Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Secretary of State Colin Powell's decision not to attend the U.N. anti-racism conference in Durban was both "positive and sad," an Israeli minister said here on Tuesday.
"America is on the right side in not betraying its friends," said Dr. Yuri Stern, deputy minister in the prime minister's office.
On the other hand, it was "criminal" that 50 years after the Holocaust a majority of nations were willing to accept an attempt to diminish its importance, charged Stern, who was to have attended the international forum, opening in South Africa Friday.
The Foreign Ministry said Israel was waiting for Washington's final word on whether it would participate at any level in the Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, before making its final plans.
The U.S. and Israel have tried without success to have language removed from a draft resolution that condemns Israel, Israeli policies and Zionism, the national movement on which the founding of the State of Israel was based.
Israel is the only country singled out in the entire document and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the only regional conflict referred to in it.
Civil rights groups were disappointed Monday when it was announced that Powell, the highest-ranking African-American official in U.S. history, would not be attending the conference.
But Israel and Jewish groups welcomed the support of its friend and ally.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper from the Simon Weisenthal Center said that Jewish organizations were "100 percent in agreement" with Washington's decision.
"[We owe the U.S.] a debt of gratitude for taking a very principled stand," Cooper said in telephone interview from South Africa.
Although the governmental part of the conference begins on Friday, non-governmental organizations are already meeting in Durban.
The SWC will stay for the entire conference. It was the only Jewish organization involved in all the preparatory meetings, except for the Asian group's one, in Tehran, which it was banned from attending.
It was at that preparatory meeting last February where Arab and Muslim states inserted the problematic references in the draft declaration.
According to Cooper, U.S. objections had already been raised during the previous administration of former President Bill Clinton but U.N. officials did not take seriously enough the U.S. threat to boycott the conference.'Apartheid Israel'
Cooper described the atmosphere in South Africa as "very hot" and said that there had been a "tremendous turnout" there of Palestinian organizations and their supporters.
Palestinian planners had made a great effort to drive home their point. He cited a large color poster being displayed of Israeli army tanks in Palestinian areas, with a slogan playing on the spelling of Israel - "Apartheid Is Real (Israel)".
"There's no dirtier word in South Africa than 'apartheid,'" Cooper said.
Another Jewish NGO, the Anti-Defamation League - which was to have participated in the U.S. delegation and hold seminars at the conference on tolerance - welcomed the decision not to send Powell. ADL is now only sending monitors to report on the conference.
"We applaud President Bush and Secretary Powell for sending a clear message that the United States will not legitimize the attempts to resurrect unfounded anti-Israel and anti-Jewish canards at the U.N. World Conference Against Racism," ADL said in a statement.
"We believe the intransigence of those nations determined to hijack this conference to promote their self-serving, anti-Israel agenda left the United States with no alternative."
Powell's presence there would have only conferred "legitimacy on the anti-Semitic rhetoric that threatens to derail an otherwise laudable effort to fight global racism," the ADL said.
Other Jewish groups will attend the NGO portion of the conference but may leave if there is no change in the language of the declaration. According to most sources, that seems unlikely at this point.
Bonnie Lipton, president of the Zionist women's organization Hadassah, said by email the organization would stay for the NGO conference and call on all participants there to reject any political statements.
"Hadassah is there as the embodiment of the Zionist vision and our humanitarian work in Israel and in the third world," she said.
Part of Hadassah's humanitarian outreach has included health care training for Jordanians and environmental training for professionals from Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. It also has sent humanitarian delegations to Muslim countries.
B'nai Brith, the oldest Jewish service organization in the U.S., will also attend as an NGO, but further participation is questionable, said the group's Alan Schneider in Jerusalem.
"I regret that Arab countries and the Palestinians have hijacked the conference and what should have been a conference against racism has been turned instead into a racist conference against Israel," Schneider said.
Earlier, Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, announced he was withdrawing from the conference. Sacks had been selected by the U.N. as a member of an "eminent persons group" intended to lend moral weight to the conference, and chaired by former South African president Nelson Mandela.
Another original member of the group, Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace prize winner Elie Wiesel, "resigned weeks ago," a spokesperson said from New York Tuesday.