Senior officials in the Obama administration have reached out to Jewish leaders in an attempt to address the community’s concerns regarding the upcoming United Nations’s World Conference Against Racism, scheduled to take place in April.
Israel and American Jewish groups have been uneasy with the possibility that the U.S. might attend the conference, commonly known as Durban II, a term that refers to the first meeting held in Durban, South Africa in 2001. That conference became a venue for harsh attacks that singled out Israel, and Jewish activists fear that the follow-up meeting will take the same path.
The State Department announced February 14 it would participate in a preparatory meeting in Geneva to discuss the material being submitted to the Durban II conference and proposed resolutions that will be discussed. This move has irked several Jewish groups who viewed American participation as a step toward legitimizing Durban II.
The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement expressing concern over the decision to send a U.S. delegation for preparatory talks. “While we understand the pressure on the U.S. to go to Geneva, we urge America not to participate in a fatally flawed UN racism conference that demonizes Israel,” said the group’s national director Abraham Foxman who also urged the Obama administration “to act quickly to let other nations know where the U.S. stands.”
The February 16 conference call with Jewish leaders was meant to answer these concerns. Organized by the White House pubic liaison’s office, the call brought together officials from State Department and the National Security Council to explain the decision. In the conversation, the administration officials made clear that the decision to hold talks with organizers of the Durban II conference does not mean the U.S. has made up its mind in favor of participation.
“This administration came in with an intention to engage with the world and now they are signaling their intention to engage on the Durban II issue,” said Martin Raffel, senior associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who participated in the call. “They hope they can turn it into an important conference that will discuss issues of racism and xenophobia in a serious way.”
The administration officials also explained they are working in consultation with Israel on this issue and agreed with Jewish activists that the current proposed resolutions of the conference, which resemble those of the first Durban gathering, pose a problem for the U.S.
The decision to move forward with preparations for the Durban II event is being met with skepticism on behalf of Israel and of American Jewish activists. An Israeli diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that if the administration succeeds in changing the outcome of the conference, Israel would not oppose American participation. “But we don’t expect much to come out of their effort,” the diplomat added.
William Daroff, vice president for public policy at the United Jewish Communities, said that Jewish groups will be waiting to see the results of the preparatory negotiations conducted by the U.S. “The key is what happens if they are not successful in changing the course of the conference,” said Daroff who also participated in the February 16 discussion, “In that case the U.S. should withdraw from the conference vehemently and vocally.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.