On the eve of a U.N. conference against racism, angry Arab activists broke up a news conference by Jewish groups, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson warned that the Middle East conflict should not overshadow other key issues.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, meanwhile, was pelted by complaints by leaders of ethnic minorities worried their causes will be ignored at the gathering that begins Friday.

During a question-and-answer session at a civil rights forum, he was challenged to defend the conference's draft final document by representatives of Latinos, indigenous people, Caribbean citizens and Dalits, known as the untouchable caste in India.

All felt their cause was not being emphasized enough, if at all.

Twice the secretary-general was interrupted by shouts from the crowd, once by Palestinians and once by a Dalit representative.

"Let's have a dialogue. Let's have a serious dialogue," Annan admonished the Dalit representative.

Upon his arrival in Durban, Jackson said efforts to label Israel a racist state threaten to overshadow other issues at the conference, which runs until Sept. 7.

"The issue of racism is too big to reduce it to the controversy about the Middle East," Jackson told The Associated Press. "One can be against the settlements, against the assassination of leaders and not have to label Israel as a racist state. If one goes into labeling, there are a lot of labels to go around."

Representatives from more than a hundred countries were expected to attend the gathering. About 15 heads of state, many from Africa, were expected to lead their delegations.

The United States announced Wednesday it was sending only a midlevel delegation in response to language it considers anti-Semitic in the draft resolution. Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley said Thursday he too would stay home — and for the same reason.

"What is important is what we do after the conference. Not the declaration and the papers adopted," Annan said.

Earlier, Jewish groups at the civil rights forum told a press conference they had been harassed and discriminated against during preparatory meetings. Before the groups could complete their presentation, Arab activists began shouting, singing and pushing in front of the speakers, prompting organizers to cut short their briefing.

"This is typical of how we have been treated during this conference," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Pro-Palestinian groups have staged daily anti-Israel demonstrations since the forum began Tuesday, equating Zionism — the movement that supported the founding and continued existence of the Jewish state — with racism.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat told reporters on his arrival Thursday that the Palestinian issue should be treated as a global issue.

"No doubt it's one of the most serious problems now, which not only Palestinians are facing, [but] the whole world is facing," he said.

Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the secretary-general of the conference, said she was very concerned about the acrimony leading up to the conference and hoped it could be resolved.

"This is a conference about victims of racial discrimination, a conference to move us forward toward reconciliation," Robinson said. "This conference cannot solve the Middle East problem."

She also sympathized with groups who felt they were being marginalized in the draft document.

"Of course when you have a global conference that has to reach consensus there is going to be criticism of the text," she said.

Anne Bayefsky, a law professor representing the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, said the forum had degenerated from being an anti-racism forum into an anti-Semitic movement, and the U.N. conference was heading in the same direction.

"Things look pretty grim," Bayefsky said.

Jackson deplored the U.S. government for not sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to lead its delegation, adding that the United States was abdicating its position as a world leader. He said America's history of slavery, racism and civil rights made the country an important example to the rest of the world.

"The U.S. has a need to be here, in part because we have unfinished business, and yet we have a story to tell and we should not set preconditions so high that we opt out of the position of leadership," Jackson said.