I was applying some last touches to my biography of Kofi Annan on August 10th when I was surprised to read an ad by the Anti-Defamation League on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. The ad had a simple and stark message. It said: "UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: How many more Israeli civilians must die before you condemn Hezbollah? And when will you extend condolences to Israeli victims." It was signed by the Anti-Defamation League’s national chair, Barbara B. Balser, and by its national director, Abraham H. Foxman.
The accusations were scathing. The source, moreover, was dispiriting for any admirer of the Secretary-General. The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, describes itself as "the world’s leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry." Clearly, Balser and Foxman, working on behalf of the ADL, regarded their ad as a service counteracting "hatred, prejudice and bigotry" on the part of Kofi Annan.
Yet the depiction of Kofi Annan as anti-Semite did not fit the image of the Kofi Annan that I hold and portray in my book, and I decided to read the full text of all his public statements during the five-week Israeli-Lebanon crisis. It soon became obvious that the ad was a depressing lie. The Anti-Defamation League had engaged itself in a round of defamation.
It is easy to refute the charges. On July 20, for example, three weeks before the ad appeared, Annan told the Security Council in a public statement, "I have already condemned Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel, and acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself under Article 51 of the UN Charter. I do so again today." This was consistent with his unwavering insistence throughout the crisis that Hezbollah had started the trouble with an unprovoked attack and that it had no right to rain its rockets on civilian targets in Israel.
As for condolences, he told the Security Council on July 30, ten days before the ad, "...I send my deepest condolences to the families of all the victims of violence — in Lebanon, in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Gaza."
It is obvious that the Anti-Defamation League was in such a fury at Annan during the crisis that it was ready to fling any stone, no matter how filthy, at the Secretary-General. I have long admired the Anti-Defamation League. But the performance diminished the organization in my eyes.
Why so much fury? In a press release issued a day before the ad appeared, the ADL announced that it was deeply disappointed with the Secretary-General for his "continued blatant one-sided statements" about Israel’s actions in Lebanon. The ADL’s disappointment echoed the widespread feeling among many American Jews that the Secretary-General was against Israel during the crisis. "What do you think of Kofi Annan now?" one friend e-mailed me a few weeks ago. My brother telephoned me to joke, "Don’t expect your book to be selected by the Jewish Book of the Month Club." The anger is so great and the feeling against Annan so strong that many, I am sure, do not care whether the evidence cited by the ADL was mistaken. In their view, the ADL was right even if its facts were wrong.
Of course, the Secretary-General did not support most of the policies of the Israeli government during the crisis. There is no doubt about this. While he said Israeli had the right to defend itself against the unprovoked Hezbollah attack, he castigated the heavy Israeli bombing of civilian areas in Lebanon as a "disproportionate" response. Moreover, he constantly called for a ceasefire. These calls were denounced by both Israel and the Bush Administration as premature. The two governments had deluded themselves into believing that the Israeli Defense Force could wipe out Hezbollah in a few weeks.
To make matters worse, Annan became visibly and vocally upset when Israeli bombs killed four UN peacekeeping observers at a post in southern Lebanon and when another air raid demolished an apartment building and killed a large number of children in the Lebanese village of Qana. This made him seem one-sided. Though he condemned Hezbollah for provoking the crisis and for firing missiles at Israeli civilian targets, the Secretary-General did not single out any Hezbollah attacks in the same way that he denounced the UN killings and the Qana raid. Hezbollah was obviously trying to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible, but no single Hezbollah attack caused as much of a worldwide sensation.
Although he angered President Bush and the Israelis, Annan’s calls for a ceasefire were supported by most other governments. Washington and Israel, in fact, surely miscalculated in refusing to heed him. The Israeli military failed to wipe out Hezbollah during more than a month of conflict. A case can be made that a hundred dead Israelis would now be alive and Hezbollah would not be the darling of the Middle East today if Israel had agreed to the Secretary-General’s calls for an early cease fire. But that takes us into the fanciful realm of conjecture.
What we do know is that Israel was pounded with a great deal of denunciation during the Lebanon crisis. Anti-Semites surely whipped up as much anti-Israel hatred as they could. But not all critics were anti-Semites. You certainly can’t count Kofi Annan as one. He is married to the half-niece of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during World War II. The Annans show up at Holocaust memorial commemorations whenever they can. He has made observance of the Holocaust an annual event at the UN. He has denounced Iranian President Mahmoud Ajmadinejad’s denials of the Holocaust. During Annan’s administration, Israel was finally moved out of an Arab-dominated regional grouping, giving it a chance to win election to the Security Council.
American Jewish organizations should be careful and accurate whenever they accuse someone of bigotry. The Anti-Defamation League, the arbiter of anti-Semitism, should be the most careful and accurate of all.