Zionism Issue Roils Racism Talks

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The Palestinian drive to label Israel a racist state gained momentum Sunday at the World Conference Against Racism here, threatening to undermine the event by making it impossible for delegates to reach unanimity on a broad-based plan for attacking racial injustice.

Though there were behind-the-scenes efforts to try to calm the conflict, the Israeli delegation said it was on the verge of walking out, Arab leaders said there had been no progress toward an acceptable compromise, and the Palestinian delegation had not backed away from calls for the adoption of a document that would refer to the “racist practices of Zionism.”

Fueling the already toxic atmosphere, a parallel forum of more than 3,000 nongovernmental organizations from around the world issued its own memorandum early Sunday that condemned the Jewish state with language that United Nations officials, Christian groups and Israelis immediately criticized as hurtful and inaccurate.


The NGO Forum branded Israel “a racist apartheid state,” accused it of the “systematic perpetration of racist crimes including war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing” and called on the U.N. General Assembly to reinstate a resolution equating Zionism with racism. The document is not binding and is unlikely to be adopted by the governmental forum, but it could influence the outcome of a final conference document.

The vote by the nongovernmental groups, which prompted stunned Jewish representatives to walk out, followed an intense public relations bid by the Palestinians and their supporters.

“It’s just facts,” Shawqi Issa, a spokesman for the Arab caucus, said of the NGO statement. “The Israeli government is a racist government.”

Since Friday’s opening of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, U.N. officials have struggled to satisfy Arab demands that Israeli actions against Palestinians be condemned while at the same time not singling out Israel for criticism. Many countries attending the conference have questionable human rights records, but only the Jewish state has been targeted for express condemnation.

By the end of the day Sunday, Amr Moussa, general secretary of the Arab League, was complaining that Israel and its supporters were trying to “tarnish the image of all Arabs” by charging that they had tried to politicize the convention. Israel’s delegates, for their part, were charging the Palestinians with attempting to hijack the conference.

Mordechai Yadid, a deputy director general with Israel’s Foreign Ministry and head of its delegation here, said there remained the slim chance of a compromise. But he added: “We are reaching a stage where we have to reconsider our participation. We have to consider whether to walk out.”


With more than 6,000 delegates and about a dozen heads of state gathered at the International Convention Center, U.N. officials hope to attack the umbrella issue of racism as a root cause of oppression, poverty and hardship the world over. Issues ranging from the historical effects of the transatlantic slave trade on African nations and the descendants of slaves to the treatment of migrant workers have been targeted for discussion. The goal is the adoption of a concrete plan of action and a statement laying out the participants’ positions. To be adopted, such a statement must obtain unanimous endorsement.

Though the Middle East is a particular subject of rancor, it is only one of three areas that have proved controversial. A second involves the compiling of a list of victims of racism--an exercise that governments around the world are watching closely out of concern that they might be tarnished. The third deals with some kind of remedy for the consequences of slavery. Officials said Sunday that committees have been set up to tackle these issues, with Mexico chairing the committee on the victims list, Brazil and Kenya handling slavery, and Norway taking on the Middle East.

U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos of San Mateo, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, told reporters that Norway had already proposed a compromise that contained a reference to Palestinian suffering but was acceptable to Washington. He said that if that is not accepted, the United States will probably walk out of the conference.

Salman Harfy, the Palestinian Authority’s envoy to South Africa, said in an interview early today that there are many ideas circulating but nothing concrete that appeals to the Palestinians.

“The question is: Is the United States willing to accept the new reality?” Harfy said. “Yes, we are a very small, very weak people. But we are a very noisy mosquito. . . . It is time that America listened to a new language.”

On the issue of slavery, some African nations want an apology and cash payments, or reparations, for the economic hardship they say they suffered. Although Germany has asked for forgiveness and Spain has expressed its “profound regret” for participation in the slave trade, most Western governments have been reluctant to apologize, fearing that to do so would make them vulnerable to costly lawsuits. African Americans are calling on the conference to demand an apology, and money, from the U.S. government.


However, Africans and their American descendants have begun looking for a compromise that might allow reparations to take the form of some sort of financial aid to the African continent or to the African American community in the U.S.

“First, our country must acknowledge its mistakes and then live up to them,” Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) said at a news conference held by the Congressional Black Caucus. “Reparations can come in a variety of approaches that benefit those that were oppressed.”

The foreign minister of Lesotho, Motsoahae Thabane, said reparations are necessary because “the African continent continues to suffer socioeconomic underdevelopment, grinding poverty, high levels of foreign debt, civil and territorial wars, lack of market access and all structural weaknesses that are the legacy of slavery, slave trade and colonialism.”

The dual controversies over slavery and the Middle East were of concern to Washington; President Bush decided to send only a low-level delegation to the conference. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who was attending with the Black Caucus, said Sunday that he heard other delegates alleging that the U.S. was using the Mideast issue as a smoke screen to dodge talk about reparations.

“This has been alleged,” Conyers said. “Is it accurate or not? I cannot tell you.”

Nevertheless, the main source of friction remained the battle between Palestinians and Israelis.

“We are not going to go into this issue of Zionism is racism,” said Nabil Shaath, a minister in the Palestinian Authority. “What is really needed is to center on the discriminatory policies Israel takes on the Palestinian people as an occupying power.”


The Israeli delegation, meanwhile, said the conflict with the Palestinians is of a military nature over “geography and territory” and is not about race.

“We are not prepared to be singled out. We are not prepared for finger-pointing,” said Alan Beker, legal advisor to the delegation.

As the Israeli delegates spoke, Israelis and Palestinians stood outside shouting at each other. Waving the Israeli flag, the Jewish supporters shouted the song “We Are the World.” Palestinian supporters crowded in, shouting back, “Free, Free Palestine.” Police squeezed in between them and broke it up.