JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (JTA) — Ten years after the notorious U.N. anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, that devolved into an Israel-bashing frenzy, anti-Zionist forces are mobilizing again to hold another anti-Israel conference in South Africa.
This time, Israel will be on trial.
The Russell Tribunal on Palestine — a standing organization that held two tribunals against Israel last year in Barcelona and London — has been called for Nov . 5-6 in Cape Town “to probe whether the treatment of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories meets the criteria of the United Nations convention against the crime of apartheid.”
The South African Zionist Federation has called the event, which is to involve prominent South Africans and already is making national headlines here, “an irrelevant talk shop.”
“Despite its name, the Russell Tribunal is not an impartial, accountable judicial body,” a vice chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, Ben Swartz, told JTA. “Rather it is a loose association of lobbyists pushing a narrow, one-sided political agenda, in this case the delegitimization of the State of Israel.”
He called it “a pointless political smear campaign by a self-appointed group of anti-Israel activists.”
But because of the attention it is receiving in South Africa, the tribunal is likely to be a damaging public relations exercise against Israel. The event has won several key endorsements in the country, including from South Africa’s leading federation of trade unions, the ruling African National Congress party, the South African Communist Party, and Zackie Achmat, the AIDS activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee.
While the tribunal said it invited Israel, Dov Segev-Steinberg, the Israeli ambassador to South Africa, denied the claim.
“I have not seen any approach by the tribunal to Israel or the embassy,” he told JTA. Segev-Steinberg said Israel views the tribunal as a "kangaroo court without any justification.”
Two Israelis are slated to participate in the tribunal: attorneys Michael Sfard, who has represented Israelis refusing to serve in Israeli army operations in the West Bank and is the legal counsel to Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project, and Leah Tsemel, who represents Palestinians in cases against Israel.
Ben Levitas, another vice chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, told JTA that the Jewish community has expressed great concern about the tribunal.
“This is not a court that reflects public opinion," Levitas said. "They have been very selective in their choice of witnesses.”
The tribunal will meet at the District Six Museum, which was set up to commemorate some of the early forced removals of “Cape Coloreds,” as mixed-race South Africans from a particular ethnic group in Cape Town were known, from their homes and businesses under the apartheid government.
The lineup at the tribunal is an anti-Israel parade. Nobel Peace laureate and Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, a frequent critic of the Jewish state, is slated to open the proceedings.
The “jury” will include Ronnie Kasrils, the Jewish former South African minister of intelligence who gained international notoriety some 10 years ago when he promoted several anti-Israel measures in parliament; Alice Walker, the African-American author who tried to take part in this year’s flotilla to Gaza and has defended suicide bombings as “last-ditch resistance"; Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Maguire, who in 2009 was arrested by Israel for sailing on a boat attempting to break Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip; and Spanish Supreme Court judge Jose Antonio Pallin, who has accused Israel of war crimes.
“The world expects South Africa to champion the rights of other people,” Kasrils said.
South African “witnesses” will include Steven Friedman, a Jewish proponent of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign targeting Israel; John Dugard, a former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine; and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the ex-wife of anti-apartheid activist and former South African President Nelson Mandela.
"The primary purpose is to engage with the court of public opinion throughout the world, air views and start a conversation which hopefully will continue over the next few years,” Friedman told JTA. The Zionist Federation, he said, is “a well-known source of propaganda. Its view is that any criticism of Israel is invalid, and it sees its job as defaming and discrediting anyone who has an alternative view of Israel.”
The local organizing committee is chaired by Siraj Desai, a high court judge, and includes Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, a former deputy minister and deputy speaker of parliament who went to Israel in 2008 to advocate for Palestinian rights.
The tribunal is named for British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, who along with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre set up the 1960s-era Russell Tribunal on Vietnam to examine U.S. war crimes. It was followed some years later by the Russell Tribunal II on human rights offenses by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The latest Russell tribunal calls itself “an International People’s Tribunal created by a large group of citizens involved in the promotion of peace and justice in the Middle East.” Organizers say they seek to highlight the international community’s failure to implement U.N. resolutions and International Court of Justice decisions against Israel.
It aims to achieve its objectives through “a citizen’s initiative in support of the rights of the Palestinian people, with public international law as its frame of reference.”
The first session of the tribunal, held last year in Barcelona, focused on the “complicity of the European Union and its member states in not holding Israel accountable to the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions and other instruments of international law.” The London session, also last year, “considered the complicity of international corporations in illegally profiteering from the occupation in Palestine.” A fourth session is scheduled for New York in 2012.
The tribunal coordinator, former Belgian senator Pierre Garland, said the tribunal would compare Israel to apartheid South Africa, putting questions to the Jewish state about crimes against humanity.
“At its previous meetings, it proved to be an irrelevant talk shop whose members simply arrived at pre-endorsed conclusions, all of which were aimed at depicting Israel, and only Israel, as a criminal rogue state,” the Zionist Federation’s Swartz told JTA. “There is no reason to believe that the latest installment of its rolling propaganda road show will be any different.”