slavery reparations.
In the run-up to the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, slated to begin Aug. 31 in Durban, South Africa, attention has focused on the Arab campaign to single out Israel as a racist state perpetrating a holocaust against the Palestinian people.
In response, pro-Israel advocates have enlisted as many allies as they can find including America’s mainstream black leadership.
Lost in the shuffle, however, has been the cause celebre of some black leaders: forcing the U.N. conference to address the legacy of slavery, even holding the Western powers accountable for their historic role in the slave trade.
That has placed American Jewish activists in an awkward position.
Jews have relied on the Bush administration to lobby against the attempt to denigrate Zionism as racism, as well as other perceived anti-Israel or anti-Semitic wording.
A senior South African official said this week that the “Z=R” issue had been removed from the conference agenda, according to Reuters.
However, an American Jewish Committee official working closely on the issue dismissed the purported compromise as “subterfuge.”
In the current draft, references to Zionism and Israel simply are replaced with the term “occupying power,” said Jason Isaacson, the AJCommittee’s director of government and international affairs.
But the document still “is written for no other purpose than to single out Israel,” Isaacson said.
The Bush administration has threatened to boycott the conference if attempts to link Zionism and racism continue, perhaps keeping Secretary of State Colin Powell at home or sending only lower-level diplomats.
Either step likely would undermine the credibility of any declaration to emerge from Durban.
Indeed, for Powell, America’s first black secretary of state, to attend would be “a prize for the conference,” one Jewish activist said.
For that very reason, the U.S. congressional black leadership insists that Powell attend to deal with the slavery issue, despite the anti-Israel rhetoric.
In exchange for their support for the Jewish cause and to maintain harmony in occasionally bumpy relations some blacks want Jews to stand with them on slavery, which in Durban may include a demand for reparations.
Jewish organization have yet to formulate a position on slavery reparations, and the black community itself seems divided on the issue.
The Bush administration rejects the call for reparations and has indicated that, if addressed at all, the issue must be tackled on America’s own terms, not at an international conference.
Joining the blacks would force Jews to lock horns with the one ally that has enough sway to make or break the conference.
Moreover, if Washington carries through on its threat to boycott Durban over Z=R, there is concern that some blacks would blame Jews for it. They also might accuse the Bush administration of using Z=R as a smokescreen to duck debate on America’s slave-owning past.
Over the past month, anger has built in Congress against the Arab campaign to link Zionism with racism, culminating with a July 26 resolution sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) that condemned the direction in which the conference appeared headed.
Black politicians reportedly were irritated by what they considered the Jews’ single-mindedness, and their lack of reciprocity toward black concerns.
That caught the attention of Rabbi Marc Schneier, president and co- founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Schneier said, were complaining to him that Lantos’ resolution was “too one-sided” and did not “refer to the needs and aspirations of blacks on the issue of slavery.
“We were very, very concerned that our colleagues should in no way interpret that we are being insensitive to their needs,” Schneier said.
The solution, he said, was for Jews to better communicate the reasons for their visceral rejection of the proposed language at Durban, while simultaneously expressing some support for black concerns.
In collaboration with the World Jewish Congress, Schneier formulated a letter that condemned the language and added: “We also support the efforts of African American leaders to raise and address important issues surrounding the historic tragedy of slavery and the resulting efforts to seek reparations.”
The July 31 letter did not commit the Jewish groups to supporting reparations per se, or raising the issue in Durban specifically.
Schneier got 28 Jewish and black members of Congress to sign on, including Lantos and such heavyweights as Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY); the Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D- Texas), and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.).
“The letter clarified that we are in unison, and it spoke to both issues of concern to our communities,” Devona Dolliole, spokeswoman for the Congressional Black Caucus, told JTA.
In addition, it didn’t “cross the red lines” established by the White House, said Elan Steinberg, the WJC executive director.
“We don’t operate in a political vacuum, and we were aware of the political realities,” Steinberg said. “We thought about what we could do to promote both Jewish and black aspirations, without causing harm to our group concerns. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years; we don’t need to have this issue create a new wedge between our two communities.”
Though some dismissed Schneier’s warning of potential damage to black-Jewish relations as a bid for media attention, his call also highlights the weight Jewish activists give to the half-century-old alliance between the two communities.
Without fail, Jewish activists note Jews’ and blacks’ common history of persecution and their shared fight for civil rights and against prejudice.
Slavery’s legacy one day might become another joint cause.
Some black leaders have solicited tips from Jewish activists on how they successfully extracted Holocaust reparations from Europe.
Other black leaders primarily from the fringe, activists say have been less polite, pressing for Jewish support with an approach along the lines of, “You got your reparations for the Holocaust, now it’s time to help us.”
Jews caution against comparing the two epochs, emphasizing to their black counterparts the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide against the Jews.
They also say that the Jewish community cannot be out in front on the issue of slavery, ahead even of the black community itself.
The onus is on blacks first to formulate a consensus like Jews did with Holocaust restitution toward the issue, Jewish activists say.
At this point, black opinion seems mixed: Some push for monetary restitution, others for “moral” restitution primarily in the form of an apology and still others for increased aid to combat AIDS in Africa.
The Jewish activists “are right,” said Dolliole, the Congressional Black Caucus spokeswoman, “we as a community need to determine what are the best ways to address the effects of slavery.”
Once blacks themselves have established a communal position, Jewish organizations could determine their take and may very well follow their lead.
“We don’t have a position on every issue, but slavery is certainly an issue to which we are open to discussion,” said Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee, who will be attending the U.N. conference in Durban.
“The Jewish community recognizes the tremendous tragedy and criminality of slavery and is open to a full examination of the ways in which society can address that history,” Isaacson said.