NEW YORK — As Jewish activists scramble to block an effort to resurrect the "Zionism is Racism" canard, they also are working to defuse potential problems with the black community over the issue of slavery reparations.
In the run-up to the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, slated to begin Aug. 31 in Durban, South Africa, attention has focused on the Arab campaign to single out Israel as a racist state perpetrating a holocaust against the Palestinian people.
In response, pro-Israel advocates have enlisted as many allies as they can find — including America's mainstream black leadership.
Lost in the shuffle, however, has been the cause célèbre of some black leaders: forcing the U.N. conference to address the legacy of slavery, even holding the Western powers accountable for their historic role in the slave trade.
That has placed American Jewish activists in an awkward position.
Jews have relied on the Bush administration to lobby against the attempt to denigrate Zionism as racism, as well as other perceived anti-Israel or anti-Semitic wording.
A senior South African official said this week that the "Z=R" issue had been removed from the conference agenda, according to Reuters.
However, an American Jewish Committee official working closely on the issue dismissed the purported compromise as "subterfuge."
In the current draft, references to Zionism and Israel simply are replaced with the term "occupying power," said Jason Isaacson, the AJCommittee's director of government and international affairs.
But the document still "is written for no other purpose than to single out Israel," Isaacson said.
The Bush administration has threatened to boycott the conference if attempts to link Zionism and racism continue, perhaps keeping Secretary of State Colin Powell at home or sending only lower-level diplomats.
Either step likely would undermine the credibility of any declaration to emerge from Durban.
Indeed, for Powell, America's first black secretary of state, to attend would be "a prize for the conference," one Jewish activist said.
For that very reason, the U.S. congressional black leadership insists that Powell attend to deal with the slavery issue, despite the anti-Israel rhetoric.
In exchange for their support for the Jewish cause — and to maintain harmony in occasionally bumpy relations — some blacks want Jews to stand with them on slavery, which in Durban may include a demand for reparations.
Jewish organization have yet to formulate a position on slavery reparations, and the black community itself seems divided on the issue.
The Bush administration rejects the call for reparations and has indicated that, if addressed at all, the issue must be tackled on America's own terms, not at an international conference.
Joining the blacks would force Jews to lock horns with the one ally that has enough sway to make or break the conference.
Moreover, if Washington carries through on its threat to boycott Durban over Z=R, there is concern that some blacks would blame Jews for it. They also might accuse the Bush administration of using Z=R as a smokescreen to duck debate on America's slave-owning past.
Over the past month, anger has built in Congress against the Arab campaign to link Zionism with racism, culminating with a July 26 resolution sponsored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) that condemned the direction in which the conference appeared headed.
Black politicians reportedly were irritated by what they considered the Jews' single-mindedness, and their lack of reciprocity toward black concerns.
That caught the attention of Rabbi Marc Schneier, president and cofounder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Schneier said, were complaining to him that Lantos' resolution was "too one-sided" and did not "refer to the needs and aspirations of blacks on the issue of slavery.
"We were very, very concerned that our colleagues should in no way interpret that we are being insensitive to their needs," Schneier said.
The solution, he said, was for Jews to better communicate the reasons for their visceral rejection of the proposed language at Durban, while simultaneously expressing some support for black concerns.
In collaboration with the World Jewish Congress, Schneier formulated a letter that condemned the language and added: "We also support the efforts of African-American leaders to raise and address important issues surrounding the historic tragedy of slavery and the resulting efforts to seek reparations."
The July 31 letter did not commit the Jewish groups to supporting reparations per se, or raising the issue in Durban specifically.
Schneier got 28 Jewish and black members of Congress to sign on, including Lantos and such heavyweights as Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY); the Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.).