Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Durban II - Day 2 continued...

Heebonics correspondent Adena Philips files more of her coverage from Geneva. 

Adena is attending the Durban Review Conference as a delegate from AJC ACCESS, the American Jewish Commitee's New Generation Program.

These events took place later in the afternoon and into the evening of Tuesday, April 21.


Downstairs a side event “Racism: The Road to Genocide” organized by the Simon Weisenthal Center, International Humanist and Ethical Union and the Association for World Education focused on dangers such as racism on the internet. Now we are talking! At the end of the session, in acknowledgement of Yom Hashoah, the panel asked for a minute of silence in memory of victims of the Holocaust. A small group of Arab delegates as well as a man from Neturei Karta remained seated in quiet protest. One man walked out.

Lunch. I grabbed a sandwich from the Jewish Welcome Center (courtesy of Chabad) and headed to the atrium outside the UN cafeteria. Circumventing a table of NGO delegates wearing Palestine T-shirts, I passed a huddled group of middle-eastern men chatting amicably with a man in full Hassidic garb. Not surprisingly, Neturei Karta has infiltrated the conference and is tirelessly making friends and enemies in the hallway. I was pleasantly surprised when a bystander approached him and asked him why he was engaging in political and ideological discourse at a conference on racism. I spoke to the gentlemen from Neturei Karta for a few minutes before heading to another NGO side event on Islamophobia.

Before the session could begin, pandemonium broke out outside the conference room and I ran out to find a crowd of students wearing clown wigs and noses chanting “Durban II, Masquerade!” Looks like the circus is back.

Off to a side session on Human Rights, Discrimination and Islamophobia.
I have to admit that when the French Jewish Students pulled the masquerade demonstration I was a little underwhelmed. This is an issue for another email but briefly let me admit that I am sensing here an awkward causal relationship here between the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic attacks and the pro-Israel reactions.

The aftermath of Durban I left Jewish groups so traumatized and fearful that there is a significant presence of pro-Israel groups at this conference who have been preparing for months and are ready and waiting to demonstrate, defend and denounce. This is a testimony to the indefatigable effort of numerous organizations who advocated to move the conference from Durban to Geneva and to cancel the NGO Forum. It is also a testament to the strength and commitment of our global community to mobilize and rise to a challenging occasion. There are times, though, when these reactionary exhibitions are executed in seemingly unprovoked contexts, simply because the pro-Israel group anticipates a confrontation and preempts a ‘reaction’ before a confrontation actually occurs. This is true in the case of today’s clown-fest, which erupted in the middle of a peaceful break between sessions.

I was pondering this peculiarity as I walked into a side session on Human Rights, Discrimination and Islamophobia, and it took only minutes to remind me why those affected by Durban I see in this conference a circus and a masquerade. Within minutes the clown-fest seemed not only justifiable, but retroactively appropriate. Here’s a rundown of what went on.

The panel, organized by Interfaith International and Al-Hakim Foundation, began with a number of relatively balanced presentations of various human rights issues from the Tamils in Sri Lanka to discrimination against Muslims in London. Then the panel turned to the audience for questions. Let the fun begin.

The first speaker asked the chair to confirm whether or not Zionism equals Racism. The second and third questions posed were about Gaza. The fourth speaker asserted that in order to talk about Islamophobia, one must first talk about injustice. He then requested a minute of silence for “the atrocities committed by the Israeli’s to the victims of Gaza”. Three quarters of the room – including the Chair of the panel – stood in observance. The other quarter sat stunned, some crying out in protest. I found myself paralyzed. I am pretty used to complying with authority, especially in diplomatic situations, and since the Conference Chair stood, I almost did the same reflexively. On top of that, I do acknowledge and mourn the loss of innocent lives in Gaza, as I do all suffering peoples. Recent images from Passover Seder flashed in my mind and I recalled the tradition to remove a few drops of wine from our glass out of compassion for the suffering of the Egyptians. I thought of this morning’s spectacle in the Genocide side event, during which the Iranians and Neturai Karta refused to stand in commemoration of Yom Hashoah and the victims of the Holocaust. Still, I stayed rooted firmly in my chair, certain that the speaker was requesting not an acknowledgment of the tragic loss of lives in the name of politics, but rather an affirmation that Israel is to be blamed for these “atrocities”.

The Chair eventually got everyone to sit back down (when we approached him after the session, he denied endorsing the moment of silence and claimed he only stood to calm people down) and I nervously shot a hand up in the air, anxious to move the conversation in another direction. But the Chair called on – you guessed it – our friend from Neturei Karta, sitting sandwiched between two Arab buddies of his, wearing full Hassidic garb, and long white locks down the side of his face. The man introduced himself as an Orthodox Jew (I am shuddering by now) and proceeded to denounce Israel and Zionism. The Chair had the audacity to point out to the first questioner (who asked about Zionism = Racism) “and that, is the answer to your question”.

When pressed by a member of our delegation as to whether the Chair just claimed that Zionism equals Racism, the Chair retreated and overlooked the question, snapping “Is someone talking? I don’t remember asking you to talk”. With that he moved on to the next question; which included an Iranian man reading a laundry list of out-of-context and seemingly ‘racist’ quotes he has collected by various Jews like Moshe Dayan. If you are getting nauseous reading this, don’t worry – I won’t continue but you can guess how this panel discussion ended.

Our group left feeling utterly demoralized and defenseless and our leader quickly reminded us “now you have a taste of what Durban I was like. Only it was like that the entire conference, and even worse”.

On a more positive note, Jewish and African organizations organized a very successful demonstration this afternoon about raising awareness for Darfur. When a bystander approached carrying a sign proclaiming “Zionism=Racism” he was enthusiastically admonished by crowds of Africans.

Again, an issue for another time and place but coalition-building seems to play a big role in Durban dynamics. The Jews back the Sudanese, and vice versa. Similarly, the Arab countries in the plenary sessions all made it very clear that they support African Americans in their fight for slavery reparations. Quid pro quo is the name of the game; obviously this can lead to very positive relationships as well as corrupt ones.
I had a pleasant evening at the UN Watch annual gala dinner which featured speakers such as Alan Dershowitz and human rights heroes from Iran and Rwanda. After a long day at a conference that purports to counteract racism, but in fact encourages it, it’s nice to dine with people who care about critical and relevant issues.

One more note of interest before I stop rambling: While the official proceedings as well as side events continue and will continue through Thursday, the official conference declaration was virtually finalized already! This illustrates the unproductive and futile operating mode of the UN. But it’s 4 a.m. so that will have to wait for another note.

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