Arabs ease up on Israel at Durban II prep

The Syrian delegate speaks during preparations for the 2009 World Conference Against Racism.  (Michael J. Jordan)

The Syrian delegate speaks during preparations for the 2009 World Conference Against Racism. (Michael J. Jordan)

GENEVA (JTA) – On a morning that began with charges that an Israeli shelling in Gaza had killed four Palestinian children and their mother – typically the kind of event that unleashes a torrent of anti-Israel condemnation at the United Nations – Arab and Muslim diplomats in this Swiss city remained focused on keeping the 2009 U.N. World Conference Against Racism on track.

The Palestinian delegate, speaking Monday on behalf of Arab member-states during a two-week “preparation conference,” skipped the opportunity to spotlight the plight of his people, instead urging the anti-racism forum to rid humanity of “this scourge in many parts of the world.”

Even Iran, which often singles out Israel for vitriol and created the biggest stir by blocking a Canadian pro-Israel advocacy group from attending the conference, seemed rather subdued.

“Certainly we are addressing all the issues of racism happening around the world,” a Middle Eastern diplomat told JTA in the hallway. Singling out one “depends on the seriousness and magnitude of the violations.”

Diplomats and observers say there’s a reason for this relatively tame approach during the preparatory meeting, which is creating the framework for the 2009 conference and ends Friday.

With Canada, the United States and Israel boycotting the event, they say, the Arab and Muslim world runs the risk of driving out more Western nations if they exploit the forum only to gang up on Israel. That’s what happened at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism 2001 in Durban, South Africa.

Any collapse would mark another humiliation for what some consider the world’s foremost anti-racism gathering. Also it would entrench further the notion of U.N. impotence when confronted with issues of the day.

“There have been quite loud signals from some European capitals that they would reconsider staying engaged in this process,” one Western diplomat told JTA, adding that the 57-member Organization for Islamic Conference “needs us for credibility, or else it’d be just a bunch of guys from the developing world talking about something.”

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been plenty of coded references to Israel throughout these sessions, including “colonialism” and “occupation.” Also, the Syrian ambassador referred to those with a “cultural superiority complex” who deny the “right of millions to self-determination.”

But that’s more or less par for the course at U.N. forums. Nothing is as overt as at the notorious U.N. Human Rights Council, or the statement last week by the Libyan ambassador to the U.N. Security Council in New York likening Israeli actions in Gaza to Nazi-run “concentration camps.”

The collegial setting in picturesque Geneva has not dissolved into the wild scene that was Durban, when several thousand nongovernmental activists at the parallel NGO Forum pushed through one of the harshest U.N. documents ever produced.

That document accused the Jewish state of genocide, apartheid and ethnic cleansing, among other war crimes, and called for boycotts, sanctions and embargoes.

The atmosphere was so toxic in 2001, punctuated by openly anti-Semitic instances, that then-U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson declined to recommend the document to the government representatives, whose own document is often overlooked for being much milder.

This helps explain why Slovenia, speaking in Geneva last week for the European Union, noted the “unacceptable anti-Semitism” at Durban, and prodded delegates to avoid “excessive polarization” and “singling out [a] specific geographic situation.”

It’s also why some Jewish activists expressed relief when it became apparent last week that next year’s conference would not be held in Durban again, as South African officials seemed to want, but probably on U.N. turf in Geneva, where several U.N. agencies are based, or at U.N. headquarters in New York. No final decision has been made, but one is expected soon.

“It must be on U.N. premises, so everyone would be able to express themselves within the rules of conduct, with the security services here, and not degenerate into the stink Durban was,” said Leone de Picciotto, the Geneva representative for the International Council of Jewish Women.

Nevertheless, this event’s most strident critic here – among the half-dozen Jewish monitors and watchdogs who attended – says renewed efforts by the Organization for Islamic Conference to redefine anti-Semitism to include “Islamophobia” of fellow Semite Arabs is a slap at Jews and doesn’t bode well for next year.

“There’s clearly an attempt to give an impression that Durban II will not repeat the mistakes of Durban I, but it’s failing,” said Anne Bayefsky, a Canadian law professor and director of the Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust at Touro College who has chided the delegates publicly several times.

An Algerian diplomat has led the effort to expand the definition of anti-Semitism. Idriss Jazairy, in describing the desecration of a Muslim cemetery in northern France where headstones were reportedly daubed with swastikas, asked the gathering, “How is this anti-Semitism different from the other?”

No U.N. diplomat has explicitly condemned the comparison, which activists say diminishes the uniquely Jewish significance of the term.

One Arab-African diplomat, though, conceded to JTA outside the forum that a fine line exists in pushing the link with anti-Semitism too hard: It may dilute what has become a genuine European phenomenon – rising enmity toward local Muslims.

“We wouldn’t be helping ourselves because Islamophobia itself needs recognition and visibility,” the diplomat said.

Whether that means hatred of individuals or of Islam itself has also become a hot topic. The Islamic conference often notes “contemporary forms of racism,” seen as code for post-9/11 anti-Islam expressions such as the anti-Muhammad cartoons in Denmark and a recent Dutch film. Solutions might include retrograde wording against blasphemy and restrictions on free speech.

During one break, an Indian diplomat was seen challenging an Egyptian diplomat over the need to pencil one more subject into a sweeping conference that already covers “racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

A Slovenian diplomat also indicated European resistance to the Islamic conference efforts.

We must “avoid giving disproportionate attention to only some topics” to the “detriment of other important issues in this document,” the diplomat, Dominik Frelih, told JTA. “We also must not be diverted from focusing on problems faced in today’s world by victims of racism.”

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