BRATISLAVA, Slovakia (JTA) — Eight years ago, at the first U.N. World Conference Against Racism, pro-Israel activists endured a week of hate-filled insults, pamphlets, posters and marches in the streets of Durban, South Africa.
When they finally marched out of a forum that branded Israel genocidal and racist like Apartheid South Africa, keffiyah-clad antagonists serenaded them with chants of “Free, free, Palestine!”
Overwhelmed, activists vowed to prepare better the next time. That chance comes later this month: the Durban Review Conference will be held April 20-24 in the Swiss city of Geneva.
Palestinian supporters will hold another large street demonstration and brainstorm ways to strengthen their Israel-is-apartheid movement. But this time around Jewish groups are, among other things, sponsoring a pro-Israel rally, co-sponsoring a human-rights event that will feature Martin Luther King III and others, and organizing a Holocaust commemoration just outside the gates of the bucolic U.N. compound in Geneva.
“Some have told me the reactions now are like post-traumatic stress syndrome, because the community was so traumatized by what happened in 2001,” says Felice Gaer, who attended Durban as director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights. “Jewish tradition teaches us to repair the world, not turn our back on the world. So why will Jewish groups be in Geneva? To bear witness, fight back and repair the world."
Inside the actual forum, with Israel having announced its boycott long ago, each pro- and anti-Israel group will be allotted several minutes daily to address governmental delegations.
Yet the Israeli-Palestinian conflict won’t be the only provocative subject: the forum may become a flashpoint for newer tensions between Islam and the West. With some European states still threatening a boycott, the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference will likely accuse the West of Islamaphobia and press to restrict criticism of Islam — and perhaps overwhelm all other grievances on the agenda.
“It’s part of the Islamic group’s strategy: rather than deal with extremist Islam, they take an offensive position and say Islam is the victim of Western crimes,” says Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch. “What else will they talk about — genocide in Darfur?”
The original Durban conference — particularly the NGO forum that preceded it — was a seminal U.N. event in Jewish pro-Israel activism, echoing the “Zionism is Racism” era from 1975-1991.
Though some had warned the Arab-Muslim bloc — backed by developing-world allies — angled to produce an indictment of Israel at Durban, the on-the-ground reality shocked them.
The NGO document, hammered out in a hostile, intimidating environment, painted the Jewish state as the world’s greatest perpetrator.
At the time, David Matas of B’nai Brith Canada, said, "This is the first time I’ve ever felt anti-Semitism this personally, at such a level of intensity."
The text was so extreme, then-U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson rejected it — a stunning blow for the host agency. Even today, the new commissioner, Navi Pillay, denounces "the virulent anti-Semitic behavior" at Durban, though only blames some groups "on the sidelines."
What critics overlook is that while conference diplomats also inveighed against Israel, they excised the worst language. Nevertheless, the final text, under the heading "Victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance," lamented "the plight of the Palestinian people."
In the context of an anti-racism proclamation, Israel’s defenders say this implies racism — a charge they say has nothing to do with what they view as a political conflict. The Durban document identified no other state, so this remains a sticking point eight years later.
Observers expect Iran, Syria and others to level more charges against Israel in Geneva, but it’s unclear whether Europe will allow them to revise the document.
Likewise, the 2005 Danish cartoons — which sparked Muslim protests that turned violent — have spurred a "defamation of religions" movement that is seen as an effort to stifle criticism of Islam.
Jewish NGOs will be among those pressing the European Union to focus on topics they deem more legitimate. They’ll also be networking with like-minded NGOs.
“While some groups try to bring as much harm and pain as possible to Israel, my job will be to build up a coalition among those who realize their agenda is being hijacked,” says Shimon Samuels, director for international relations for the Simon Wiesenthal Center."
To avert some of the rowdiness of Durban, U.N. diplomats decided to eliminate the NGO forum and hold this session at their secure Geneva campus.
Instead, activists will joust farther away to win hearts and minds.
Presumably drawing TV cameras will be a major anti-Israel demonstration — especially with the “International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network” a highly visible co-sponsor — and a “Warsaw to Gaza” event that links Israelis to Nazis.
Meanwhile, where Durban I was a milestone that launched a campaign against Israel similar to what aimed to dismantle Apartheid South Africa — the ongoing “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement” — Durban II will take the campaign one step further.
One organizer says leading legal minds — including several from apartheid-era South Africa — will huddle to figure out how to make the apartheid charge stick against Israel.
“Apartheid is already defined as a crime against humanity, but there’s not a lot of experience in taking it to court,” says Ingrid Gassner Jaradat, director of the Bethlehem-based BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights. “If you strengthen the legal argument, educate and raise awareness, you also strengthen the efforts to prosecute this as a war crime.”
Jewish activists are planning to counter punch.
On April 20, Swiss Jewish groups will host a Holocaust commemoration that features Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, and others.
The event will be expressly non-political, with pamphlets and posters barred, says Sabine Simkhovitch-Dreyfus, vice president of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities.
However, the organizers also chose a highly symbolic location for the ceremony – in the large square just outside the main entrance to the U.N. compound.
"It’s possible that it will be perceived by certain persons as politicizing the Shoah," says Simkhovitch-Dreyfus. "But this is certainly not our intention. To the contrary, we want to draw the attention of all delegates to a universal message. And we think the Shoah is one of the keys, if not ‘the’ key universal, anti-racism message."
Moreover, some 40 human-rights groups will sponsor a "Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy" to showcase Burmese, Cuban, Iranian and Egyptian dissidents; Jewish groups will co-host a "Conference Against Racism, Discrimination and Persecution" — viewed by some as a virtual "alternative" to the actual Durban conference — and Jewish and Israel groups will put on an "Israel Wants Peace" rally– with Natan Sharansky, Alan Dershowitz, and Ethiopian and Bedouin Israelis.
"If the U.N. were really reflecting universal and moral values, these are the types of events they would run," says Gerald Steinberg, executive director of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor. "And Israel wouldn’t have to go out of its way to show it’s not racist."