‘Israel is wrong to snub UN summit’

Israel is wrong to have withdrawn from next spring's ‘Durban II' conference in Geneva, believes one of the leaders of the Anglo-Jewish group preparing for the event.

Rosalind Preston, joint chairman of the Jewish Human Rights Coalition (JHRC) UK, said: "We think on the whole it's a mistake. Once you've withdrawn, you can't fight."

Her co-chair, Henry Grunwald QC, president of the Board of Deputies, said that the Israeli move had come "as no surprise" to those following the conference preparations: "The disturbing outcome of the last preparatory committee in Geneva has taken the entire process to the precipice," he said.

He added that the UN High Commissioner had little time to act "to ensure that other governments are not forced to follow the examples set by Canada and Israel".

David Hirsh, editor of the Engage website, who attended part of the recent preparatory sessions in Geneva, said: "Israel is making a mistake. It should build an international diplomatic coalition against anti-Zionisim. Boycotting the conference is the ‘timid Jew' approach. Israel should go to Geneva and fight for its rights."

Jewish campaigners want to avoid a repetition of the UN's conference in Durban in 2001 which became a platform to attack Israel and Zionism.

Mrs Preston said: "We are working as hard as we can with the ambassadors of EU countries and with the consulates of other countries. And first and foremost, with our own government, which has shown a clear awareness of our sensitivities and concerns. We are also working with other NGOs (non-governmental organisations), because NGOs have a tremendous amount of influence."

She noted that the main trouble at Durban came at the forum for NGOs, but the UN had yet to say whether a similar forum would take place in Geneva.

"The Swiss Government has indicated it isn't keen on it," she said. "My own suspicion is that it will happen."

Mrs Preston said: "We are totally committed to fighting racism as part of our Jewish concerns, not just in our own interests but for others who are suffering. We don't want to quit the field."

Apart from the issue of Israel, another potential flashpoint is pressure by Islamic countries for international action to prevent "defamation" of religion.

"It's a major concern to governments because it means stifling free speech," Mrs Preston said.

    Last updated: 4:11pm, July 22 2009