Deconstructing the WJC campaign for a UN resolution on anti-Semitism

The World Jewish Congress has launched a campaign for the adoption of a General Assembly resolution condemning anti-Semitism and is circulating a petition asking for support and financial donations.[1] On the face of it, the proposal seems worthwhile and non-controversial: who could possibly object to a statement against anti-Semitism? On closer inspection, however, several questions arise.

Resolutions condemning anti-Semitism have been adopted by the UN Human Rights Commission since 1994, when the issue was included in the mandate of the special rapporteur on racism and racial discrimination.[2] His reports regularly include information on anti-Semitic incidents supplied by Israel and Jewish NGOs, and are submitted annually to both the Commission and the General Assembly. The rapporteur forwards the allegations to the governments of the countries where incidents have taken place and recommends corrective action. For its part, the Assembly has expressed concern over the reported rise in anti-Semitism in various parts of the world and has endorsed the rapporteur’s recommendations, most recently at the 2004 session.[3]

The Assembly has also endorsed the final document of the World Conference against Racism held in South Africa in 2001, which (despite all the accusations that continue to be made against it) includes several paragraphs on anti-Semitism. So does the final declaration of the unofficial NGO Forum, held in parallel with the Conference, where the most controversial rhetoric took place.[4] Accordingly, anti-Semitism is taken into account in follow-up activities to the Conference.

Additionally, in 2004 both the Commission and the Assembly have included specific mention of anti-Semitism in their respective resolutions on the elimination of religious intolerance, which govern the work of another special rapporteur.[5]

A parallel venue for examining allegations of anti-Semitism is provided by the expert committees supervising implementation of the major international human rights treaties, several of which contain provisions of relevance to the problem. Recent documents of the Human Rights Committee, the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee, and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, show that they regularly inquire about anti-Semitic incidents in assessing States’ performance under the treaties. NGOs are allowed to submit “shadow reports” where additional information and analysis on countries under review can be made available.[6]

Why then the push for a General Assembly resolution on anti-Semitism? All the procedures mentioned above take a comprehensive approach that includes any group about which there are allegations of human rights violations. But the World Jewish Congress and other proponents of the idea have made it clear that they want a “stand-alone” resolution, with its own follow-up machinery. At a seminar on anti-Semitism held at the United Nations in June 2004, Edgar Bronfman of WJC complained that no UN official was responsible for combating rising anti-Semitism, and called on the Secretary-General to appoint a special representative and issue annual reports.[7]

Underpinning the proposal for separate treatment are arguments that anti-Semitism is “a virus” that has survived since antiquity and combines all other group hatreds, and is “no longer political, social, religious or ethnic - [but] existential, metaphysical”[8]; “a plague of a different kind that does not conform to the norms and boundaries of other types of hate.”[9] However, recent statements by these organizations show an interesting conceptual evolution that betrays a very political agenda.

In the mid-1990s, at the height of the Oslo peace process, the Coordinating Board of Jewish Organizations in a submission to the special rapporteur on racism defined anti-Semitism as “an irrational hatred of the Jewish people…[resulting in] violence against Jews and Jewish institutions”, without mentioning either Zionism or Israel.[10] But recently, against the background of the second Intifada, Sharon’s re-invasion of the occupied territories, and the events of 9/11, new formulations are presented which increasingly conflate Jews, Zionism, the state of Israel, the policies of its government, and by extension, the Bush administration’s “war on terror”. In this perspective, criticism of the Israeli government’s occupation policies is seen as an attack against the state, which translates into an attack against Zionism, which in turn translates into an attack against all Jews rooted in timeless anti-Semitism - and thus lends support to the objectives of radical Islam.[11] It is probably not a coincidence that the State Department’s report on anti-Semitism includes “demonization of Israel, or vilification of Israeli leaders” along with “hatred toward Jews” in its definition.[12]

Since much of the international debate about ending the occupation takes place within the normative and political framework of the United Nations, the organization itself (and not just individual states or groups of states, as in the past) has increasingly become the target of accusations of anti-Semitism. The WJC petition is accompanied by a paper entitled “History of United Nations anti-Semitism”, riddled with distortions and misrepresentations that unfortunately cannot be answered in detail here.[13] Speakers at the seminar mentioned above charged variously that the UN is “the leading global purveyor of anti-Semitism”, that it “demonizes and de-legitimizes the Jewish people” and “deifies the Palestinians”, and demanded that it “make fundamental changes”. Following the example of UN Watch, an offshoot of the WJC active in Geneva for a number of years, several organizations now monitor different sectors of the UN dealing with the Palestinian question, and issue condemnations of their work.

Strictly speaking, this is not a new strategy since bodies such as the Human Rights Commission’s Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices in the Occupied Territories and the General Assembly’s Committee on Palestinian Rights (both modeled on mechanisms established to combat apartheid) have been under attack since their inception in the 1960s and 1970s; every UN conference on racism since the 1970s has also been condemned. Charging bias and selectivity, successive Israeli governments have refused to cooperate, or have cooperated only partially, with UN bodies dealing with the occupation (ironically including those, mentioned earlier, on which Israel relies to investigate anti-Semitic incidents).

