Something good is happening in the world of human rights NGOs in Israel, and just maybe beyond Israel.A hint comes through the small but influential Rabbis for Human Rights organization, which last week signed on to an international petition calling for the prevention of another anti-Israel and anti-Semitic fiasco such as that witnessed at the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) at Durban, South Africa.

The move might not seem dramatic. RHR is a small organization of some 100 generally left-leaning Israeli rabbis, mostly from the small (in Israel) liberal streams of Judaism. Its influence has been felt more in public activism on behalf of Palestinians, poor Israelis and foreign workers than in international affairs.

It has also faced no small measure of criticism. Its executive director gained notoriety for blocking with his body a bulldozer set to demolish a Palestinian house in east Jerusalem.

Significantly, in 2001 it was lambasted for its refusal to withdraw from the first Durban Conference, even as the notorious anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist fracas, particularly among the NGO assembly at Durban, reached an ugly peak, driving the US and Israel to walk out.

The petition to which RHR has signed on, presented by the Jacob Blaustein Institute of the American Jewish Committee and the Magenta Foundation from Holland, does not mince words.

In a key section, after describing what went on at the 2001 conference, it declares: "The global effort to eradicate racism cannot be advanced by branding whole peoples with the stigma of ultimate evil, fomenting hateful stereotyping in the name of human rights. The UN and its human rights forums must not serve as a vehicle for any form of racism, including anti-Semitism, and must bar incitement to hatred against any group in the guise of criticism of a particular government. We pledge to prevent this from happening again."

While partly initiated by an American Jewish organization with a decades-long record of Israel advocacy alongside its human rights work, the petition is signed by the Washington-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an important American civil rights organization, and the European Network Against Racism, a coalition of hundreds of European anti-racism groups.

For a UN anti-racism process to attract such deep-seated concern from groups at the heart of its activist constituency is profoundly important. These NGOs, alongside their Israeli counterparts, seem to be starting to appreciate the magnitude of what is at stake when the human rights agenda is prostituted to a narrow and specific bigotry.

If the next WCAR – Durban II – tentatively slated to take place in 2009, is transformed into a grotesque of the anti-racism cause, it will be very hard to pick up the pieces. In 2001, we heard the excuse that it had never been done before. This time, everyone will be walking into this process with their eyes open.

The first steps toward the creation of the follow-up conference have not been encouraging. The project has been turned over to the Israel-obsessed Human Rights Council, which follows its predecessor in protecting Sudan, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia and other dictatorial regimes while singling Israel out for abuse. The bureau established by the council to plan Durban II is itself chaired by Libya and vice-chaired by Cuba, hardly paragons of human rights.

Last month, Marc Perrin de Brichambaut, secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – an organization that championed human rights in the Soviet bloc for decades – speaking with The Jerusalem Post about the HRC’s Israel obsession would only say that "any procedure can be subverted." Perhaps this is true, but it is disturbing to hear such resignation from so senior an international civil servant.

After all, the obsession with vilifying Israel is more ruinous to the human rights agenda than to Israel. We in Israel rely on our self-correcting free society and our military to survive in a still-hostile world, not on UN procedures. But the world’s slaves – will Durban II remember there is still a planet-wide slave trade? – have no such protections. The Roma of Europe and elsewhere, the Christians of the Sudan, the Buddhist monks of Myanmar, the strangely disappearing opposition journalists in Russia, the allegedly non-existent homosexuals of Iran – these are the true victims of the anti-Israel crusade.

Evidently, Israeli NGOs, and some abroad, are slowly coming to the realization that a repeated hijacking of so central a human rights process as the WCAR would turn the phrase "human rights" into a synonym for the denial of Jewish rights, including the right to self-determination – a terrible bigotry that would suggest that the category of "human" need not apply to those who are merely Jewish.


This editorial was published in the Jerusalem Post on January 13, 2008.