Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

U.N. Turns Mirror on Itself in Addressing Anti-semitism

June 23, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

This week’s U.N. conference on anti-Semitism was only the latest in a slew of recent international events addressing the growth in anti-Semitic activity worldwide. The difference was that the host of the conference turned the mirror on itself.

“The U.N. has become the leading global purveyor of anti-Semitism, intolerance and inequality against the Jewish people and its state,” said Anne Bayefsky, a Columbia University law school professor whose speech at Monday’s conference drew thunderous applause.

The conference, which was open to U.N. non-governmental organizations, member states and the public, came on the heels of conferences on anti-Semitism by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Berlin and in Paris, as well as other recent gatherings.

Organized by the U.N. Department of Public Information, the conference began with an opening address by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and included a lineup! primarily of Jewish organizational officials.

Many of the speakers used the platform before some 650 attendants to list a litany of grievances against the international body, from its lopsided level of condemnation of Israel to its failure to pass a resolution exclusively condemning anti-Semitism.

Several also noted that one of the most egregious examples of anti-Semitism came under U.N. auspices: the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in which widespread hate speech and incitement against Jews and Israel prompted Israel and the United States to leave the event.

At the same time, in addressing the conference and in news releases afterward, many Jewish organizational officials called the event a landmark step in repairing the relationship between Jews and the United Nations, which was created after the defeat of Nazism to promote international cooperation and peace.

“This institution is beginning to say there is a problem, there! is an issue,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defa mation League, signifying that it was a first step toward addressing the issue.

In his opening remarks to the gathering, Annan said, “Let us acknowledge that the United Nations’ record on anti-Semitism has at times fallen short of our ideals. The General Assembly resolution of 1975, equating Zionism with racism, was an especially unfortunate decision.”

That decision was repealed in 1991, but the United Nations continues regularly to single out Israel for criticism.

Annan called on the United Nations to follow the action of the OSCE in condemning acts of anti-Semitism and urged the U.N. human rights representatives on racism and religious freedom to “actively explore ways of combating anti-Semitism more effectively.”

For their part, Jewish figures praised Annan for his remarks and challenged him to make good on his words.

Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, said he mistakenly thought anti-Semitism had died in Auschwitz.

But “only the Jews p! erished there. Anti-Semitism is alive and well,” he said. “We must prevent the world from entering that fear of the future and the choice is always ours.”

Even before the conference concluded, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom called the secretary-general to commend him for his speech and ask for his help in passing a General Assembly resolution against anti-Semitism, said Arye Mekel, Israel’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations.

“The secretary-general promised that he will help in these efforts,” Mekel said.

Just last year, the United Nations failed to muster enough support to pass a stand-alone resolution against anti-Semitism, drafted by Ireland.

Eve Epstein, an adviser to the U.N. Department of Public Information, said Annan’s statement was “U.N.-speak for ‘Let’s get this done.’ “

“With the moral weight” of the secretary-general behind the adoption of a resolution on anti-Semitism, she said, “odds of its passage are far greater.”

! A spokesman for the Irish mission to the United Nations said he could not yet respond to Annan’s speech or say whether Ireland would reintroduce the resolution. Ultimately passage of such a resolution will depend on the support of European diplomats and the influence of Arab nations.

Very few Arab and European diplomats showed up for the conference. Israeli officials took note only of diplomats from Algeria, Egypt, the Palestinian mission and Germany.

Of the speakers, only a handful were non-Jews, including a Christian theologian, a nun, a monk and an imam.

“We would have been happier if there were more non-Jews and there were more diplomats” from the international community, Mekel said. But, he added, “I urged Jewish organizations and ourselves to see the full half of the glass. It’s the first time anything like this is being done.”

Calling Annan’s speech an “action plan,” he said, “the next few months will be the test.”

Others said they felt the heavily Jewish atmosphere gave Jews their day at the United Nations without facin! g opposition or controversy.

At the least, “this is now on the record at the U.N.,” said Mark Weitzman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Task Force Against Hate.

Shashi Tharoor, the U.N. undersecretary general for communications and public information, who coordinated the conference, asked “for some realism” by the audience in expecting change. “We have at least opened today a new chapter,” he said.

Humoring the crowd with a joke about Adam asking Eve whether there was someone else, he underscored his point that the United Nations is the only world governing body.

“Let’s work together, with it and in it,” Tharoor said.

Weitzman echoed others in his agreement.

“This is the place that gave birth to Israel, that breathed life in Israel,” he said. “Given that and given the reality the U.N. plays in the world, I don’t think any of us are ready to walk away from it. We want to correct it, not erase it.”

Recommended from JTA