The Arab world’s assault on Israel in international forums reached new heights — or new lows — in Geneva this week, Jewish observers say.
It was there that the Algerian delegate to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights repeatedly invoked Holocaust imagery to describe Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.
As the Geneva meeting kicked off its 58th session Monday, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once again was expected to garner a disproportionate amount of attention and further harm Israel’s international image.
The 53-member commission — which is touted as the world’s leading body for protecting and promoting human rights, although it claims Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China and Sudan as members — ostensibly strives to bring peace to the Middle East, but its one-sided resolutions continue to prove counterproductive, pro-Israel advocates say.
“There are two parties to this contentious issue, and if one of these parties feels it’s bludgeoned and ganged up against, every time and in every international forum, then why would it feel moved to act?” said Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, whose small delegation in Geneva was led by President Richard Heideman.
“For that reason, it should fall on deaf ears in Israel.”
In his opening remarks on Thursday, Mohamed-Salah Dembri, the Algerian ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, reportedly said: “Kristallnacht repeats itself daily” against “the ghettoized Palestinian people.”
In comments translated from French by U.N. Watch, he added: “We must end this ‘night and fog’ ” — a reference to the German expression “nacht und nebel” used by the Nazis — “inflicted on the Palestinian population by the inheritors of the Shoah.”
The commission meeting, which lasts six weeks, comes amid a diplomatic spat between Israel and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who recently condemned Israel’s “illegal occupation” of parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and whose letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon criticizing Israeli policy was leaked to the media.
The commission gathering is the first to discuss global human rights issues since the U.N.-sponsored World Conference Against Racism late last summer in Durban, South Africa.
Israel and the United States walked out of that event, charging it had been hijacked by anti-Israel extremists.
In Durban, Israel was accused of “apartheid,” “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing” and “war crimes.” A final document was toned down — lamenting the “plight of the Palestinians” under “foreign occupation” — but the fact that such wording appears in an anti-racism document implies that the Palestinians are victims of Israeli racism.
Israel maintains that the conflict is over politics, not race.
Jewish activists in Durban said they were stunned by the level of vitriol aimed at Israel in general and Jews specifically and talked of being better prepared next time around.
They expected more of the same with Geneva approaching, and lobbied various governments with their concerns.
The Geneva-based U.N. Watch began lobbying diplomats in November and disseminated “talking points” to 40 major Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora to use for pro-Israel advocacy with their governments, said Andrew Srulevitch, the U.N. Watch’s executive director.
Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America planned its annual congress to coincide with the U.N. meeting in Geneva and invited 40 diplomats to its luncheon on the day of the opening session, said Amy Goldstein, Hadassah’s national director of Israel, Zionist and international affairs.
But the first week of debate was even worse than anticipated, Jewish observers reported.
This was for two reasons, they said: The dramatic spike in bloodshed over the past month of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. absence from the commission.
The United States, which routinely raises its influential voice in defense of Israel, has been relegated to “observer” status.
Last spring, the country lost its seat for the first time since the commission was created in 1947, when votes for the three seats designated for Western countries went to France, Austria and Sweden.
Many observers viewed the humiliating ouster as a rebuke of America’s perceived unilateralism, disregard for international treaties and controversial plan to build a missile-defense system.
Washington reportedly lobbied for months behind the scenes to win back its seat.
That campaign seemed to culminate last week with the announcement by Spain and Italy that they were withdrawing their candidacies to fill several new vacancies, paving the way for a U.S. return to the commission next year.
Elections will be held at the end of the current session, in late April.
But with Washington marginalized at the Geneva meeting, Jewish observers suggest it may embolden the Arab world to issue harsher denunciations of the Jewish state.
During the first week, the Syrian representative accused Israel of “genocide” and “massacres of children.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, whom Israeli officials and Jewish activists long have accused of harboring pro-Palestinian sympathies, opened the session Monday, saying, “Palestinians continue to be subjected to a wide range of human rights violations related to the ongoing occupation. Israel also continues to suffer from deliberate killings of civilians.”
Robinson, who announced her intention to step down from the post, called for international observers to be present on the ground “as a deterrent to the violations of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories and also to promote human security against suicide and other attacks on Israeli civilians.”
But Jewish activists were most taken aback by the remarks of Dembri, the Algerian ambassador.
“Must we wait in silence until new death camps are built, new massacres like at Babi Yar?” he said, according to the U.N. Watch translation.
And “what about the Israeli soldiers, the true disciples of Goebbels and of Himmler, who strip the clothes from their Palestinian prisoners in front of the cameras of the world and inscribe numbers on their bodies, just as they were tattooed in the concentration camps.”
With this ratcheting up of rhetoric, Goldstein said, the Arab world “tells us what they really intend to do. By taking the language of the Holocaust and turning it on its head, they are denying the history and the identity of the Jewish people.
“My question is: How are the Europeans going to respond to the hijacking of their history in this way?”
In fact, Jewish activists say they don’t expect the European Union to speak out.
Some speculated that the European Union might forward a proposed resolution that mirrored Annan’s language, criticizing Israel’s “illegal occupation.”
Instead, Guatemala was the most sharply critical of the Arab rhetoric.
According to a U.N. Watch observer at the meeting, the Guatemalan delegate said that his country recognizes the right of the Palestinian people to an independent state, but as long as the Palestinians and the Arab states are not encouraging peaceful negotiations, Guatemala will not accept their efforts.
As the 58th session progresses and resolutions are proposed and voted upon, Jewish activists say they hold out hope that Canada will fill the void left by the Americans.
After meeting with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Melchior earlier in the week in Geneva, Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham was quoted as saying that Melchior’s charge of an anti-Israel bias within the commission was “a perfectly fair comment.”
But it’s still unclear whether Canada will back that up with action.
In his opening speech Monday, Melchior addressed what he described as the rise of a new strain of anti-Semitism within international institutions:
“Like all the most dangerous viruses, anti-Semitism adapts itself to new surroundings and circumstances, clothing itself in a new garb in every generation.”
In Durban and elsewhere, he said, “it has taken on the form of political demonization of an entire nation — anti-Zionism.
“But, whatever its form, the basic truths about anti-Semitism still hold: It goes far beyond hatred of Jews. And, attacking the fundamentals of decency and humanity as it does, while Jews may be the first to suffer from its influence, they have rarely been the last.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.