Monday, April 27, 2009

Duban Day 4 - Frustrations and conclusions

Heebonics correspondent Adena Philips wraps up her coverage from Geneva.

Adena attended the Durban Review Conference as a delegate from AJC ACCESS, the American Jewish Commitee's New Generation Program. This is her recap of Day 4, Thursday, April 23, 2009, her last day at the conference. (Editor's Note: Durban II wrapped up on Friday, April 24.)

Thursday night. Today was my last day at the conference (although it ends of Friday) and I have lots of stories. Will highlight a couple, and hopefully more later.

On Wednesday after my last session I stopped by a demonstration on support of Israel outside the UN. The Palais was filled with people in T-shirts reading slogans like “Israel wants peace” and “Israel is the only country in the Middle East”. Spokespersons advocated for Israel’s right to be recognized and people sang songs of hope and peace. The sun was shining over the Palais and Israeli flags ruffled in the wind.

[Above: Canadian Member of Parliament and noted human rights advocate, Irwin Cotler, addresses the pro-Israel rally in Geneva last week.]

The rally was sweet, harmless, maybe even anachronistic. I stayed for a few minutes, then ran off to catch an Iranian demonstration I had seen a flyer for. Across from Hotel Wilson a short bus ride away, the Iranian NGOs were having a small prep demonstration; they had booked Palais for 8 AM the next morning and were planning to catch morning traffic through Geneva and to the UN.

The Iranians had an exhibit of sorts set up in a grassy area along the lake. The horrific and hateful images and sparse crowd of women and men in dark garb was a stark contrast to the pink hues of the picturesque sunset over the lake. But I am not stunned; a new reality has usurped my worldview and I barely flinch at the converse juxtaposition.

Unfortunately, the Iranians’ material was well-crafted, impressive and deeply moving. Here is some of the propaganda I saw there:

A timeline across many large posters recounting the chronology of the atrocities in Gaza, akin to a holocaust exhibit you might see that outlines the unfolding of the Holocaust form the Nuremberg laws to the deportation of entire communities I also saw a photo exhibit, pairing ‘similar’ holocaust photos and Gaza photos side by side and reading “Now Which One is the Holocaust?”. As a grandchild of four holocaust survivors (and as a rational human being), the despicable comparison of the War in Gaza to the Holocaust is maddening to me, but this is prose amongst the NGOs at the Durban Review Conference.

I was particularly disturbed by a lineup of posters depicting the offensive sweatshirts created by IDF soldiers after Operation Cast Lead. The distasteful slogans, implying callousness toward the death of the Palestinians, were reported on in Israeli papers and condemned by the Israeli government. Contra to the other exhibits, which I believe are manipulated and deceptive, here the demonstrators were flaunting true evidence and implicating a very real criticism of a country that unfortunately has to engage young men and women in a military culture. I am ashamed of the insensitivity exhibited in these sweatshirts, but let me say the following in Israel’s defense: the actions of these children who have sadly had to partake in war at a formative age are by no means institutionalized or condoned by the Israeli government who maintains that all children, regardless of race or citizenship, should be educated to desire peace over war and to respect the life of every individual. Even when at war by sheer necessity, Israel expresses compassion over the loss of innocent lives. The Israeli government denounced the sweatshirts and Israeli paper Ha’aretz was the first to expose them; exhibiting Israel’s freedom of the press and openness to auto-criticism. The fact that I, someone who engaged in pro-Israel activism at the Durban Review Conference, can share publicly that I am ashamed of these photographs is a testament to the varied landscape of pro-Israel approaches which is complex as it is nuanced, and which stands in contrast to the mindless monotony of the anti-Israel platform which unilaterally rejects Israel’s right to exist.

Speaking of which, check out this pen they were handing out to passersby.

At the demonstration, I spoke to some of the people, curious as to how they thought the conference was going. Many of them were retorting “look what the Zionists did at this conference: they pulled out their official delegation, but they sent their NGOs. How hypocritical.” Maybe someone needs to tell the Iranians that in some countries, governments don’t control NGOs (hence the term NON GOVERNMENTAL organizations).

These same demonstrators were outside the United Nations on Thursday morning as I headed to our first meeting. I spent much of Thursday in diplomatic meetings and will briefly share that the overall feeling among many countries is that the boycott of the conference, international pressure to adhere to the red-lines set by the EU and behind-the-scenes diplomacy to maintain certain standards like condemning Ahmadinejad’s platform of hate, were fairly successful in ensuring a final document that not only does not single out Israel, but acknowledges the gravity of the holocaust.

Nevertheless, downstairs at the side events things were heating up. I sat in on yet another session on Islamophobia which turned into perhaps the most preposterous event I have witnessed at the entire conference. A member of our delegation actually taped this session and perhaps we will find a forum in which to share it and discuss, but here are some highlights.

