BRIDGTON, ME. — The Bush administration was perfectly right at the UN conference on racism to reject the labeling of Israel and Zionism as racist. The PLO was destructively wrong to insist on such a resolution. Let me explain with a bit of biography.
As I was growing up in Savannah, Ga., in the 1930s and '40s, I had no idea we lived in a racist society. Today, not even still-unreconstructed segregationists would dispute the term. Negroes lived a block from our house, but an impermeable barrier separated us. They had their own schools, libraries, movies - all inferior. They could aspire only to unskilled jobs and the charitable regard of some whites. It seemed natural.
By the time I graduated from Emory University in 1953, my perspective had radically changed, although little was different in our society. No teacher spoke up for Negroes. It was my own reading that changed my view. Time magazine reported on the wrongs of our racial system and the opinions of national leaders.
US history texts explained what the Civil War was really about and how Negroes were still denied rights. More than these sources, reading the world's great thinkers taught me new ideals about human relationships. Yet when I left the South and joined the Navy, nothing enraged me more than hearing our region described as "racist." Immediately, I became defensive. I could not allow my mother, our Southern society, to be cursed with that word - though I knew it accurately named the region's behavior and attitudes.
Comparing our lives to other standards and other perspectives changed my views. Still, I could not accept the denigration of everything that had formed me.
In the same way, Israelis might listen to - and learn from - a dispassionate analysis of the ways Palestinians are treated compared with Jewish settlers in the occupied territory. But they will stop listening when called racists. They don't deserve that shameful term.
First of all, it is incorrect. Both Jews and Arabs are Semites. Israeli behavior might more accurately be described as "virulent nationalism," something most of the nations of the Middle East have practiced at one time or another.
Second, Arab insistence on "Zionism equals racism" convinces Israelis they are hated. No people will compromise with enemies who despise them. Such people simply cannot be trusted to live in peace, to deal as equals, to share a common future. They must be fought, forcefully restrained, and despised in turn.
Third, friends and sympathetic outsiders will not join in the Arab condemnation of Israel. Although much of the world rejects Israel's harsh treatment of the Palestinians, the terrible history of the Jewish people weighs heavily. The guilt felt by those who were responsible or stood by resists the rhetoric of a UN resolution.
Thus, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's bitter insistence inflicts a serious wound on the struggle of his movement. But there is a broader lesson to be learned by all of us from his misuse of a sweeping defamation: Labeling blocks thought. We give attention to the term, accepting or rejecting it, and neglect analysis and facts. The Palestinians, to be sure, are not the only offenders.
When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon calls Mr. Arafat a "terrorist," he indulges in name-calling that enrages and creates barriers. The Israeli leader prevents both his antagonists and his own people from thinking deeply about conditions and motivations. When supporters of Israel label the country's critics as "anti-Semitic," they sometimes shame the offending persons into silence - harming Israel by denying it a different view of its policies. When Washington lists "states-sponsoring terrorism" without citing the details behind that accusation, it prolongs the estrangement and, possibly, the offending behavior.
History is full of examples of nations hurling accusations, changing nothing, and making themselves seem weak. That is not why UN conferences are convened. Rational, informing debate is their only justification. The US should not have walked away from the racism forum and the Palestinians should not have refused a calm discussion of the issue. Perhaps if the US delegation had worked harder, there might have been a small meeting of minds, rather than a clash of small minds.
Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service officer, specialized in the Middle East.