White House Pressured To Send Powell to Conference on Antisemitism

By Ori Nir

Published April 09, 2004, issue of April 09, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is feeling heat from human rights and Jewish groups pressuring it to send a high-level official — preferably Secretary of State Colin Powell — to head the U.S. delegation to the upcoming Berlin conference on antisemitism.

The executive director of Human Rights First, Michael Posner, sent a letter to the secretary of state last month voicing “deep dismay” at Powell’s apparent decision not to attend the two-day conference or to appoint one of his senior deputies to head the American delegation. Powell has tapped former New York mayor Ed Koch to lead the delegation to the two-day conference, which begins April 28. The conference is being organized by the Organization on Security and Co-operation in Europe, a group made up of 55 nations in Europe, as well as Canada and the United States.

In his letter, Posner wrote that he had “serious concern about the absence of senior U.S. government representation.” Posner’s group was formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and remains one of the leading human rights groups in the United States.

A similar letter was sent to Powell by the Anti-Defamation League. Other Jewish groups confirmed that they had written or spoken to the administration as well, but declined to have their communications made public.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer will be heading the delegation of the host country. Posner and others warned, however, that European governments are likely to take their cue from the American level of representation and downgrade the level of their delegations. “It’s a matter of following through,” Posner told the Forward. “The U.S. initially took a leadership role, and now there is a sense in Europe that it is being more passive.”

Posner stressed that his appeal to Powell should not be viewed as a commentary on Koch’s skills or stature.

In reply to Posner’s letter, a State Department official wrote in Powell’s name that the secretary “sees the Berlin Conference as an important event,” as indicated by appointing Koch to head the delegation. The official, Edward O’Donnell, the department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues, assured Posner that the administration “will spare no effort to promote a successful outcome in Berlin.”

Posner shot back a letter to Powell charging that not sending a senior official to Berlin “flies in the face of those assertions,” and that “the absence of a senior government official in the meeting leaves a huge void,” and sends “a signal that the U.S. government’s priorities lay elsewhere.”

The makeup of the U.S. delegation has also prompted protests from critics who say the administration named Jewish communal leaders based on their closeness to the administration rather than their expertise in fighting antisemitism. The delegation was announced by Powell in March.

Those named to the delegation include Fred Zeidman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council; Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress; Betty Ehrenberg, public affairs director of the Orthodox Union, and Stephen Hoffman, president and chief executive officer of United Jewish Communities, the national philanthropic network.

The administration itself will be represented by O’Donnell, the Holocaust affairs envoy; the U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, Stephan Minikes, and the White House liaison to the Jewish community, Tevi Troy. Other delegation members include Senator George Voinovich of Ohio and Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, both Republicans, as well as Democratic Rep. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland and a former Bush White House aide, Jay Lefkowitz.

Senior State Department officials recently indicated to Jewish activists, as well as to members of the delegation to Berlin, that Powell still may join the delegation and speak at the conference’s plenary session. Alternatively, he may send his top deputy, Richard Armitage, or Marc Grossman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, sources said.

“Everyone hopes that Secretary Powell will actually appear at some time in the course of the conference,” Koch told the Forward, adding that most of those involved in preparing the event “say that this is his hope and expectation.” Koch said he would obviously welcome such a step by Powell, but added: “I am not putting any pressure on him, because I have no pressure to put.” Koch also said that Americans, “and particularly American Jews,” should be grateful to Powell and to President Bush for pushing the OSCE to convene the first conference on antisemitism last year in Vienna. The Berlin conference is expected to build on the results of last year’s meeting, in an effort to identify measures that participating states can take to combat antisemitism and promote tolerance.

“This second conference is happening because of the efforts of Powell and the direction of Bush,” said Koch, a Democrat who has said that he is supporting the president’s re-election bid.

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