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Heading off a Durban, Jewish groups gear up

Jews hope to avoid another anti-Israel summit

by Rachel Pomerance

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

NEW YORK -- If Sept. 11 was a wake-up call for America, then Durban, South Africa, was a wake-up call for Jews.

Neither America nor Jewish groups were prepared for the well-orchestrated attacks that hit them.

Only days before the terrorist attacks shook this country nearly a year ago, the United States and Israel stormed out of a United Nations World Conference on Racism, condemning it as a circus of anti-Semitism.

Now, as Jewish groups ready to return to South Africa at the end of August for the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, they are working hard to avert another Durban.

With offensive and defensive strategies on the ground and Jewish groups in America "on call" for extra help, a caucus of eight organizations is preparing to fight off any anti-Israel curveballs that come its way.

Already, other groups are planning a four-day conference in solidarity with the Palestinians to coincide with the summit in Johannesburg, which is scheduled for Aug. 26-Sept. 4.

While preparing for the worst, many Jewish activists involved say they do not expect the summit, which will focus on such issues as the environment, health, energy and economic security, to be "hijacked" the way Durban was.

Activists cite several factors, including American diplomatic efforts and the desire of key players not to let their concerns about the environment and other issues be overshadowed by the kind of anti-Israel activity that plagued Durban.

A year ago, official delegates to the U.N. conference debated language that would have revived the U.N.'s resolution denigrating Zionism as racism, which had been reversed 11 years ago.

That draft language of the official declaration was ultimately dropped, but a meeting of nongovernmental groups issued a statement using the anti-Zionist language and branding Israel an apartheid state.

On the streets of Durban, thousands thronged in protest of Israel, with some distributing anti-Semitic cartoons and taunting that Hitler never finished the job. Even the classic anti-Semitic conspiracy text, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was spotted for sale.

The event stunned Jewish leaders. While they had expected harsh hospitality, many said they were unprepared for the vicious attacks they encountered.

"Last year, we were really naive" about "how much our enemies really hate us," said Yehuda Kay, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

The "level of orchestrated attack against Israel outgunned us" and "outsmarted us," said Kay, 27, who is coordinating Jewish efforts to avoid a repeat performance.

Jewish groups involved with the preparations for the Johannesburg conference point to several factors that they believe will lead to a different kind of gathering:

* American diplomacy: The U.S. has reportedly reached an understanding with Arab countries and conference organizers to avoid anti-Israel language in the governmental declaration. A State Department official would not confirm an agreement and "cautioned that any negotiations are very tenuous."

* No draft anti-Israel language: Whereas the draft declaration for Durban contained anti-Israel language, the working version of a declaration for Johannesburg does not single out Israel.

There is, however, at least one section that could involve debate about Israel. It calls for eliminating blocks to self-determination such as foreign occupation.

Sources said U.S. officials agreed to this wording in exchange for Arab countries's assent to a call for "concerted action against international terrorism which causes serious obstacles to sustainable development."

* Different content: Environmental and developmental issues are too pressing to be sidelined, especially in a country as underdeveloped as South Africa, according to Jewish leaders.

* Different players: While some of the same NGOs that instigated anti-Israel activity in Durban, such as a Palestinian human rights organization known as LAW, are expected to return, major environmental NGOs, such as the World Wildlife Fund, have promised Israel and Jewish groups to keep the forum on track.

* Increased attendance: Some 60,000 people are expected in Johannesburg, compared to the roughly 12,000 who converged on Durban. Many say the large numbers may make it harder to stage an orchestrated anti-Israel assault.

* Durban fatigue: In the end, Durban was considered by many participants as a waste of time, money and opportunities to address serious issues. African countries, which allied with the Arabs in exchange for backing on reparations for slavery, felt upstaged. Jewish leaders sense that Africans will not support the Arabs this time around.

Despite promising signs, Israel and Jewish groups are planning to counter any attacks.

"In terms of being organized, being ready, being galvanized," the Jewish community is "far more advanced than we were at Durban," Kay said.

Although fewer Jewish groups will be going to Johannesburg than went to Durban, more than 100 Jews will attend, up from about 80 at the Durban conference.

The Jewish caucus consists of the Jewish National Fund, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the South African Board of Jewish Students, the South African Zionist Federation, the World Union of Jewish Students, U.N. Watch, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Kay described a multipronged strategy -- a public relations offensive, with Jewish delegates set to bring positive examples of Israeli development innovations; the NGO forum with defensive tacks at the NGO meeting and on the street; and media kits.

Jewish groups have also been forming alliances with environmental groups in South Africa.

Meanwhile, Kay phones the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs on a weekly basis to arrange back-up plans in America.

Besides monitoring the program, Reva Price, JCPA's Washington representative and the coordinator of the American efforts, said she has a list of Jewish contacts on site, news releases at the ready and a phone tree of activists to mobilize should she get word of trouble from Kay.

If the problems come at all, they are expected to emanate from the NGO forum.

"There's not a lot of red flags on the government side, but NGOs with an agenda will be there," said Stacy Burdett, associate director of government affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.

"I think the fact that some of the same actors that were so pernicious in Durban will be in Johannesburg means that we could see some of the same tactics."

This story was published in the WashingtonJewishWeek
on: Thursday, August 15, 2002








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