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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 07:45 GMT 08:45 UK
Anger over Zionism debate
Jewish settlers
The US is boycotting the conference on racism over the Zionism question
There were heated discussions even in the run up to South Africa's World Conference Against Racism, with Arab countries seeking to equate Zionism with racism - a move welcomed by Palestinian communities but which is rejected by Jews, especially those committed to the ideals of Zionism.

Any member of humankind can be a Jew, and all Jews are welcome in Israel... it's more a function of comfort in culture

Jan Wimpfhaemer
The Wimpfhaemer family, who are leaving New York and emigrating to Israel, epitomise the ideals at the heart of Zionism - a return of the Jewish people to Israel.

Jan Wimpfhaemer rejects the Palestinian view of Zionism as inherently racist on the grounds that Judaism is not based on race.

"Any member of humankind can be a Jew, and all Jews are welcome in Israel ... it's more a function of comfort in culture, and in society, rather than a legal or political framework, he says."

Palestinian militants
Palestinian militants continue to oppose the state of Israel
However, many Arab-Americans take a somewhat different view.

Support is growing among them for moves by Arab countries to keep Zionism on the agenda.

"If Zionism is not equated with racism, then the integrity of the conference will be lost because we have a situation with more than 600 people dead as a result of Zionist policy, which is a racist policy," says Emily Jacir, a Palestinian-American activist.

Divisive issue

This is not the first time that the issue has divided international opinion.

Former Israeli UN Ambassador, the late Chaim Herzog
Chaim Herzog angrily rejected the earlier resolution

Twenty-six years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a contentious resolution equating Zionism with racism - a move met with scorn by the then Israeli Ambassador, Chaim Herzog.

"For us, the Jewish people, this resolution based on hatred, falsehood, and arrogance, is devoid of any moral or legal value," he said. "For us, the Jewish people, this is no more than a piece of paper, and we shall treat it as such."

To demonstrate, he then tore his papers up.

Then, as now, Israel was supported by the United States. In 1975, the US Ambassador to the UN was Daniel Moynihan, who stood by Israel's rejection of the resolution.

"The United States rises to declare before the General Assembly of the United Nations, and before the world that it does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, and it will never acquiesce in this infamous act," he said.

Revived ideology

The resolution equating Zionism with racism was eventually overturned in 1991 - but it has never quite gone away.

It's rearing its head again now for a very simple reason. The deadlock in the Middle East is pretty absolute

David Malone, International Peace Academy

David Malone of the International Peace Academy says Arab nations, who see Zionism as the ideology behind a racist policy towards Palestinians, find it convenient to revive the issue at times of grave crisis in the Middle East.

"I think it's rearing its head again now for a very simple reason. The deadlock in the Middle East is pretty absolute. Large numbers of casualties are being registered, most of them Palestinian," he says.

"The sense of powerlessness in the Arab world to influence in any meaningful way, outcomes on the ground is very strong. They do what they can, which is at the rhetorical level."

At this critical point in the cycle of violence in the Middle East, no single issue is more likely to sow division amongst the international community, and further polarise the supporters of Israel on the one side, and the Arab world on the other.

See also:

08 Aug 01 | Middle East
Suicide bomb injures Israeli soldier
18 Jul 01 | Middle East
School trains suicide bombers
09 Jul 01 | Middle East
Suicide bomber dies in Gaza blast
19 Oct 00 | Middle East
Who are Hamas?
10 Aug 01 | Media reports
Israel's press offers no solutions
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