The UN – a home for the Jews?

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It has been somewhat bizarre to observe the recent stream of international and government-sponsored conferences dealing with anti-Semitism. Only six months ago most European governments were still indignantly denying the evidence of burgeoning anti-Semitism on their doorsteps. Some were even muttering that the issue was a ploy by Israelis to divert attention from alleged human rights violations.

The first breakthrough took place following a fracas between the European Union and the World Jewish Congress. An infuriated EU president Romano Prodi threatened to cancel a scheduled Brussels seminar on anti-Semitism after the WJC accused the EU of indifference. But Prodi soon relented and surprised even his own colleagues by conceding that Judaeophobia was a real threat to society.

He urged member states to introduce tougher penalties against anti-Jewish hate crimes and called for educational programs to promote tolerance. That was in February this year.

In April the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Berlin closed its anti-Semitism conference with a statement endorsed by 54 governments, condemning anti-Semitism and explicitly declaring that the delegitimization of Israel was simply a new vehicle for inciting hatred against Jews.

Further, the declaration called on all member states to support the passage of a stand-alone resolution condemning anti-Semitism at the UN General Assembly. That was in line with the campaign launched by the World Jewish Congress after the Irish, in the face of Arab opposition, had withdrawn a resolution at the UN condemning anti-Semitism.

And now in June, for the first time since its inception, the UN also hosted a conference on anti-Semitism. This represents a milestone. The proceedings were chaired by Shashi Tharoor, the head of the UN Public Information Division, who is considered a possible successor to Kofi Annan as secretary general.

The opening address by Annan was an important political statement and warmly welcomed by Israeli and Jewish leaders. Annan stressed the need to combat the “alarming resurgence” of Jew hatred and explicitly called on UN member states to support the resolution condemning anti-Semitism at the General Assembly.

The secretary general warned that differences over Middle East issues could never justify anti-Semitic outbursts. He noted that the UN had called for an end to attacks on Muslims and Arabs, and said that Jews were entitled to the same. In an aside full of irony, he said that “Jews must feel that the UN is their home, too.”

The secretary general was followed by Elie Wiesel, the keynote speaker, who had assumed a similar role both at the Brussels and Berlin conferences. As always, he set the tone when he declared, “I was naively convinced that anti-Semitism had died in Auschwitz. But I was mistaken. Only the Jews perished there.”

It is not merely what Wiesel says but the very presence of this Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor that conveys an authentic Jewish mystique which is unique. He is surely the most prized living voice of the Jewish people today.

Another speaker who made an indelible impression, pulling no punches in exposing the hypocrisy and double standards of the UN in relation to the Jewish people, was Prof. Anne Bayefsky of Columbia University Law School. She mercilessly castigated Annan for demonizing Israel and sanctifying the Palestinians, and lashed out at the UN Human Rights Commission for providing a platform for the promotion of medieval anti-Semitic blood libels. “The UN,” she said “had become the leading global purveyor of anti-Semitism, intolerance, and inequality against the Jewish people and its state.”

A VISIBLY distressed chairman Shashi Tharoor was forced to stand by helplessly as Bayefsky exceeded her allotted time and received a standing ovation from the 1,200 predominantly Jewish NGO audience.

Subsequent Jewish representatives called for follow-up action. WJC President Edgar Bronfman encouraged Annan to set up a body to monitor anti-Semitic developments, provide an annual report, and appoint a rapporteur. He also urged Annan to continue canvassing UN members to support the resolution condemning anti-Semitism.

Words are important, especially words from a UN secretary general, but they do not necessarily portend a change in policy. Thus at the very same time that Annan was making his statement condemning anti-Semitism, the UN Human Rights Division was calling for an “international protection force” to stop abuses in the “occupied” territories. Thus any suggestion that this conference heralded a sea change is premature.

Two years ago in this newspaper, I described the UN as a dysfunctional assembly of nations dominated by tyrannies and dictatorships. I predicted that Israel could never expect even-handedness from a body in which the Arabs and their allies occupy such a dominant role and where even the Europeans tend to assume positions of neutrality in the face of lethal anti-Israeli hostility.

Nevertheless the WJC, which launched the campaign for a UN resolution nine months ago, can take satisfaction with the progress achieved. In addition to the OSCE and now the support of the UN secretary general for the anti-Semitism resolution, the petition to collect millions of signatures in support of UN action is making great progress.

There is an important strategic lesson to be learned. The rash of conferences on anti-Semitism hosted by governments and international bodies did not erupt spontaneously. They came in response to the public campaigns initiated by the WJC and other Jewish bodies. Plainly, Jewish leaders must publicly expose and shame governments into action.
This will require a concentrated global strategy.

It will necessitate the backing of all Jewish bodies and the setting aside of organizational rivalry. To achieve that, we must be aggressively on the initiative. The road to success will be painful and long. But we must not allow ourselves to become passive. Shtadlanut (private diplomacy) and pleas unsupported by public action are utterly futile.

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