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Geneva, Day 3: Things said and not said

European diplomats walk out in protest as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attacks Israel during a speech Monday at a U.N. conference in Geneva. (Michael J. Jordan)

European diplomats walk out in protest as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attacks Israel during a speech Monday at a U.N. conference in Geneva. (Michael J. Jordan)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at the Durban Conference on April 20, 2009 was interrupted several times by irate activists in the gallery. (Michael J. Jordan)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the Durban Conference on April 20, 2009 was interrupted several times by irate activists in the gallery. (Michael J. Jordan)

Highlights from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at the U.N. Durban II conference in Geneva, April 20, 2009. (English) (Ben Harris)

Highlights from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the U.N. Durban II conference in Geneva, April 20, 2009. (English) (Ben Harris)

NEWS ANALYSIS

GENEVA (JTA) — After the theatrics of the first day and the drama of the second, the third day of the Durban II conference was all about what everyone ostensibly came here to discuss.

Member states took to the podium at the U.N.-sponsored anti-racism parley to highlight the issues of discrimination they care about — and ignore those they’d rather disregard. 

The representative from Venezuela condemned Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza and its “constant violation” of Palestinian human rights, drawing modest applause. But he failed to mention his government’s own threats against the Catholic Church.

Egypt and Syria talked about the plight of Palestinians –albeit steering clear of labeling Israel an apartheid state — but they ignored state-sponsored discrimination against minorities and practitioners of free speech in their own countries.

The representative from South Africa talked about the Palestinians, but not about the genocide closer to home, in Darfur, Sudan.

On the conference’s third day, member states also continued to react to the incendiary speech that Iran’s president delivered Monday. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Israel a “racist government,” prompting a mass walkout by the European delegation and the withdrawal from the conference of the Czech Republic.

The United Nations revoked the badges of 46 people, 21 from the French Union of Jewish Students, after Jewish activists disrupted Ahmadinejad’s speech on Monday, donning rainbow wigs and clown noses and rushing the podium. Credentials were also stripped from four members of the European Union of Jewish Students and one B’nai B’rith member. Between them, the French and European Jewish student groups had 370 members accredited, amounting to more than one-third of all the NGO activists at the conference.

Two members of an Iranian group were also expelled for distributing "offensive materials," and an Israeli journalist was sent out for "screaming racist comments" from the gallery, according to Rupert Colville, a U.N. spokesman.

On Wednesday some states defended Israel, which was absent from the conference. Lithuania’s representative called Ahmadinejad’s comments “unacceptable and provocative,” and an insult to “Israel and the Jewish people.”

Nine countries chose to boycott the conference rather than lend credibility to a forum expecting to single out Israel for unfair opprobrium.

Late Wednesday, pro-Israel groups planned a rally in Geneva to respond to “the Durban II conference’s anti-Zionist propaganda,” according to organizers. Natan Sharansky and attorney Alan Dershowitz were among the scheduled speakers.

For many, however, the conference was not about Israel or the Palestinians.

Sri Lanka expounded on the history of its conflict with the ethnic Tamils, which has resulted in thousands of refugees, and defended government policies.

Tanzania called for apologies and reparations for the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

And of course, many Islamic countries talked about what Pakistan called “the most insidious form of contemporary racism": Islamophobia and the defamation of religion, specifically Islam.

Caroline Fourest, a French journalist who spoke on a panel at an alternate conference to Durban II held in Geneva the day before the U.N. conference began, said the real goal of Arab and Muslim states at the Durban Review Conference was to curtail free speech when it comes to the criticism of Muslims.

“Freedom of speech is the most effective weapon against both extremism and of their hold on power,” said Fourest, who made a documentary film on the original Durban conference held in 2001. “So they want to break this weapon by equating racism with criticism of religion.”

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