UNITED NATIONS — Secretary General Kofi Annan’s speech here this week, delivered to the first seminar on antisemitism held at the U.N. headquarters, is being seen by some as a sea change in the way the organization has dealt with Israel and Jews internationally.
Acknowledging that the U.N.’s record on antisemitism had fallen short of its ideals, Annan urged member states and U.N. bodies to take action to combat its “alarming resurgence,” calling on the General Assembly to adopt a resolution condemning antisemitism.
“The fight against antisemitism must be our fight, and Jews everywhere must feel that the United Nations is their home, too,” Annan told a packed auditorium in a speech opening a seminar entitled “Confronting Antisemitism: Education for Tolerance and Understanding.”
The speech comes as regional organizations in Europe also have started adopting measures to tackle antisemitism after a number of conferences and reports documented the extent of the problem. Feeling pressure to respond to those efforts and to American and Jewish criticisms, last month Annan met with a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to discuss outstanding differences.
“The speech is important because it sets the tone and because it mentions concrete steps,” Arye Mekel, Israel’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, told the Forward. “It is also important because it did not do the traditional balancing act by mentioning the suffering of the Palestinians.”
Mekel added that it would provide Israel with a platform to request member states to act.
While stressing the need for concrete follow-up action, senior Jewish leaders, such as Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League; Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, and Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, also expressed their satisfaction.
Annan called for the U.N. General Assembly to adopt a resolution on antisemitism modeled on a declaration adopted by the 55-member Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, at a recent conference in Berlin. The so-called Berlin declaration condemned all antisemitic acts and attacks and declared that political developments, in Israel or elsewhere, never can justify antisemitism.
While Germany has been approached to introduce such a resolution at the next General Assembly in September for obvious symbolic reasons, Jewish and diplomatic sources said Berlin would prefer the European Union to endorse it first.
Israel and its supporters have criticized Annan for his condemnations of Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories and for allowing anti-Israel biases to remain unchallenged in the U.N. system.
He further incensed Jewish leaders by failing to respond for at least nine months to a request for a meeting from the Presidents Conference, according to several sources who said it reflected the secretariat’s lack of sensitivity to Jewish affairs.
To avoid such problems in the future, the delegation asked Annan when they finally met last month to name a point person in his office — a request he said he would consider seriously, according to participants and people briefed on the encounter. The discussion also touched on antisemitism and the Middle East. Jewish leaders were said to be satisfied with the one-hour discussion, the sources said.
In an emotional address at the seminar, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel appealed to world leaders to “outlaw” the “plague” of antisemitism.
“I devoted most of my adult life to combat society’s evils, but I had never thought I would have to fight antisemitism 60 years after the war, 60 years after the inauguration of the United Nations; yet, ‘here we are.’” he said. “Naively, I was convinced that antisemitism had died in Auschwitz, but it had not; only the Jews had perished there. Antisemitism was alive and well in too many lands, as it had always been.”
The audience, comprising mostly representatives of non-governmental organizations, also heard some vivid criticism of the United Nations and Annan from Anne Bayefsky, an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School. She got a standing ovation and shouts of “Bravo! Bravo!” after she charged that the United Nations had failed to tackle antisemitism and said relations between the United Nations and Jews were at an “all-time low.”
“The United Nations has become the leading global purveyor of antisemitism, intolerance, and inequality against the Jewish people and its state,” said Bayefsky, who is also a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson institute. “Today the U.N. provides a platform for those who cast the victims of the Nazis, as the Nazi counterparts of the 21st century.”
She noted that no U.N. resolution or report addressed the issue of antisemitism per se, while there were several resolutions and reports focusing on the defamation of Islam and discrimination against Muslims and Arabs. Instead, she pointed to the 2001 Durban conference on racism, which provided a “breeding ground and global soapbox for antisemites.”
She blasted Annan for upholding the U.N. tradition of demonizing Israel and lionizing the Palestinian cause by issuing reports and statements critical of Israeli policies such as the construction of the security fence, house destructions in southern Gaza and killings of Palestinian militants, while refraining from naming Palestinian perpetrators of terrorist attacks.
Eve Epstein, an informal adviser to Annan on Jewish affairs, publicly took issue with Bayefsky’s speech, claiming that the seminar should be seen as a new beginning. She told the Forward before the meeting that it could serve as an “antidote to Durban,” and she urged Jewish groups to be more responsive to Annan’s effort to address their main concerns.
Most Jewish leaders present acknowledged Annan’s newfound commitment and hailed his endorsement of a resolution on antisemitism as well as his willingness to incur criticism from Arab and Muslim countries. They called for further steps, such as an annual report on antisemitism and the appointment of a special rapporteur on antisemitism.
Annan did not address those two requests in his speech, preferring to call on the U.N. human rights bodies to step up efforts to combat antisemitism.
While he could commission an annual report on antisemitism, a special rapporteur would need to be endorsed by the General Assembly — an unlikely outcome, since the 191-strong body is dominated by nonaligned countries that often side with Arab and Muslim states, which would presumably be the main target of antisemitism monitoring.
Warning that “the proof was in the pudding” Amy Goldstein, the U.N. director of B’nai Brith, urged Annan to take concrete steps, such as repeating his “good speech” in front of member states and not only non-governmental organizations.
Shashi Tharoor, the U.N.’s undersecretary general for communications and public information, who is often mentioned as a possible successor to Annan, stressed that while the seminar was only a first step, it marked “the end of indifference.” He announced that his department would compile the suggestions made at the meeting and convey them to Annan.
“The speech is a sea change in the approach of the U.N.,” Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, told the Forward. “I hope it is indeed a new beginning.”