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UNESCO Conference on Anti-semitism Reflects U.N. Agency’s New Direction

June 24, 1992
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A U.N. agency long considered a hotbed of anti-Israel polemics redeemed itself by launching a global assault on anti-Semitism here this week.

An international conference titled “Educating for Tolerance: The Case of Resurgent Anti-Semitism” opened here Tuesday under the joint sponsorship of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Holocaust remembrance and Jewish advocacy group headquartered in Los Angeles.

The conference, formally opened by Viennabased Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, devoted its first session to speeches and messages of support from world leaders.

UNESCO would have been an unlikely partner in such a project a few years ago, when it was a bastion of pro-Arab, anti-Western sentiment. Israel was regularly attacked at its sessions by the Arab countries and their allies in the former Soviet bloc and Third World.

The situation was attributed in large measure to the leadership of Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow of Senegal, who was UNESCO’s director-general for 13 years.

He was replaced in October 1987 by Federico Mayor Zaragoza of Spain, who immediately began a house-cleaning and depoliticization of UNESCO.

Mayor found it necessary Tuesday to deny that the conference was a ploy to entice the United States to resume membership in UNESCO.


“Of course I would like to see the organization resume its internationally representative character again, but I would never act in a direct way to achieve this,” he told reporters.

The Americans, who provided 25 percent of the agency’s budget, walked out in 1984, complaining that the organization had been politicized and was poorly managed. Britain followed suit a year later.

UNESCO has curbed its most militant pro-Third World stances since Mayor took over. Significantly, as the conference opened, its deputy director-general, C.L. Sharma, was in the United States said to be discussing a possible American return.

One of the first messages read Tuesday was from President Bush, who declared that “governments can and must” lead the fight against resurgent anti-Semitism “by enforcing laws against crimes of hatred and intolerance.”

The president observed, however, that “legislation alone cannot preserve — much less promote — sound ethical and moral standards if we are unwilling to codify them in law.” Bush’s message was read by the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Vernon Walters.

One of the most vehement denunciations of anti-Semitism was contained in the message from the vice president of Russia, Alexander Rutskoi, who visited Israel earlier this year.

“In many countries, citizens increasingly encounter examples of racism and national xenophobia,” he said.

“Covering themselves with pseudo-patriotic slogans, exploiting economic difficulties, the forces of racial intolerance organize outrageous demonstrations and defile cultural monuments and graves,” the Russian vice president said.

“I am convinced that those forces do not have any future in any country, including Russia,” he declared.

Simone Veil, former president of the European Parliament, a former French Cabinet member and an Auschwitz survivor, introduced Rita Susmith, president of the Bundestag, the German parliament, whose presence at the conference was seen as a powerful symbol of reconciliation.

The German lawmaker said, “In spite of all our efforts, we know there is still a small minority of anti-Semites in Germany.”

She went on to stress that “Germans have a special obligation to fight anti-Semitism and to foster and guarantee respect for human rights.”

Israeli diplomats in Paris carefully avoided any visible part in the conference, which they see as a turning point in UNESCO’s attitude toward Israel. “It is a very positive change,” an Israeli observer told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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