• A man who identified himself as a Muslim cited a statistic claiming that 90% of pedophiles in England are white and concluded, therefore, that all pedophiles are white. (I’m sorry, are we in a session about preventing Islamophobia, or promoting Western-phobia?)
• “Rabbi” Dov Weiss of the Neturei Karta gave a long-winded and hysterical diatribe about how Zionism is the cause of Anti-Semitism, in a thick, high pitched and very Jewish-sounding voice. He carried on for so long that people in the room started calling out, asking him whether this was a question or a monologue and imploring the chair to cut him off. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but I actually erupted in laughter here, and a few others joined me. The scene was just ridiculous; it looked like a Saturday Night Live skit.
• Clearly, the lack of sleep and other-worldliness feel of this conference is making me a little cooky, and when the next speaker cited “a Zionist book” that claimed “that all Muslims should be slaughtered like lambs”, I interrupted him out of turn, asking him to please cite the title and author of this “Zionist” source. The man of course did not, but told me after the session that he would email it to me (ok, ok, I asked him too). I’ll let you know if I ever hear from him.
• Joelle Fiss, author of the Durban Diaries (an account of Durban I) spoke up as well and told the room how heartbroken she was to witness this chaos. She asked the panel how we might ever overcome critical cultural issues of Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism if all anyone ever wants to talk about is the politics of the Middle East crisis. The question elicited a round of applause from (half of) the room.

A member of our delegation pointed out later on that if you took all of the pro-Israel and anti-Israel people out of the packed room, there would be very few people left. Sadly, these sessions feel like a single topic, one-upmanship color war and leave one to wonder where the people are who really want to advocate for victims of racism.

After the panel, delegates gathered in clusters outside the conference room in heated discussion. I had the opportunity to speak to the first three speakers I mention above. To the first, I pointed out that logic like his is exactly what promotes Islamophobia. While he agreed, and of course on some level was making his comment in that spirit, we discussed the difference between saying “Since Islamophobia is based on faulty logic, I am going to promote faulty logic that leads to other prejudices” as opposed to saying “Saying that all Muslims are terrorists is based on faulty logic in the same way that using statistics to generalize a causal correlation between any race and any crime is. Both applications of this faulty logic should be dismissed.” The latter, I pointed out, might have elicited applause from the audience, not accusations of racisms which is what had ensued. This may be obvious to me and you, but it seems this man had never thought of the alternative formulation, or maybe never thought about this at all and was merely at the conference as a puppet for propagandists. He actually thanked me for my advice.

As for the Neturei Karta representative, I went over to him when he was surrounded by a group of people and told him (in a very non-confrontational manner) that although I was raised Orthodox and am quite familiar with the Orthodox community, I had never heard of the Neturei Karta before arriving at this conference (a little white lie), at which they claim that they are the spokespeople for Orthodox Jews. I asked the man to explain his group to me from an organizational perspective; to help me understand if they were a political group or a religious group. He kept repeating that it was not one or the other – it was an organization that represents the ideological orientation of all ultra-orthodox Jews. Why, then, had I never heard of them I wondered? Which Jewish factions did he represent? Which institutions is he affiliated with. The man responded that he is a graduate of the Ner Yisrael of Toronto, which is, coincidentally, the Yeshiva my father attended, and one I am quite familiar with. I responded to the like, and insinuated that my father, all of the of the other students and teachers I know who attend Ner Yisrael, would be shocked and appalled to hear that Neturei Karta is claiming to be affiliated with them. The conversation continued in this manner for a few minutes; I knew that regarding the Neturei Karta representative, my words were falling on deaf ears, but I sustained the conversation for the sake of the crowd around us who was listening intently, and who I believe should be made to understand the relationship between Neturei Karta and the mainstream Jewish world.

The most comical part of the conversation – and I am not sure what to make of it – was the part where the man changed the topic and said “on another note, between me and you, I want to tell you that every Jewish neshama (soul) was at Sinai and committed to observing to Torah with the words Na’aseh Ve’Nishma. You too are obligated to observe the Shabbat, eat Kosher…. “

You tell me. Is it maybe a little bit endearing that Neturei Karta was ready to put politics aside to do Kiruv work or proselytizing? Or was he just trying to change the subject?

Here is my party line on the Neturei Karta – if any of you is unfortunate to encounter them in this type of scenario I hope you will pass this message along. While the Neturei Karta are a completely marginal faction of the Jewish world, representing nothing of our actual values and beliefs, even they make one positive contribute worth mentioning (It in no way outweighs the negative, I’m just pointing out the silver lining). They stand as an example of the plurality and diversity in Jewish opinion. I’d like to see one extremist Muslim who defends Israel as fervently as the Neturei Karta opposes it. This speaks volumes about the nature of our religion and of our cultural heritage. Don’t get me wrong though, I think the Neturei Karta will one day suffer the consequences of sleeping with the enemy.

The fact that such a small group of representatives from a tiny denomination of Judaism could make such audible waves at this conference is a reminder to all of us of the difference our voices can make, and of our responsibility to stand up for truth when the opportunity arises.

I am finishing this email from the plane on my way back to New York. The conference ends this afternoon and I am anxious to get back to saner grounds (you know you’ve been in Geneva too long when you start calling New York sane) and make time to reflect on the experience a little more globally. I will try to write summative post(s) about the outcomes of the conference and lessons learned when I have stepped onto firmer ground and I hope you will send questions, comments and any ruminations (or comment on to generate discussions). What I have witnessed this week has many critical implications and this is a conversation worth continuing.

I want to end by sharing a clip from yesterday’s plenary session. Yesterday, the plenary was opened up to NGOs to give them an opportunity to participate in the official proceedings. The link below features Hillel Neuer, director of UN Watch as he attempts to reflect on the conference and is admonished for being critical of it. The irony of this, in the context of the unbelievable things that were permitted, let alone condoned, at the conference, speaks volumes about the systemic double-standard of the United Nations.

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