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Should the Jews Have “Engaged” with Obama on Durban II?

Throughout the last century, there has been an ongoing debate in this country between Jewish activists and the Jewish establishment. Jewish organizations and philanthropists generally believe the best way to advance Jewish interests and to defend their people against anti-Semitism is via a strategic use of clout, wealth, and skillful quiet diplomacy.

But many activists have always believed the establishment was fatally compromised by its political connections as well as by its natural temerity. They harbor an instinctual distrust of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy that the organizations favor, and believe that in-your-face protests and public pressure are necessary. The Jewish community is best served when both public protest and diplomacy are employed on behalf of Jewish causes, as was the case during the movement to free Soviet Jewry. But highlighting this obvious fact does nothing to eliminate the distrust felt by both camps toward each other.

This pattern has reasserted itself in the debate over how Jews should best combat the latest round of United Nations anti-Semitism in the form of the proposed “Durban II” conference on racism. The first Durban conference in 2001 was a hate-fest directed at both Jews and Israel. With its sequel set to take place in April, the Jewish world has been focused on trying to avert a repeat of the debacle.

When President Obama sent a delegation to the preparatory meetings for the conference in Geneva last month, many feared the worst. The fact that a member of the delegation was a senior staffer at the American Jewish Committee (the quintessential establishment group and, up until 2007, the publisher of COMMENTARY) set off a number of activists who thought a betrayal was in the works.

But, at least for now, it appears that Obama has done the right thing. The U.S. has announced it is pulling out of Durban II and other countries are following its lead. But the back-story about the AJC’s participation in the Geneva meeting has ignited a dust-up between the group and a quartet of leading activists and writers. Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, British author and columnist Melanie Phillips, and Anne Bayefsky who runs the Eye on the UN group, all criticized the AJC for what they believed was their legitimizing of the Durban II process.

In response, AJC executive director David Harris torched them for over-the-top rhetoric in his Jerusalem Post blog. Glick, Phillips, and Bayefsky responded in the same forum and were seconded by Isi Leibler.

Who’s in the right?

Harris is correct when he points out that those who helped the administration see the light on Durban probably did influence Obama’s decision to boycott. Moreover, the organization’s position on the issue is not that of a Jewish quisling for the anti-Semites. Its “UN Watch” project has served as a good watchdog on the world body’s despicable record.

That said, Glick, Phillips, Bayefsky, and Leibler are right to worry about what a process of “engagement” with the UN will mean in the long run. It’s not just that there is a chance, as they assert, that the U.S. could be lured back into Durban II. The Obama foreign-policy team seems dangerously enamored with the UN. A decision to take part in the group’s Human Rights Council (currently chaired by Libya) would legitimize an institution that is as deserving of a boycott as Durban II itself.

As for the Geneva meeting, even though Israel urged the U.S. to stay away from it, once the decision to attend was made, the AJC’s participation does not appear to have been inappropriate. If the U.S. was to send a delegation, there is merit to the argument that sending someone who would advocate for a sane position would be smarter than representation by a State Department “realist.”

But the peril lies in the fact that Jewish groups stand in danger of being co-opted by this administration as it flirts with an international community that is inherently hostile to Jewish rights. The reason for this is not due to partisanship so much as an organizational culture in which being inside the tent always seems smarter than standing outside in protest, even when the latter is the more principled and more effective tactic. Obama’s crush on the UN will likely give both the insiders and activists plenty of opportunities to demonstrate who has the best idea of how to avert an American betrayal of Israel during the next four years. The question is, will they be smart enough to realize when they have made a mistake?


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