THERE WAS SOME EXTRAORDINARY and, for me, heartening drama today at the U.N. Durban Review Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, the follow-up to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.
That last confab, which took place in Durban, South Africa, was so shot through with anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism that the U.S. and Israeli delegations ceremoniously and under a barrage of intense criticism walked out. It was one of the very few actions by the George W. Bush Administration that I thoroughly applauded. But much of the attention that should have been directed at this surreal event in Durban was obscured when the attacks of September 11 occurred less than a week later. Except for many of the activist groups that focused their energies (for either good or bad) on Durban I, few others even knew it took place.
A number of countries -- including the U.S., Canada, Australia, Poland, Italy, and Israel -- are boycotting the Durban II conference, which began today, and, as you'll see below, a number of other European countries walked out today when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad took the conference dais to speak.
Yes, that's right, Ahmedinejad, who has called the Holocaust a lie and has spouted reams of anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist invective during his tenure over the last several years and whose government is hardly the model of human rights practices. He was the lead-off hitter at a conference against racism. And he was fresh off of a meeting last night with Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz, a gesture that prompted Israel to ask its Ambassador to Switzerland to go back to Israel for consultations (not a formal recall, but a rebuke nonetheless). Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak put it just right when he said today, "It's an upside-down world, when the president of Iran can be a guest of honor at an anti-racism conference."
Critics of the boycotting countries are pointing to the fact that all of the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel language in the conference's official pronouncements have been expunged. But, as National Security Council aide Samantha Power reportedly said in a conference call last week with Jewish leaders, Durban II is still on track to "reaffirm, in toto, Durban I," as if to say, everything we said then goes for us double now. "We want to show good faith to our allies and the people who are working hard to improve the text." Power said. "...But we are also not interested in being involved or associated with fool's errands."
In the words of one those who attended Durban I, "The World Conference against Racism triggered intimidation and harassment against Jews, just a few hours before the September 11 attacks on the United States. The brutality unleashed in Durban, the collective anger against Israel, the United States, and the West in general resonated as a warning of what was to come.... In Durban, the international NGO community was complicit in the attempt to criminalize the Jews. At a lightning pace, a minority of delegates managed to manipulate thousands of participants and impose their resentful ideology. In only a few days, a collective moral code was constructed. It called upon civil society to distinguish the 'good' from the 'evil.'"
What also scared and saddened me after Durban I were the number of human rights and anti-racism groups (including many prominent and otherwise respectable ones I've known and even worked with in the United States) that looked the other way on this. So invested were they in a conference that would shine a spotlight on certain kinds of human indignities that they were willing to throw the Jews and Israel over the side to get what they wanted. They pilloried Jewish community, Israel and the U.S. government as opponents to racial harmony and tolerance, even as pronouncements about "Israeli apartheid" and "Zionism = racism" and even worse stuff than that floated around them in Durban. It didn't matter that, on so many occasions and for decades, Jewish activists had been there with them to fight racism. When it came to bigotry against Jews and Israel, however, our friends did not reciprocate. (I'm pleased to see that at least one of the groups that took this stand in 2001 has urged the U.S. to address the problems at Durban II. I'm not mentioning any names, sorry.)
I was pissed and hurt by this. For a period of maybe 50 or 60 years since the Holocaust, the world was finally aware of the danger of anti-Semitism, and, at least in respectable company, it was viewed as radioactive. But, by Durban I (and, arguably well before) that taboo had worn off to the point that a U.N.-sponsored forum on racism became a legitimate platform for taking shots at the Jews and Israel. And, since 2001, that taboo seems to have all but disappeared in some geographies and communities. It is getting scary.
But back to what happened in Geneva today. As Zvika Krieger, a correspondent for The New Republic recounts in a live, play-by-play blogging account, President Ahmedinejad was the first of several heads of state to open the conference with short introductory speeches:
"Ahmedinejad just walked in.
"There seems to be some confusion. He is walking to the seat of the Iranian delegation, not the stage. The chair of the conference seems confused. Ok, now he is finally being escorted to the podium. He begins speaking, thanking Allah.
"Some activists are interrupting his speech. They are wearing clown wigs and red noses, and yelling 'Racist! Racist.' There seem to be three of them, in different parts of the hall. They've been escorted out by security guards. There is a loud applause, though it is unclear whether they are clapping for the activists or the guards.
"He continues speaking through the whole fiasco. He is taking a lot of time to thank Allah and his prophets.
"Now we're getting a lecture on the history of war, ending with WWII. He transitions into an indictment of the Security Council, questioning the motives of superpowers giving themselves veto powers. Enough of the subtlety -- he condemns their role in the creation of the state of Israel, and starts ripping into Zionism.
"The EU is walking out! The entire France, Bulgarian, and Hungarian delegation just walked out. I think others walked out too -- can't see their placards. The press box is going crazy. The entire hall has erupted in applause -- some applauding the delegate who walked out, some applauding Ahemdinejad for continuing his anti-Israel tirade.
"Ahmediniejad continues, condemning 'the most racist regime,' a litany of generic Israel canards. A group of Israeli students start yelling 'Racist! Racist!' from the viewing gallery. No one seems to be stopping them. Two Iranian women in hijabs start waving their fists at them. After a few minutes, security finally arrives and escorts out one of the Israel students. Now another one has started yelling 'Facist! Facist!'
"Ahmediniejad is now ripping into America for invading Iraq. The usual stuff about arrogance and racism.
"Now he's blaming the global economic crisis on the US. He's condeming US's selfishness and lack of transparency. He's even condemning the bank bailout plan!
"Now he's veered into banal pronouncements about ignorance and history and racism and the creation of the universe and worshipping god.
"Oops, he's back to Israel! 'A kind of racism that has tarnished the image of humanity ... The word Zionism personifies racism that falsely resorts to religion and abuses religious sentiments to hide their hatred and ugly faces." And Jews control the media! And the major world powers! "Cultural endeavors are not enough. Efforts must be made to put an end to efforts made by Zionists and their supporters. ... Governments must be encouraged in their efforts and their fights to eradicate this barbaric racism.'
"Another protestor starts shouting from the plenary floor. He is quickly apprehended and silenced.
"Now A-jad is talking about a changing of the global order, and the upending of traditional power structures. "Western liberalism and capitalism, like communism, has reached to its end since it has failed to perceive the truth of the world and humanity as it is.
"Another protestor starts yelling 'Racist!' and is quickly escorted out. Two hijab-clad women start waving and blowing kisses to A-jad.
"Now he is back to the Security Council, calling for the elimination of the 'discriminatory veto right.' Some generic language about love and happiness and cooperation and overhauling the global monetary system. And finally, 'Let us all join hands in amity ... in fulfillment of a decent new world.' Amen.
"UPDATE: The foreign minister of Norway is up next, and he is calling out A-jad, whose speech he says 'threatens the very focus of the conference.' The declaration of this conference included 'the need to protect against incitement to hatred. I heard the messages inside the president's speech. I heard incitement and hatred. This is not a finger-pointing exercise. The president has made Iran the odd man out, and Norway will not accept the odd man out hijacking the efforts of the many. ... We cannot surrender the floor of the United Nations to extremism.' Huge applause erupts in the hall."
I'm not always a fan of street theater, but it seems to fit in this circumstance given the absurdity of the scene. And let's hope it raises some real awareness about the toxicity of racism and bigotry, in this case against the Jews.