By Abraham H. Foxman
This article appeared in the Washington Post on Tuesday August 7, 2001
and the International Herald-Tribune on Thursday August 9, 2001
The fall of the Soviet Empire had many positive results, most particularly
ending fear of nuclear holocaust and the freeing of millions of people in
Russia and the former Soviet republics and throughout Eastern Europe.
Another positive outcome was the diminution of ideological politics
throughout the world, including at the United Nations. During the Cold War,
issues were determined through the prism of the Soviet-American conflict. A
classic example of this was the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism,
which U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has characterized as the "low
point" of the United Nations. This destructive resolution was a product
of Soviet efforts to mobilize Arab countries and others against Israel and the
Since the end of the Cold War, the Zionism-equals-racism resolution has
been rescinded, and the United Nations has been able to agree on issues such
as Slobodan Milosevic's arrest. These results point the way to future
constructive international action.
Now, however, the world's nations face a critical test to determine whether
they can, through cooperation, create a less hateful and more tolerant world
or whether ideological politics, with all its destructive consequences, will
rule the day.
The opportunity and the challenge come in the form of the week-long World
Conference Against Racism, scheduled to begin Aug. 31 in Durban, South Africa.
In a world that is increasingly interdependent, with countries more and more
pluralistic, issues of racism and other kinds of intolerance are relevant to
every society on earth. Practical programs, using the expertise and experience
of governments and nongovernmental organizations, can be put to good use if
the international community in Durban agrees on principles to support and
implement such programs.
In addition, at a time when conflict between developed and developing
countries threatens to reappear in environmental and trade issues, among
others, a successful conference on racism with agreed-upon principles could
foster greater trust on other issues.
These potential gains, however, are being put in jeopardy. Anti-American
and anti-Israel forces have tried to hijack the conference. Undermining Israel
and the United States seems more important to these parties than the real
achievements meant to benefit all.
Chief among such efforts has been the attempt to resurrect in a new form
the charge that Zionism equals racism. In the draft document for the
conference, phrases such as "racist practices of Zionism" and a
description of Zionism as a movement "based upon elitism and racial
superiority" are included. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said in
1967, such language denies "the Jewish people . . . the fundamental right
that we justly claim for the people of Africa and freely accord to all other
nations of the globe. It is discrimination against the Jews, my friend,
because they are Jews. In short it is anti-Semitism."
The effort against Israel and Jews even goes beyond the usual
Zionism-is-racism charge. Arab states have proposed removing the word
"Holocaust" as a specific example of racism taken to its most
violent extreme and replacing it with the term "holocausts." This
substitution not only eliminates the uniqueness of the Holocaust but also
seems to be the latest manifestation of Arab propaganda to deny or diminish
The conference can and must acknowledge all human tragedies related to
racism, without minimizing or trivializing the Holocaust but rather focusing
on lessons learned from it. Events such as the Cambodian genocide, the Rwandan
genocide and "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia have resulted in new
universal principles that have advanced international humanitarian and human
rights law and international standards. Member states must draw upon the
lessons from these events to develop new means to address racism, racial
discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.
Both as a matter of justice, and to ensure that the conference will not be
tainted as have others in the past, Western democracies, especially Britain,
Germany, France and the United States, must actively oppose the destructive
propositions at the preparatory conference now taking place in Geneva. If
these democratic countries exert their historic leadership role by sounding
the alarm, the tide of support for this language can be turned.