By Michael J. Jordan
GENEVA (JTA) – In less than a year, the United Nations will try again to tackle the thorny questions of racism around the world. Its effort in 2001 devolved into a virulent attack on Israel and Jews.
While it’s too early to tell which groups hostile to Israel will show up at the follow-up conference in April, at least two hint at what treatment awaits the Jewish state.
The Ford Foundation, the powerful philanthropy whose money fueled much of the anti-Israel activity at the anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, has opted out of the event in this Swiss city.
Indeed, Durban reportedly has become something of a dreaded “D word” in some diplomatic circles, prompting widespread concern that the follow-up could be a repeat of the anti-Israel extravaganza seven years ago.
At least two Palestinian organizations have declared publicly their intent to carry the crusade launched in Durban to Geneva.
That crusade paints Israel as an “apartheid state” like the South Africa of old to be similarly crippled through boycotts, divestment and sanctions. And by most accounts, even more pro-Palestinian groups are sure to arrive in Geneva to trumpet their cause celebre.
At the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, the rabid activism of numerous anti-Israel nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, virtually drowned out much of the world’s other ills.
Last month in Brazil, at the first regional meeting to determine the substance of next year’s conference, one group hinted at what to expect.
BADIL: The Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights issued an open letter to the “Latin American people, its governments, movements and organizations.”
The letter stated: “The world’s imperial powers, with the United States and Israel at the forefront, are putting pressure on states” to “silence the principled voices of the victims of racism.”
Latin America should resist, the letter said, because “the struggle against Israel’s colonial apartheid regime is one of the cornerstones of the struggle against state-sponsored racism and ongoing colonial policies worldwide.”
BADIL was not present in Durban.
A second group created since Durban recently sought and gained accreditation to the Geneva conference. The Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign, is at the forefront of the international boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.
It’s too soon to know which funding agencies will help send NGOs such as BADIL and the Wall Campaign to Geneva, but one watchdog suggests European money will likely be involved.
“European aid agencies give tens of millions of euros per year to very political, in some cases radical, anti-Israel NGOs, and these groups are the most active in the Durban process,” said Gerald Steinberg, the executive director of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, which recently detailed these links in its report “Europe’s Hidden Hand”
“There are many officials in those agencies who come from an anti-colonialist, anti-American, anti-Israel political ideology,” Steinberg said, “and they have almost no supervision, almost no open discussions in their parliaments over these budgets.”
European Union officials told JTA that none of its grants are explicitly for NGOs to attend conferences, like the Durban follow-up, but rather are directed toward specific projects.
Beyond the Durban process, the EU officials say a grantee’s words – like branding Israel as apartheid or endorsing boycotts – are the “sole responsibility” of the grantee and do not reflect EU positions.
Brussels “cannot be held responsible” for these statements, nor can it “oblige them to refrain” from making them, said David Kriss, a spokesman for the European Commission delegation to Israel.
“The Commission is respectful of freedom of expression as a key feature of a democratic society,” Kriss wrote in an e-mail from his office in Ramat Gan, Israel. “An open debate over political issues is indispensable on the way towards better mutual understanding.
“At the same time, the Commission is firmly committed to the fight against incitement to hatred between ethnic or religious groups as well as to the expressions of racism, xenophobia, discrimination, anti-Semitism or Islamophobia, and will continue fighting these deplorable phenomena.”
The 2009 Durban follow-up will likely cost “several million dollars,” according to a U.N. official in Geneva, with U.N. member-states expected to foot the entire bill.
Few, however, have ponied up so far. Some $750,000 left over from the 2001 event is now being used, said the U.N. official, with Russia recently adding a contribution of $250,000 and China another $20,000.
Other countries have pledged funds but not yet delivered, which is typical among member-states that sometimes promise money but are slow to act.
Meanwhile, the United States, Israel, Canada and France have threatened to boycott the event, saying it should focus on racism and discrimination generally, not stir the Middle East conflict.
To urge fellow NGOs and U.N. member-states to rise above at Geneva, the Magenta Foundation of Holland, the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and Human Rights First have circulated a petition with five “core principles” (http://www.magenta.nl/coreprinciples.html) that would reject any effort to “foment hateful stereotyping in the name of human rights” and instead “uphold language and behavior that unites rather than divides.”
The New Israel Fund, a group that promotes human rights and pluralism in Israel, is one of 96 signatories pushing for a more productive conference. But NIF told JTA it will not allocate funds for any of its grantees to attend the event. In 2001, the fund provided $50,000 for such participation through a Ford grant it had received.
There is no contradiction, said an NIF spokeswoman, nor does it indicate a lack of trust that its own grantees – some of whom were most active in Durban – would adhere to these higher standards.
“Basically, NIF was outraged at the misuse” of the Durban forum and was concerned about “a possible repetition” of the tone and substance, said the spokeswoman, Naomi Paiss.
