Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Faced with Hostility at U.N. Forum, Jewish Activists Seek to Place Blame

September 5, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

As the U.N. World Conference Against Racism lurches toward a conclusion, shell-shocked Jewish officials are lashing out at the parties they hold responsible for the virulent anti- Semitic and anti-Israel attacks here.

The Palestinians and the Arab world would be an obvious target for the Israel-bashing, except that the only surprising thing about their well-orchestrated propaganda campaign was its scope and intensity.

Rather, Jewish politicians and activists are venting their anger at the United Nations, governments, human rights groups and thousands of nongovernmental organizations perceived as complicit in the anti-Israel attacks, either by their support or by their silence.

The incidents are too numerous to count, activists say.

On the grounds of the U.N. conference itself, the Arab Lawyers Union distributed pamphlets filled with grotesque caricatures of hook-nosed Jews depicted as Nazis, spearing Palestinian children, dripping blood from their fangs, with missiles bulging from their eyes or with pots of money nearby. Attempts to have the group’s U.N. accreditation revoked were refused.

Under the tent where the final NGO declaration was approved over the weekend — a document that indicts Israel as a “racist, apartheid state” guilty of genocide and ethnic cleansing — fliers were found with a photo of Hitler and the following question: “What if Hitler had won? There would be no Israel, and no Palestinian bloodshed.”

In a Palestinian-led march with thousands of participants, a placard was held aloft that read “Hitler Should Have Finished the Job.” Nearby, someone was selling the most notorious of anti-Jewish tracts, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Many participants have sought to explain away such incidents as political speech or the work of “extremists.”

In fact, there has been a confluence of factors, Jewish observers say.

Among them:

Many delegates who are ignorant or naive about the Middle East have been bombarded with extreme demonization of Israel and the Jews.

An anti-America, anti-globalization animus from the Third World — fueled by a speech from Cuban President Fidel Castro and the perceived U.S. refusal to discuss reparations for slavery — may have been projected onto Israel as America’s ally.

The ambitions of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who may need to curry favor with the Arab world if she hopes to replace Kofi Annan as U.N. secretary-general.

The ease and convenience of scapegoating a tiny minority — 13 million Jews — for many of the world’s ills.

Throughout the conference’s first week, Jews complained of being constantly under threat and attack, verbally if not physically.

After a day in which she felt under siege as a Jew and defender of Israel, one activist burst into tears while singing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, at a Shabbat dinner hosted by Durban’s Jewish community.

A Dutch delegate said she was stunned by the atmosphere.

“My father survived the Holocaust and my mother was hidden, so when I see these cartoons I see what was going on in 1930s Germany,” said Hadassa Hirschfeld, the adjunct director of the Hague-based Center Information and Documentation Israel.

“No one’s speaking out for us against the hate. I’m so sick of it. It’s all covered up, that it’s ‘against Israel,’ ” Hirschfeld said. “But this is against the Jews. And if they don’t speak out, then the world is silent again.”

The U.S. delegation did its talking with its feet, walking out Monday when it appeared that the official governmental declaration would single out Israel for criticism. The Israeli delegation followed suit, walking out Monday as well.

The Jewish caucus announced its official withdrawal on Tuesday, although some activists indicated they would remain as unofficial observers.

The U.S. protest might torpedo the entire conference. On Tuesday, there were rumors that other Western countries were considering withdrawing.

In a press conference Tuesday, Robinson, the former president of Ireland, defended herself against the suggestion that she could be blamed if the conference collapses.

“I have been distressed and disturbed by the vitriolic words and inappropriate content in the NGO document,” Robinson said.

As a result, she said, she was unable to recommend the entire document to the governmental delegates, only passages of it. Especially “unacceptable,” she said, were accusations that Israel was guilty of “genocide.”

Nevertheless, she reiterated that she believes reference must be made in the final declaration to “the suffering of the Palestinian people.”

Jewish activists remained skeptical.

Surely, Robinson and other organizers knew what was coming down the pike, the activists said, and could have intervened. Likewise, they said, international human rights groups could have worked to defuse the crisis before it hit Durban.

Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel was invited to Durban to speak, and initially accepted before reading the draft declarations. He withdrew and said Tuesday that the United Nations would now be associated with “shame.”

“I do not believe I can dialogue with hatred,” Wiesel said, answering critics who believed the United States should have stayed at the conference and debated the controversial language. “Hatred stops dialogue, and there was so much hatred there that I got frightened.”

Instead, a group like Amnesty International may have fanned the flames by accusing Israel of war crimes in its response to the past year of Palestinian violence.

An Amnesty press release handed out during the NGO conference cited several examples of racism and human rights abuses around the world, but mentioned only Israel by name.

In a press conference Monday that tried to refocus attention on the conference’s ostensible anti-racist aim, Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, allowed that “there are very serious human rights issues in the Middle East. If we name one country, we should name them all.”

Still, she said, “I think it’s time to move ahead.”

That response was too little, too late for Felice Gaer, a human rights expert for the American Jewish Committee.

“The human rights movement above all is about speaking out,” Gaer said. “The tepid, after-the-fact remarks about the unquestionable hate-filled language and spreading of hate propaganda is an extraordinary disappointment.”

For the Jewish delegates, who arrived from some two dozen countries and represent roughly two dozen different Jewish NGOs, their only sanctuary has been the Durban Jewish Club.

The palatial, pale yellow club, a British Colonial style-structure built in 1931, is where the Jewish caucus gathers each day for briefings and strategy meetings. They are also treated to lunch and dinner, courtesy of the Durban Jewish community.

But instead of pursuing the wide-ranging agenda they intended, Jewish activists spent the entire time on their heels, defending themselves and Israel.

The Israeli delegation also set up shop at the club for the few days it was in Durban, as it is manned by Durban police and has metal detectors.

It’s a different story on the conference grounds.

Jewish activists speculate that the Palestinians, presumably funded by the Arab world, spent millions to prepare for the conference. Activists say they saw workers unloading huge cartons of posters, banners and free T-shirts bearing slogans such as “Israel Is an Apartheid State” and “Zionism Is Racism.”

The Palestinians also handed out thousands of free kaffiyeh scarves in Palestinian national colors, which many participants happily draped around their necks.

One blond woman, a Bosnian from war-ravaged Sarajevo, was spotted wearing the scarf like a bandana.

“The Israelis should give it up, and the Palestinians should have their own state; they’ve lived there so long,” said 29-year-old Ira, who works for an international refugee organization. “Look at all the NGOs here from around the world, and nobody’s supporting Israel except for the Jewish group. I’m just wondering how come Jews aren’t questioning themselves.”

As for the NGOs themselves, one troubling fact hasn’t been lost on the Jewish delegates.

NGO-types generally are among the most liberal and enlightened folks in their societies, fighting for the rights of the oppressed, the afflicted, the downtrodden.

But there was an irony — and a whiff of moral bankruptcy — when Fidel Castro addressed an adoring, ostensibly pro-human rights crowd: They roared at his anti-Western harangue, but seemed to ignore Castro’s own repression of domestic dissent.

With “liberals” like these, some wondered, what was the potential for these NGO delegates to return home and further spread anti-Israel, anti-Jewish hatred?

Recommended from JTA