Reading the papers in a Geneva cafe, a paragraph at the bottom corner of page four caught my eye. A small article reported on the latest World Bank publication emphasizing what we already know: Palestinians don’t get their fair share of water. Israelis use four times the amount of water as the average Palestinian who doesn’t even have enough for his or her basic needs. Unfortunately, this example of Israeli apartheid was hidden amongst pages of commentary on Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech. Yet again the racist reality that is life for Palestinians was hidden beneath the political rhetoric.
Back in the UK, thumbing through the week’s copies of the Guardian, the only issue discussed relating to last week’s United Nations Durban Review Conference on racism seemed to be Ahmadinejad and the Euro/North American boycotters. So much for the UN tackling racism. As one civil society participant pointed out, not only could this have been an opportunity for discussion of Israeli racism, but a chance to highlight other key issues like racism against vulnerable groups such as the Roma and the Dalit or the importance of reparations for descendants of the European-Atlantic slave trade.
International activists seeking justice in Palestine call for a radical reflection on the overall framework of Zionism, which as an ideology prioritizes the rights of one racial group over another. While no one was expecting that the Durban Review Conference would adopt an apartheid analogy, in recent years many senior international figures have sharply criticized Israel’s systematic discrimination against the Palestinians. While Palestinians are as aware as any other occupied nation that UN resolutions do not necessarily lead to international action, nevertheless the document resulting from the Durban 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) was considered something of a landmark. Dismissed as “anti-Semitic” by the usual US-Israeli suspects, the declaration named Palestinians as specific victims of racism. Though it failed to mention the source of this racism, many civil society organizations saw Durban as a useful conceptual framework for combating the racism at the heart of the protracted plight of the Palestinians.
The Durban Review Conference held last week was initially intended to be a forum to evaluate the progress towards goals set eight years ago. But bullying tactics by certain European/North American states ensured that the draft Durban Review Conference declaration excluded any criticism of Israel. In the planning process original “offensive” statements such as those referring to “unlawful collective punishment” and “torture” were removed. Israel, Canada and the US — under both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — had no intention of allowing a repeat of the language of 2001. All three boycotted the process from the start. Obama initially rejoined the planning stage but pulled out again.
Palestinian and Arab activists were not the only ones frustrated that the first African-American president of the US refused to attend a UN conference on racism. Stressing the importance of providing “support and reparations” to victims of history and contemporary times, actor and activist Danny Glover made a last minute appeal to Obama in The Nation, 8 April: “Would the United Nations conference not be exactly the right place for our new president to show the world that his administration’s commitment to ‘change we can believe in’ means rejecting our country’s tarnished legacy of violating international law, undermining the United Nations and using American exceptionalism to justify walking away from the leadership responsibility many in the world expect of the United States?”
Such pleas fell on deaf ears. As if watering down the main agenda was not enough, less than two weeks before the start of the conference, the Palestinian refugee rights organization Badil’s Geneva representative, Rania Madi, was called into the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and informed that Palestine-related events would not even be permitted as official “side events.” Israeli lobbyists on the other hand found a way to conduct their own side meeting, despite the fact that official side events on Israel-Palestine were not permitted. Apparently the ban was dodged by labeling the event as addressing a more general universal “theme” of racism and avoiding reference to Israel. The session then proceeded to allow the likes of Alan Dershowitz, Elie Wiesel and actor Jon Voight to rail against Iranian and Palestinian “anti-Semitism,” “nazism” and racism against Israelis.
With the voices of Palestinian critics of Israel silenced, the field was left to Ahmadinejad to mix valid criticism of Israel as a racist state with more suspect ideology. Israeli lobbyists must have thought they had won the jackpot. The speech and a walkout of 23 Euro/North American state delegates (not to mention those who had never come to start with) meant they had little work to do not only to avoid accusations of racism, but to cast Israel as the victim of racism.
Despite the fiasco of the main event, a successful two-day conference sponsored by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC) brought a group of international legal experts and activists together to examine and develop possibilities of using legal instruments to combat Israeli racism. As one of the organizers, director of Badil Resource Center Ingrid Jaradat Gassner noted, similar boycotts by US allies at UN anti-racism conferences in 1978 and 1983 “could not prevent the eventual isolation and eradication of the apartheid regime in South Africa.” With long-term goals in sight, activists from across Europe and further afield discussed issues from applicability of the crime of “apartheid” as enshrined in international law to strategies for campaigning against Jewish parastatal organizations (such as the Jewish National Fund) in home countries to the potential of legal strategies in bringing Israel to account before international courts.
Seamus Milne of the Guardian, one of the few commentators talking sense in the mainstream UK press, pointed to the disturbing fact that all the boycotters were “European or European-settler states … In international forums, it’s almost unprecedented to have such an undiluted racial divide of whites-versus-the-rest.” How brutally ironic for a conference supposedly for tackling global racism; “the Geneva boycotters, fresh from standing behind Israel’s carnage in Gaza, are in denial about their own racism — and their continuing role in the tragedy of the Middle East” (23 April 2009). The hypocrisy of being told by European politicians and media that boycotts against Israel are either anti-Semitic or counter-productive, yet to be instructed that boycott of Ahmadinejad or even the whole UN racism conference is right and justifiable leaves anyone dedicated to justice fuming. That’s what I feel like — I can only imagine how Palestinians feel to be let down by the international community. Again.
Isabelle Humphries took part in the Israel Review Conference as a part of Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights (www.badil.org) network of international lawyers/academics working on refugee rights. Her own doctoral research focuses on Palestinian internal refugees in the Galilee.