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“We are a family of organizations representing a range of opinions,” she said. “As strongly as we feel about Durban, this is not a question of forbidding another group from attending. We are saying we will not fund it.”
One NIF and Ford grantee that played a prominent role in Durban – Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel – says it has yet to decide whether to attend.
“Adalah will deal with the follow-up issues regarding Durban at the relevant time, not now,” Eva Mousa, the group’s media director, told JTA. “At that time, Adalah will speak about it and discuss it with our donors, including Ford and NIF.”
The United Nations, meanwhile, stung by criticism of the 2001 event, is taking steps to prevent a repetition.
In late May, member-states decided to host the event on the serene, secure U.N. campus in Geneva. In Durban, with thousands of activists milling about inside tents and on the streets, Jewish activists say the atmosphere often grew tense – even intimidating– punctured by anti-Semitic incidents.
The world body also is expected to eliminate a separate NGO Forum, which in Durban was the source of the harshest anti-Israel rhetoric. At the forum, the Jewish state was accused of such human rights crimes as genocide, apartheid and ethnic cleansing.
Startled by the protest walkout of the American and Israeli delegations – and the discredit it brought upon the conference itself – the member-states who remained settled on two rather benign references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the government declaration.
At this point, it’s “very likely” that NGO participation in Geneva will be restricted and woven into the governmental gathering, said a U.N. official who asked not to be identified because there was no authorization to speak on the record.
NGOs instead will probably be encouraged to attend, but at most official U.N. meetings will have to request an opportunity to address the gathering beforehand. Each will be allotted three minutes to speak.
None of the 775 NGOs that attended Durban saw their accreditation revoked for their actions there, so they remain accredited and free to attend April’s event, according to the U.N. official.
“The NGO issue is a highly political issue here,” the official said.
This format may mean less Israel-bashing, but also less criticism of U.N. member-states that rank at the bottom of most global surveys of racism and other forms of discrimination. After all, few governments choose to freely chastise themselves.
This is left to the NGOs.
Still, three minutes available every day at a four- or five-day conference – the world’s largest in the sphere of human rights – is enough time to sling arrows, hammer home a message to the media and have it documented for eternity in U.N. archives.
That’s why some Jewish observers were taken aback by the conference accreditation granted to the Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign.
The group, according to its Web site, was formed one year after Durban, in October 2002, by one of the more extremist NGOs that did attend Durban – the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network.
The Wall Campaign partnered with another prominent Israel basher at Durban, the Palestinian NGO Network, or PNGO, to hold the First Palestinian Conference for the Boycott of Israel (BDS) on Nov. 18, 2007. At the time of Durban, PNGO was a Ford grantee, but is no longer.
In addition, the Wall Campaign and PNGO are two members of the National Committee to Commemorate the Nakba, the Arab term for catastrophe used to depict Israel’s creation as a state.
On its Web site, the Wall Campaign links to BADIL, the group based in Bethlehem, on the West Bank, which declared its intent in Brazil last month to bang the apartheid drum against Israel in Geneva.
This link refers to BADIL’s role in leading the current “Nakba 60 campaign,” an international effort aimed at countering Israel at 60 celebrations.
At the April planning conference for the Durban follow-up, the Wall Campaign won accreditation without debate. More public attention in Geneva was devoted to Iran’s intervention to deny a Canadian Jewish group accreditation to attend the event next year. The group, the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy, citing bureaucratic and political hurdles, eventually withdrew its application.
BADIL’s home page in July announced a new Web site, “It Is Apartheid,” with a “viral, guerrilla marketing” campaign that includes tips on how to propagandize neighbors, co-workers and strangers.
The group’s presence in Brasilia and its lobbying of Latin American delegations was another harbinger for Jewish observers who warn the Geneva event may follow in the politicized footsteps of Durban.
The Geneva-based UN Watch declared that the current working paper, in U.N. lingo known as a “non-paper,” already “breaches red lines” as laid out by the Europeans: It singles out the Palestinians for sympathy, implicitly criticizing Israel.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which sent two observers to Brasilia, described the event as a “lost opportunity” to underscore those red lines.
Latin Americans “have failed to stand up and be counted,” Shimon Samuels, Wiesenthal’s director for international relations, told JTA.
Meanwhile, with the Ford Foundation announcing that it won’t pay to send any grantee to the Geneva conference – both because of its prospects for failure and potential to become another anti-Israel festival – and with other donors, governmental and nongovernmental, reportedly wavering, Samuels says that some have found a target to blame in case the Durban follow-up disintegrates.
Samuels said that in Brasilia, he discussed how to prevent a pro-Palestinian “hijacking of the agenda” with an Afro-American group lobbying for slavery compensation.
The fellow activist agreed, he said, but “blew my mind with a vehement accusation of Jewish control of the Durban boycott movement” and “attacked me for stopping foundation funding of their participation in Geneva and destroying possibilities for a NGO Forum.”