In The Trenches: Durban Redux

In The Trenches:  Durban Redux

02 June 2008

By David Harris, Executive Director American Jewish Committee

The names of certain cities take on special meaning. Munich was the site of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's third and final meeting with Adolf Hitler, in a two-week span, in September 1938. On his return, the British leader, speaking from 10 Downing Street, promised "peace with honour" and "peace for our time," only to be faced with a full-fledged war less than a year later. In other words, Munich became synonymous with appeasement. Or take Yalta, the location of the 1945 summit involving US President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Though much else was discussed, including the Soviet Union's entry into the war against Japan, Yalta will long be remembered as the venue where Poland's future in the Soviet sphere of influence was essentially decided. In other words, Yalta became synonymous with sellout. Or, more recently, take Durban. The UN organized a global World Conference Against Racism, which included a Non-Governmental (NGO) Forum that started two weeks before the 9/11 attacks. The atmosphere became so ugly that the United States and Israeli delegations pulled out of the intergovernmental conference. And the NGO Forum, which drew thousands of participants to the South African city, descended into an anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic feeding frenzy, while blithely ignoring pressing issues of racism around the world. In other words, Durban became synonymous with hatefest. Just recently, the Brussels-based European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) published The Durban Diaries by Joelle Fiss, who, in 2001, was EUJS chair. It should be must-reading for anyone who cares about the conduct of such global gatherings. Joelle and her Jewish colleagues traveled to Durban as optimistic and committed global citizens, who felt they had something to contribute to the struggle against racism and xenophobia. They returned, in Joelle's words, "confused and disorientated," subjected for the first time in their lives to "racism" and "judeophobia." Here are a few excerpts from her poignant essay: The conference kicked off with sharp criticisms of Israel. The second day, the level of morality of each state within the international community was structured into a hierarchy. Israel was criminalised and completely relegated to the bottom rung of the ladder. On the third day, Jews of the entire world had become accomplices of this evil regime. To speak out against Zionism is to defend human rights and to nobly resist evil. In parallel to the degradation of this political debate, violence arose through personal confrontations...The tone became increasingly personal. When walking, we began turning our heads to make sure nobody was following us. And then, unable to take any more verbal abuse and physical intimidation after six days, the Jewish caucus left the hall for good. This is Joelle's description: Confusion reigns in our heads. We begin shouting a slow but endless chant. "Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame. Shame." These are our last words. We shout with all our might. We yell against all the minutes we endured in Durban since our arrival. We roar our anger at the crowd, who remain startled in silence for a fraction of a second. Then, the Palestinian caucus erupts with shouts of "Free, Free Palestine!" One couldn't hear anything but the juxtaposition of these two chants: "Shame, shame!" "Free, free Palestine. We cross the stadium in a whirlwind. This is not the first time that we run out of fear of being physically attacked. But this time, fifty-eight Jews are concentrated in one place...As for me, I'm afraid that people will follow us, even attack us!" Joelle's account of her Durban experience -- available here-- hit me hard. There were echoes of my own experiences in the 1970s and the shock I experienced, as a Jew, by the behavior of the UN and other institutions for whom I had had respect. Here were idealistic young Jews who were ambushed and whose scars may or may not heal. They had seen themselves as part of a bright future, only to be harshly reminded that the dark shadows of the past hadn't entirely vanished. They had placed their trust in governments and international institutions, but that confidence had been betrayed by those who acted too slowly - or not at all. The publication of The Durban Diaries is especially timely. The UN decided to hold a Durban Review Conference (DRC) from April 20 to 24, 2009. There is the danger of a repeat performance. But that remains to be seen. Several countries have already voiced concern about any possibility of Durban redux. Canada has gone the furthest in formally announcing that it will not participate. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israel and the United States will stay away "unless they receive guarantees that the event will not turn into an anti-Israel festival." France, the Netherlands, and several other Western countries have spoken of establishing "red lines" for the conference, which, if crossed, would trigger their absence. In February, French President Nicolas Sarkozy put it bluntly: The Durban conference in 2001 led to intolerable excesses from certain states and numerous NGOs that turned the conference into a forum against Israel, and no one has forgotten. France will not allow a repetition of the excesses and abuses of 2001... If ever our legitimate demands are not taken into account, we will disengage from the process. Another possible red line could be the issue of "defamation of religion." Several Islamic countries have pushed hard for an embargo on free speech when it comes to talking about religion. Such a move, if adopted, would inflict a philosophical body blow to core democratic values. Moreover, it was decided that Geneva should host the 2009 DRC. Potentially, that's a welcome development. One of the indictments of Durban was South Africa's inability to anticipate developments and control events. Geneva, the second home of the UN, has far more experience in hosting such gatherings. Moreover, the Swiss don't want their international reputation tarnished by a repeat of Durban, nor, it seems, does the UN secretariat, though, in the end, it will be the UN member states that make the key decisions. And it's still not clear whether there will be a Non-Governmental Forum in Geneva. Mindful of what occurred in Durban, many governments, at least in private, would be just as happy if the exercise were limited to as low-key an intergovernmental conference as possible. Yet, the power of the numerical majority in the UN to impose its will should never be underestimated. That majority, which includes the overlapping constituencies of the 22-member Arab League, the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the 118-member Non-Aligned Movement, could easily be mobilized on such issues as Israel, Zionism, and defamation of religion. Apropos, Libya - yes, Libya - was selected to chair the Preparatory Committee for the DRC, which also includes in its ranks of 19 Vice-Chairpersons such other stalwart defenders of human rights as Cuba, Iran, and Pakistan. That could provide a sneak preview of coming attractions. And, according to Geneva-based UN Watch, an AJC affiliate, another sneak preview was provided a few days ago by a "non-paper" circulated by a Durban Review working group. This was a draft outline for the final 2009 conference declaration that singles out Israel (and only Israel) for "racism." In the end, the spotlight will be on those countries that have laudably spoken of "red lines." Will they in the end stand on principle, or will they bend to the political winds? Those determined to prevent a repetition of the Durban saga must keep a close eye on events and not hesitate to speak out. No one should take anything for granted this time around. The Durban Diaries reminds us why.

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