The congressional black caucus and human rights groups around the country are urging President-elect Obama to attend and legitimize Durban II - the next UN “anti-racism” conference to take place in Geneva in April 2009. A decision is expected shortly.
For over three decades, the United Nations system has tried to label Israel as racist, to tie it to the mast of apartheid South Africa, and to sink it with the same moral indignation and subsequent economic and political isolation. The difference now is that the U.S. President is a member of a racial minority who faces pressure from members of that same minority, along with others, to change the American response to this familiar and repugnant UN gambit.
A racially-charged showdown so early on in the Obama Presidency is unfortunate, but it makes his response all that more important. In making his decision, he would do well to remember the moral leadership of Democrats faced with UN-driven hatred of Israel and anti-Semitism in the past.
In 1975 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution alleging the self-determination of the Jewish people: Zionism - equaled racism. In response, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan told the Assembly: "The United States does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.”
For the next 16 years, all UN “anti-racism” activities were poisoned by this moral perversion. Though the resolution was rescinded in 1991, most Muslim states refused to vote for its rescission, and a plan to resurrect this formula for the political defeat of Israel began as soon as the first version was shuffled off stage. Act II culminated in the UN “anti-racism” conference held in Durban, South Africa, which ended three days before 9/11.
Head of the U.S. Delegation, Congressman, and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos walked out of the Durban hatefest, together with the state of Israel. Lantos explained: "A conference that should have been about horrible discrimination around the world has been hijacked by extremist elements for its own purposes. The conference will stand self-condemned. What you have here is the paradox of an anti-racism conference that is itself racist."
True to UN form, the outcome of this conference - the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action - became the centerpiece of the UN’s ‘anti-racism’ agenda, and the process of convening a ‘follow-up’ meeting was moved into high-gear two years ago. The agenda for what is known as Durban II was formally agreed upon in August 2007. The first of four objectives is “to foster the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.” That Declaration, adopted after the U.S. and Israel made their opposition plain, claims that Palestinians are victims of Israeli racism. This claim is the only country-specific accusation in a document that purports to address racism and xenophobia around the world.
Participating in Durban II, therefore, would necessarily change the very core of American foreign policy. It would legitimize a global meeting formally and irrevocably dedicated to implementing the mantra of Israeli racism. Will Obama and Clinton stand in Moynihan and Lantos’s shoes?
Although the alleged imperatives for American participation are continually being magnified, they come down to four main arguments.
First comes the claim that Durban II is only designed to foster the implementation of the product of Durban I’s governmental conference, and that the only problem back in 2001 was a nasty non-governmental forum that took place alongside it. Leading this cover-up is, not surprisingly, the UN itself. Addressing the most recent Durban II preparatory committee in October of this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay, herself a Durban native, made this bold-faced lie:
“Seven years ago at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, the virulent anti-Semitic behavior of a few non-governmental organizations on the sidelines of the Durban Conference overshadowed the critically important work of the Conference. Measures were taken to address this...The legacy of this Conference is and should be the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, a framework adopted by consensus that has given us a comprehensive plan of action to combat racism in all its manifestations.”
Pillay’s comments were followed by a full-throated appeal for American attendance at Durban II.
These comments are simply false. Sitting in the back of the drafting committee of the Durban I governmental conference, I watched the deletion of virtually every draft paragraph on anti-Semitism - carefully prepared provisions articulating a range of steps to combat this scourge. And then the following deal was cut by the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference: a mention of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust was allowed to remain in exchange for also allowing a condemnation of racist Israel.
Although UN officials constantly refer to the Durban Declaration as a “consensus” document, it was not a UN-wide consensus: the United States and Israel voted “no” with their feet. Furthermore, some states, like Canada, declared formal reservations to the racist Israel language during the final adoption of the Declaration. But every printing by the UN of the Declaration omits these formal reservations. That provides a clear lesson for all those countries that believe they can have their cake and eat it too - or figure they can participate, join “consensus,” and then make statements for public consumption lamenting portions of the result. Canada got this message - and in January 2008, it became the first country to refuse to participate in a conference dedicated to implementing Durban I.
The second defense of US participation in Durban II is the insidious claim that the Durban Declaration’s accusation of racist Israel is not itself a manifestation of anti-Semitism. Islamic countries champion this approach. Throughout the preparatory process for Durban II such human rights luminaries as Algeria have gone so far as to claim that anti-Semitism is about Arabs and Muslims. More recently, General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, made the UN strategy of cutting off Jews from Israel obscenely obvious. Repeating the “some of my best friends our Jews” line from the podium of the General Assembly, he clearly assumed that his audience was either full of anti-Semites or too stupid to recognize an anti-Semite when they heard one. In his words: “I have a great love for the Jewish People and this has been true all my life. I have never hesitated to condemn the crimes of the holocaust ” coupled with the accusation that Israeli policies amount to “apartheid,” “must be outlawed,” and met by a “campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel.” Similarly, last week the UN’s special investigator on Israel Richard Falk issued a press release declaring Israeli policies were reminiscent of “the heyday of South African apartheid.” The accusation is of course absurd, given that one-fifth of Israel’s population is Arab, with more democratic rights than in any Arab state - including the right to vote and hold public office, and to protect their rights and freedoms by full access to an independent judiciary dedicated to the rule of law.
