Jewish leaders are trying to spin a hopeful story about the fight to prevent the upcoming World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance from turning into an Israel bash-a-thon.
But recent events offer little cause for optimism about the conference, scheduled to begin Aug. 31 in Durban, South Africa.
At Monday's opening of final planning meetings in Geneva, delegates to a nongovernmental organization session approved a document calling Israel an "apartheid, racist and fascist state," and slamming the United States for "initiating a flimsy peace process, as they are entirely and fully responsible for the escalation of this war carried by the Israeli regime against the people of Palestine."
"This surpasses the worst rhetoric of the 'Zionism is Racism' days of the U.N.," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who testified at a House hearing on the subject Tuesday, along with representatives of the Anti-Defamation League and B'nai B'rith.
Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who is headed for Geneva this week, put Congress on record opposing the hijacking. Monday the House took up and approved a Lantos resolution praising the original intent of the racism meeting but slamming the attempt to use it "as a platform to resuscitate the divisive and discredited notion equating Zionism with racism."
In an interview, Lantos, a leading Jewish House member, said, "A conference that deals with discrimination, but in its initial documents says not one word about the Taliban and their practices, the ongoing slavery in Sudan ... and the discrimination against women in Saudi Arabia, but focuses on the one democratic state in the Middle East as the uniquely singled-out culprit ... is beneath contempt."
Lantos said he is going to Geneva to do his "level best to see that the documents are cleansed of the language of hate and anti-Semitism that permeates them."
He praised the Bush administration for its "exemplary" efforts to bring the focus back to racism.
Late last week, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "We will not stand by, if the world tries to describe Zionism as racism." If the anti-Israel theme persists, he said, "the United States will not go."
Lantos said he "fully supports" that position. "I don't think Colin Powell should dignify this conference if it is a ... lynch mob which has discovered there is a victim they can all beat up on."
The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and others don't see things that way: CBC members are promoting a second resolution urging Powell to lead the U.S. delegation and to increase funding for the conference.