May 5, 2005

Jews have mixed views of UN conference


The Jews came from India, from Australia and from Canada. They came from Estonia, Armenia and Kazakhstan. A few even came from the United States.

It wasn't the ingathering of Jewish exiles to the Promised Land, but a gathering of Jewish leaders from around the world at the United Nations-until recently, perhaps, the least likely of places for a conference of Jews.

The Jews came at the behest of the UN Foundation, which invited the 50 or so delegates who already were planning on being in Washington for a separate conference later in the week to come to New York to meet with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"Rarely have so many Jewish community leaders from around the world gathered here at the organization's headquarters," Annan told the delegates in a closed-door session Monday. "I would like Jews everywhere to feel that the United Nations is their home."

Acknowledging that the UN still has "some distance to travel" when it comes to its relationship with Israel and the Jews, Annan said the UN nevertheless is moving in an unmistakable trend toward "a new level of confidence and mutual understanding" with Israel and Jewish communities worldwide.

Annan has reached out to Jews several times over the last year. The UN hosted a seminar on anti-Semitism last summer, the UN General Assembly held a special session in January to mark the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and Annan went to Jerusalem in March for the opening of the new wing of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

"I know that many of you are already on the front lines in your communities-fighting against anti-Semitism, campaigning for human rights and at times suffering for your commitment to these causes," Annan said Monday. "I hope you will leave here emboldened by the knowledge that the United Nations strives hard to be your friend and ally in the struggle for peace, human dignity and justice for all."

The Jews had a mixed reaction.

Many said they were impressed by UN officialdom, as well as by meeting with ambassadors from UN member countries including Israel, Jordan and the United States. But that didn't deter many delegates from aggressively questioning officials about the UN's record on Israel, its tolerance for anti-Semitism in Arab media and its role in the Middle East peace process.

After directing a particularly forceful question in an off-the-record session Tuesday to Jordan's UN ambassador and Terje Roed-Larsen, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, one Jewish delegate from Australia got enthusiastic thumbs-up from her counterparts around a packed conference room.

Leon Masliah, a longtime official with the French Consistoire, France's Jewish religious umbrella group, said he appreciated Annan's conciliatory tone but that words carry only so much weight at the UN, where the real power lies in the votes of member states. "One thing that Annan can't change is the votes," Masliah observed.

Abraham Kaul, president of AMIA, Argentina's Jewish umbrella group, said gestures also were significant. "It was very interesting for me," he said. "What Kofi Annan said wasn't so important; it was important that he came to meet Jewish leaders from all over the world."

Kaul said he also pressed Annan about probing the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, an attack that left 85 dead and still has not been solved by an investigation Jews widely regard as deeply flawed and often half-hearted. Annan was receptive to his complaints, Kaul said.

After two days of meetings at the UN, the Jewish delegates went to Washington for the annual conference of the American Jewish Committee, which also co-sponsored the meetings at the UN. The UN Foundation paid for the travel and hotel accommodation related to the delegates' visit to New York, and the AJCommittee assisted in bringing many of the delegates to the United States from their home countries. The AJCommittee's conference, which began Tuesday night, runs through Friday.

The idea to convene the Jewish leaders from some 24 countries while they were stateside came from the UN, according to Eve Epstein, who coordinated the event for the UN Foundation.

Chatting with officials from the secretary-general's office several weeks ago, Epstein said, "I was explaining to them the whole concept of klal yisrael and tikkun olam, and they said we really haven't heard enough from Jews all over the world, because usually it's the same old leaders from American Jewry."

The UN was particularly interested in hearing from Jews in countries on the "front lines" of the battle against anti-Semitism, she said. There was heavy representation at the meetings from Eastern European countries, including representatives from Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia and Montenegro.

"We always talk about how to educate against intolerance. Well, the Jews have a message: tikkun olam to help others have a better world," said Davor Shalom, secretary of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia and Montenegro.