Durban II, (as Durban I before it), will feign interest in combating anti-Semitism and remembering the Holocaust. The problem, the UN story goes, is not with Jews but with the Jewish state. Anti-Zionism is not a form of anti-Semitism. The modern Jewish state created by and for the sake of the Jewish people is racist, but this is unrelated to “a great love for the Jewish People.”
The European Union (represented by its minimum common denominator) has had, and will have, no difficulty falling for this line. They bought it in Durban I and the long and undistinguished history of European anti-Semitism will undoubtedly fit in well with buying the same rug twice. The question is, will Obama and Clinton follow suit?
The third defense of Durban is the claim exemplified by the clamoring of the Congressional Black Caucus, and human rights groups in America and abroad. It is the idea that while Durban I/II is bad for Jews, it is good for other minorities or oppressed groups; it is therefore parochial, narrow-minded and insensitive for Jews to believe that their interests are any more important than the vast majority of other victims that, as President of the United States, Obama ought to sanction participation because his job is to set his sights on the big picture.
This is exactly the attitude shared by human rights NGOs like Human Rights Watch and the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First) at Durban I, when they refused to cast a vote against the NGO Forum’s conclusion that Zionism was racism. In their view, the Forum’s inclusion of many "voices of victims" took precedence over the Jewish problem.
Human rights gurus would never dream of dismissing the claims of Dalits, or the Roma or black South Africans, in the same vein. And for a very good reason. In the words of the UN Charter, international peace and security are premised on the equality of all nations large and small, while human rights protection is rooted in the equality of all men and women. The discrimination and demonization of the Jewish state and the Jewish people isn't a procedural blip or minor detour. It subverts the very foundation of the modern human rights movement built on the ashes of the victims of the Holocaust. The inequality of Jews cannot be quarantined. It perverts priorities and purposes. Justice, equality and human dignity cannot be built on the inequality of the few.
Fourth is the challenge that comes from what President-elect Obama has described as a defining characteristic of his presidency: multilateralism and engagement. Prior to Durban I, the White House and the State Department were besieged by appeals to send Secretary Colin Powell to the conference. For instance, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a member of the black caucus, said: “As a nation, we must be committed to end racism in all its forms. To do that, we need to be part of the discussion, whether we agree with the final [conference] declaration or not. ... We should at least be at the table -- and at the highest level.” The pitch is the same today. But failure to attend the blighted UN’s “anti-racism” event is not evidence of a lack of commitment to end racism.
The question needs to be asked specifically of engagement enthusiasts: what exactly is the Durban discussion or dialogue that those truly committed to combating racism should join? Is it the discussion for and against the details of how to attribute racism to Israel? Is it the discussion about how to include anti-Semitism so as to camouflage hatred of the Jewish state? Is it the discussion how to provide a sop to Holocaust education so that killing Israelis as Jews in the here and now can be side-stepped? The agenda of Durban II has been set. Cast in UN-ese, these subjects will be discussed. Being there legitimizes a debate in which no self-respecting anti-racist should participate. President Obama will not be able to establish his bona fides on that score.
A multilateral endeavor that foments racism and xenophobia is not worth joining simply on the grounds that it is multilateral. Nevertheless, a range of stakeholders are pushing multilateralism as an end in itself, including some Jewish groups who above all appear to fear becoming outsiders. David Harris from the American Jewish Committee (AJC) last week articulated for the Jerusalem Post his latest rationale for refusing a boycott - his organization “was still trying to work out whether Europeans’ criteria for attending had been violated before it called for non-attendance.” Just the opposite is true, according to Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He told the Post: “We clearly see that all the red lines that have been enumerated by the Europeans have been violated.”
The disarray is particularly unfortunate in light of Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s November 19th call for American support. She said in a rare public appeal: “Israel will not participate and will not legitimize the [Durban] Review Conference, which will be used as a platform for further anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic activity. We call upon the international community not to participate.”
Last Thursday in a full page ad in The Washington Times, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Alan Dershowitz, Bernard Lewis, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients, courageous human rights dissidents, Christians, Muslims and Jews, asked Obama and Clinton to help defeat anti-Semitism, stand with Israel and announce the United States will not attend Durban II.
In contrast to so many items on the incoming administration’s doorstep, this unavoidable issue does not turn on dollars and cents. It is a call for moral leadership - nothing more - nothing less. On September 8th, 2001, anti-Semites, violent extremists and their political enablers took heart at the adoption of the Durban Declaration. In the week of April 20th, 2009 gang members will meet again to foster the implementation of that very declaration. For the sake of the day after, Durban II is no place for the United States.