What is new is the aggressiveness and ubiquitousness of the campaign to denigrate the work not just of the political bodies but also of those dealing with economic, social, humanitarian and legal issues. Accusations of bias have been leveled at both the UN Development Program and the Office of Humanitarian Affairs; the UN agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, long a target of criticism, has increasingly been under attack for allegedly providing a cover for Palestinian militants.[14] The recent meetings of the States parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention (which include practically all countries of the world) and of the International Court of Justice, the UN’s primary judicial organ, represent a significant expansion of the normative framework for addressing the occupation; they have also been convened through General Assembly resolutions bypassing the Security Council (where Israel is assured of a US veto), and have accordingly aroused considerable concern among Israel’s supporters. The ensuing decisions that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to the occupied territory, including Jerusalem, and that Israel as the occupying Power is not at liberty to change its physical and demographic character by building the wall, have been greeted with a chorus of accusations of unfairness and politicization of humanitarian and legal mechanisms.[15]

Also new are the increasingly personalized attacks against UN officials for daring to uphold UN principles. Some recent examples from the website of just one organization (where, incidentally, the UN is reached by clicking on “international anti-Semitism”) include condemnations of the Secretary-General not only for making statements and issuing reports deemed “biased” but also for reminding the Israeli government of its obligations under humanitarian law; even for welcoming the unofficial Geneva accords.[16]

Since the invasion of Jenin by the Israeli army in 2002, abuse has been heaped on the two most senior UN officials in Gaza, Terje Roed Larsen (UN coordinator for the peace process) and Peter Hansen (head of UNRWA) for having dared to criticize the destruction and civilian casualties.[17] Larsen was quietly moved to a different assignment some months ago. Hansen, under renewed attack both by conservative Jewish organizations and in the US Congress after condemning house demolitions and the killing of children in Gaza, did not have his contract renewed despite his desire to stay on.[18] Additionally, in recent months calls have been made for the dismissal of John Dugard, special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the occupied territories, and Jean Ziegler, special rapporteur on the right to food, for unfairness to Israel in their examination of the plight of Palestinians living under occupation. Dugard, a well-known South African lawyer, was excoriated for making a comparison with apartheid, and Ziegler for asking Caterpillar to stop selling its bulldozers to the Israeli military (thus raising the specter of much-feared divestment campaigns).[18]

These examples show that the concern about anti-Semitism as a form of religious and ethnic intolerance (which could be combated by using existing international mechanisms), has transmogrified into an all-out campaign by conservative Jewish organizations to reject any criticism of the Israeli government and ultimately even to change the fundamental principles that still govern the international approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict. Unfortunately, the barrage of accusations seems to have led the UN Secretariat to try to reach an accommodation with these organizations: at the seminar mentioned above, no defense of UN activities was proffered and speakers were mostly from the same conservative organizations, thus allowing them to set the tone and the agenda, which was largely an exercise in UN-bashing. By not including the many progressive Jewish voices that are challenging the prevailing orthodoxy, a real opportunity was lost to engage in serious dialogue about the meaning of “anti-Semitism” and about how a just solution to the conflict can be achieved. One can only hope that this is not the shape of things to come at the UN.[20]

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  • BY TOPIC: The New Anti-Semitism

    Laura Reanda is a former United Nations official, where she worked from 1973 to 1998 successively in the Center against Apartheid, the Center for Human Rights and the Division for Palestinian Rights. She was head of the latter Division from 1992 to 1998. She now writes and lectures on international human rights, women’s rights, and the Israel/Palestine conflict.

    1. The petition has been sent out by mail and is also posted on the WJC website, The two texts differ in various ways; a request for clarification remains unanswered.
    2. CHR resolution 1994/64 of 2/9/94.
    3. GA resolution 59/177 of 12/20/04. The most recent reports of the rapporteur are in CHR document E/CN.4/2004/18 and GA document A/59/329 (available at
    4. The Declaration and Program of Action of the official conference are at: ; the NGO declaration is at:
    5. CHR resolution 2004/36 of 4/19/04; GA resolution 59/199 of 12/20/04. It should be noted that the rapporteur’s mandate is broad enough that he was already paying attention to anti-Semitism even in the absence of submissions from either Israel or Jewish NGOs/
    6. Relevant documents can be retrieved by searching for “anti-Semitism” in the treaty bodies database on the UN human rights website,
    7. UN press release HR/4773.
    8. Ibid., keynote speech by Eli Wiesel.
    9. Letter from WJC accompanying the mailed petition.
    10. UN document E/CN.4/1996/72, annex II (available at
    11. See statement by the Coordinating Board of Jewish Organizations at the 2004 session of the CHR (
    12. The report is available at
    13. The paper is at For a detailed critique, contact this author at
    14. Anti-Defamation League (, press releases of 12/21/04 and 10/24/03. For a point-by-point rebuttal of charges made by Eli Wiesel against UNRWA, see, click on “Setting the record straight”.
    15. ADL press release of 7/9/04; American Jewish Committee (, press release of 12/3/01.
    16. ADL press releases of 9/4, 11/10 and 12/1/03; and 3/19/02.
    17. Anne Bayefsky, “The UN and the Jews”. For this and other writings posted on a website devoted to attacking the UN, see
    18. The Guardian (UK), 1/20/05.
    19. ADL press release of 10/15/04 and UN Watch ( release of 7/21/04.
    20. There are many alternative writings on anti-Semitism. For some thoughtful examples available on the web see: Ran HaCohen, “Letter from Israel: Abusing anti-Semitism”, 9/29/03 (; Brian Klug, “The myth of the new anti-Semitism”, 1/15/04 (; Joel Kovel, “On left anti-Semitism and the special status of Israel” Tikkun, 5/9/03 (; Tony Judt, “Goodbye to all that?” 12/16/04 (