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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Anne Bayefsky

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-11-28

Anne Bayefsky speaks softly in strong syntax.

"Israel is the Rosa Parks of the United Nations system," she said. "How else to explain the hate fests that are held year after year, the second-class treatment, the resolutions targeting Israel for alleged human-rights abuses but letting gross violators like China and Zimbabwe off the hook?" Ms. Bayefsky said. "The UN has become a vehicle for doing harm to democracy and human rights - and the Jews."

Her deeply held beliefs notwithstanding, Ms. Bayefsky does not come across as a fire-brand. She doesn't wear lapel pins that shout slogans. No protest scarves drape her slender neck. She doesn't hand out leaflets decrying those who don't measure up to her exacting standards to qualify as exemplars of human rights. She doesn't point to some diners in the restaurant who're reputed to view Israel less than benevolently.

Ms. Bayefsky comes across, in fact, like a brooding academic, a scholar who speaks with a pained expression when referring to anti-Semitism and other travesties that she discerns at the 191-nation UN.

She is indeed a teacher and scholar by vocation. Currently a professor at Touro College Law Center in Huntington, Long Island, Ms. Bayefsky has taught previously at institutions such as Columbia University in New York, and York University in her native Canada. She is also a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, a prominent conservative think tank based in Washington.
But low-key manner and all, few people in the private sector have been as vigilant and vocal about the treatment of Israel - and Jews - by global organizations such as the UN. Through her writings for prestigious publications and law reviews, her Web site EyeOnTheUN.Org, her speeches, and her presentations at conferences all over the world, Ms. Bayefsky has established a reputation for straight talk about anti-Semitism - an evil that she fears is spreading, and not only in Islamic countries.

"At the same time, I try to live by the ancient maxim, 'If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself what good am I? And if not now, when?'" Ms. Bayefsky said. "For more than 25 years, I have done general human-rights work especially mindful of the second part of this maxim." A collection of essays on human rights, refugees and internally displaced persons which she has edited will appear this fall.

It isn't surprising that her relentless activism hasn't exactly endeared her to many diplomats and secretariat officials at the UN, where the Islamic lobby often controls the political climate. What is puzzling - and troubling to Ms. Bayefsky - is that the community which she belongs to - nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs in the parlance - has largely harbored dyspeptic, at times even hostile, attitudes toward her.

The hostility toward her Jewishness was never more intense than at a UN conference in Durban, South Africa.

Many NGOs are often invited by the UN to attend international talkfests as part of an outreach program designed to persuade civil society that, contrary to criticism by people like Ms. Bayefsky, the global body does indeed perform meritorious service. In August 2001, Ms. Bayefsky attended the ironically named UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. She represented the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.

"I didn't suddenly remember I was a Jew at Durban - on the contrary," Ms. Bayefsky said. "I was part of Canadian delegations to the UN General Assembly in the 1980s, and to the Commission on Human Rights from 1993 for five years - and as a result of the egregious double standards and overt anti-Semitism I witnessed masquerading as human-rights protection, I helped the late US Ambassador Morris Abram launch the Geneva-based UN Watch in the early 1990s. In the mid 1990s, I wrote a lengthy law review article on Israel and the UN human-rights system. But since so few people read law review articles, I was not yet shunned by colleagues in the human-rights movement. I have been a professor and author, not an employee of a Jewish organization."

"But the human rights movement has generally excluded Jews as Jews - by which I mean they have marginalized or ignored concerns about anti-Semitism, and have pretended that the treatment of the Jewish state is unrelated to anti-Semitism," Ms. Bayefsky said. "The price of belonging to the human-rights movement has meant - and still means - being prepared to sacrifice concern about Israel's welfare in order to further the interests of the general good. And although many American NGOs are headed by Jews, they are often afraid to be directly perceived as caring about the welfare of Jews and the Jewish state."

At an NGO panel during the Durban conference, Ms. Bayefsky told participants that human rights for all cannot be built on the backs of Jewish victims, whether they live in or outside of Israel.

"The UN is not a vehicle for rights protection at all if its engine runs by fanning the flames of anti-Semitism - that is, by exempting from serious concern Jewish victims of human-rights abuse, the most egregious form of abuse being the 57-year campaign to wipe a Jewish state off the map," Ms. Bayefsky said.

The Durban session on anti-Semitism where Ms. Bayefsky spoke, was disrupted by other NGO activists.

"You are killers! You are killers!" they shouted.

At a subsequent meeting held just prior to the adoption of the final Durban NGO declaration, at which international NGOs were to decide how they should vote, the chief representative of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, according to Ms. Bayefsky, said to her: "You can't come in. You represent Jews. You can't be trusted to be independent." Her interlocutor was Jewish himself.

"Human-rights NGOs have always thought that discriminatory treatment of Israel is the price to be paid for doing business at the UN," Mr. Bayefsky said.

That global conference was a stark reminder, for Ms. Bayefsky, of the importance of the first part of that ancient maxim.

"Durban was dedicated to the demonization of Israel, and hijacked for the cause of anti-Semitism," Ms. Bayefsky said. "And yet the world's leading NGOs - Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights [now called Human Rights First] - believed that neutrality was the best approach. They decided to abstain on the final product that said Zionism equals racism. I was no longer perceived to be part of the mainstream of the human-rights movement."

She paused, and then said:
"Jews and the treatment of Israel is a central point of my human-rights agenda. That's one of the reasons I spend so much time at the UN, attending endless meetings and reading endless documents. It's simply not good enough to point to the good things that the UN supposedly does while ignoring that it has become the tool of the world's worst human-rights violators."

When Ms. Bayefsky, a single mother of three girls, talks about human-rights, the conversation inevitably turns to her parents, Evelyn and the late Aba Bayefsky of Toronto. Her father, who was with the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II as a war artist, was among those who went into the infamous Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen just after it was liberated. Hundreds of thousands of Jews died there, including Anne Frank, the Dutch girl who was one of the most famous victims of the Holocaust.

"My father, later awarded the Order of Canada, and whose art hangs in galleries around the world - including in Israel's Yad Vashem - understood the human capacity for evil," Ms. Bayefsky said. "But he was also a great humanist who cared about dignity and multiculturalism. He celebrated life. That influenced me in my formative years. For me, being a Jew means celebrating life while recognizing the reality of a constant struggle to defeat those who do not. What happens so often at the UN undermines that essential cause."

She returned to her earlier reference to Rosa Parks, the African-American woman whose refusal to yield her seat to a white man and move to the back of a public bus, was a major catalyst of the civil rights movement.

"The UN should grind to a halt until Israel is allowed to move from the back of the bus," Ms. Bayefsky said. "There's so much talk about UN reform. But any meaningful reform of the UN system has to incorporate an end to the most egregious form of institutionalized racism. And I'll be there watching and reporting, aiming to point democracies in healthier directions."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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