Why We Approach the Durban II 'Anti-Racism' Conference with Trepidation

In today's global, Universalist age, what could be more welcome than a World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), held in Durban, South Africa, ground zero of the global movement that toppled Apartheid? This is certainly how many of us felt when we first heard during the last year of the Clinton Administration that the UN was planning such a conference in 2001 to tackle the scourges, not only of racism and racial discrimination, but of "xenophobia and related intolerance." Of special importance was the fact that this was to be the first such international gathering in Africa and that post-Apartheid South Africa was selected as the venue.

For Jews in particular, the crusade against racism resonated for reasons that go back beyond the civil rights marches of the 1960s when Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched hand-in-hand. In 1936, the term "racism" was coined to rally scientific and political opinion against Nazi doctrines of "Aryan superiority" over Jews and other alleged "untermenschen." In 1948, a popularizer of the term, Julian Huxley (a Jewish anthropologist), served as the first Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). That was the year when the struggle against "racism" so conceived helped inspire both the UN Declaration of Human Rights and Israel's declaration of statehood with the UN's blessings.

Still, from the outset of the "Durban Process" there were serious concerns that the historic gathering in August/Sept 2001 could be hijacked, not to counter racism, but fuel it. The reason: The 1975 UN General Assembly resolution -- decoupling the history of Jewish people from the struggle against intolerance -- by equating "Zionism and racism." While this odious resolution was repealed in 1991, its gravitational pull dominated and eventually discredited many of the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) charged with safeguarding human rights on the world stage. Indeed, the 2001 Durban Conference proved to be a case of history repeating the 1975 Zionism-equals-racism outrage. In light of this, it should not be hard to understand why we fear that ugliness could stain "Durban II" -- starting on April 20th in Geneva -- this time not by symbolic gestures of NGOs, but by formal UN Resolutions singling out only Israel as the planet's worst serial abuser of human rights.

In retrospect, 2001's Durban I was doomed long before the first speeches were delivered. During the two-year lead-up to the Conference, my Wiesenthal Center colleague, Paris-based Dr. Shimon Samuels, a founder and board member of ENAR (the European Network Against Racism), which groups over 600 anti-racist NGOs across the European Union, and who chaired of the Jewish Caucus at the WCAR, attended preparatory meetings in Strasbourg, Warsaw, Santiago, and Geneva. Across Europe, he witnessed "an incremental process of semantic theft" as left-wing movements marked "Kristallnacht 1938" in November, 2000, while ignoring over 100 anti-Semitic attacks including synagogues worldwide in the same month.

In February 2001, despite assurances by then UN Human Rights Chief Mary Robinson, I and Dr. Samuels were excluded, in violation of our Center's UN consultative status, from the Tehran Prepcom which also barred the Baha'is. It was there that the "Zionism is Racism" formula was re-introduced while the phenomenon of "anti-Semitism" was deleted from the governmental draft declaration. According to the Tehran Times, Iran was "the best venue for holding this preparatory meeting, as the Iranians can rightly boast that they have an ancient culture and civilization free from all kinds of bias and discrimination." Conveniently omitted were contemporary examples of Iranian "tolerance" as the show trials of Iranian Jews as "Israeli spies" and the persecution of Iranian Baha'is for practicing their faith.

Instead of removing the rabid terminology introduced in Tehran, the Geneva Prepcom 3 meeting refined such Tehran strategies as:

The expropriation of the term "Holocaust," reflected in the new doctrine of "the three holocausts" "the twin holocausts" of the Atlantic slave trade and new world slavery (the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades into Arab and Muslim societies are omitted), and the "third holocaust" of the "Naqba" or the Israeli-perpetrated Palestinian "Catastrophe."

The assimilation of "anti-Semitism" into the new concepts of "Arabophobia" (hence the accusations of "Anti-Arabism" and "Zionist practices against Semitism") and Islamophobia (no mention of discrimination in Arab and Islamic societies against non-Muslims). The proposal to eliminate any mention of anti-Jewish practices, including Holocaust Denial on the Internet, because "antisemitism is not a manifestation of 'contemporary racism'."

At Geneva, prestigious NGOs such as Amnesty International, Save the Children, and Franciscans International expressed alarm at this inflammatory language, but would not speak out in solidarity with its Jewish targets. Indeed, Human Rights Watch refused even to protest "calls for violence" in the NGO Draft, which it defended as "being justified if against apartheid or on behalf of the Intifada."

Then came Durban. First, there was "the youth forum" during tens of thousands of demonstrators chanted: "We Will Liberate Al-Quds" and "Free Palestine." The Durban police had difficulty controlling clashes between rival street demonstrators. Jewish demonstrators waved Israeli and South African flags, sung Hebrew songs, and offered flowers to shouting protesters who did not reciprocate with bouquets. On Monday, a "Hitler pamphlet" with a picture of the Fuhrer and a caption reading, "If I had won the war there would be no . . . Palestinian blood lost," surfaced at the Durban Exhibition Center.

I will never forget my first experience at Durban. While talking with a veteran Egyptian journalist from Al Ahram, who accompanied President Sadat on his historic trip to Jerusalem, he saw a younger reporter from Jordan passing by and called him over to introduce us. In mid-handshake, the young man suddenly withdrew his hand and asked: "Are you a Jew? I never would have shaken your hand if you are a Jew," as he wiped his hand off on his jacket.

Durban I's singular focus on Israel, not only damaged the Jewish State, it emboldened Mideast extremists, empowered anti-Semites, and stained the image of self-appointed caretakers of 'Civil Society'. Perhaps worse of all, by focusing almost exclusively on Israel/Palestine it robbed precious access to the world stage of human rights activists from five Continents desperate to put their case before the nations of the world.

Which brings us to Geneva's 2009 global confab against racism and all forms of intolerance. Once again, it is Israel -- and, this time advocates of Freedom of Speech -- in the docket. The Durban II Preparatory Committee, led by Libya invited to join into its inner sanctum Iran which, since Durban I, has continued to stone women for adultery, hang adolescent criminals, persecute gays, finance international terrorism, developed nuclear centrifuges in defiance of the UN, and threatened "to wipe Israel off the map." At Iran's insistence, participation by a Jewish NGO has been banned -- just like in 2001.

The planning agency, the UN Human Rights Council, in an unintended homage to George Orwell, has treated some religions as more equal than others. When British historian David Littman sought to discuss mistreatment of women under Islam, he was cut off by Egyptian and Pakistani delegates declaring any discussion of Sharia law "will not happen." On the other hand, Council's Special Rapporteur Doudo Diene gave a speech condemning Islamophobia but not mentioning discrimination against Christianity or Judaism. By defining religions rather than individuals as the carriers of human rights, Durban II may seek to overturn freedom of speech guarantees and make "anti-Islamic blasphemy" a crime under international law.

Some proposed language was moderated at the last minute after boycotts led by Canada and belatedly by the U.S., and concerns expressed by the European Unions and others. Yet despite cosmetic changes, there is every reason to believe we are in for yet another hate fest. I will do my best to keep you abreast of developments at Durban II from Geneva, providing you with an activist's inside view on breaking developments. Marx said: "History repeats itself -- first as tragedy, then as farce." Let's hope that this farce will not generate new tragedies.