Posted on: April 17, 2009 Posted by: Mitchell Plitnick Comments: 1

The much-anticipated Durban Review Conference gets underway next week. While a lot of people seem to have very powerful and set opinions on this event, it strikes me as one that is difficult to choose sides about.

The cases made both for and against the conference often seem weak and lacking in consideration of contradictory factors. A great case in point appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution just today. Two op-eds, one in favor of the USA attending Durban II and one against, appeared. Both were flawed and failed badly to make their case.

The case against attendance was made by Ari Morgenstern, a media consultant. Morgenstern lists the common reasons to boycott Durban II. The most common is that this conference affirms the closing declaration of the World Conference Against Racism in 2001 at Durban, South Africa (hence the name). What he ignores is that the final document issued by that conference really didn’t reflect the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements and sentiments that marred the conference so badly.

Indeed, a significant chunk of the problematic material at Durban I emerged not from the conference itself, but from a parallel NGO conference. But this crucial distinction is lost on Morgenstern and other critics of the WCAR.

That’s not to say Durban I was acceptable. The US, and most certainly Israel, were absolutely right to walk out on that conference. But in the end, the document that emerged, while far from perfect, omitted almost any hint of anti-Zionism, let alone anti-Semitism.

Of course, the atmosphere of the conference cannot be completely removed from the final document, but the Durban II planning draft doesn’t endorse the atmosphere, only the document. Morgenstern and other critics need to make the case that the US should not attend Durban II based on the actual platform and documents, not on implications based on sentiments that were intentionally stricken from the record.

Demonstrators outside the WCAR at Durban in 2001
Demonstrators outside the WCAR at Durban in 2001

They fail to make that case, but those who support US attendance at Durban II fail just as miserably. In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that case is made by Marlene Nadle, a foreign affairs journalist and an associate of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at New School University. Her first point is to chide the Obama administration for essentially saying “do things our way or we won’t be involved.” This is identified as “bullying behavior.”

How absurd. On many occasions, the US can be accused of bullying behavior, but this case is not such an example. There is a reason that the organizers want American participation, and that is because the involvement of the world’s most powerful country, like it or not, gives the conference a great deal more legitimacy and political clout. It is perfectly appropriate that the US decide whether or not the program in question merits such support.

Nadle falls into typical, left-wing, apocalyptic thinking. She contends that if the US boycotts Durban II, this will doom Obama’s efforts to reach out to the Muslim world and implies that it will also compromise his ability to repair America’s tattered reputation, in the wake of eight years of W, around the globe.

The situation is pretty far from being that critical.

Nadle also strongly implies that Obama’s silence and Hillary Clinton’s opposition to attending are due to pressure from “conservative Jews.” This is troubling, as the concerns over Durban II go far beyond the Jewish community, and the implication that this is all about the Jews is disturbing.

The fact that anti-Semitism played so prominent a role in the WCAR should be profoundly disturbing to anyone. An anti-racism movement cannot sustain itself with bigotry at its center. Nor, indeed, can it sustain itself when it welcomes heads of state who have committed gross human rights violations (which would cover a lot more such leaders than not). That Mahmoud Ahmedinejad will attend the conference bodes very ill.

The case that should be made is the extraordinary effort that many countries and NGOs have put in to avoid a repeat of Durban I, whilst also acknowledging that there are going to be parallel events that are beyond the control of the UN that are very likely to raise serious concerns.

Russian and other diplomats took control of the outline document for Durban II and made major changes, which addressed both anti-Israel language and the objectionable passages regarding “defamation of religion.” All that is really left is the endorsement of the Durban I document, which I addressed above. But the question of what will actually happen at Geneva is still an open one.

Still, it should be acknowledged that serious efforts have been made to prevent a recurrence of Durban I. Whatever one feels about Israel, its conflict with the Palestinians is far from the only ethnic/religious/racial conflict in the world, and it should not be allowed to dominate a discussion on how to deal with racism. It should also not be off-limits. From my vantage point, this conference is probably hopelessly crippled by the events at Durban I. And that’s a shame.

The Durban I document ended up being terribly weak and so general in its pronouncements that it’s hard to see how progress could have been made on it. Indeed, having so many countries trying to come up with language that would work for all of them, given their own violations of human rights and principles of equality as well as their own concerns about them, seems a Sisyphean task to begin with.

So, should the US attend Durban II? I honestly don’t know, and, unfortunately, I think it will be hard to be certain until we see what actually happens at the conference. But I do know this: the issue of Israel and the Palestinians cannot be allowed to dominate discussions of racism, not in a world that is rife with persecution. Anti-Semitism cannot be seen as any more tolerable than other bigotries. Yet it also cannot be elevated above them, and Israel cannot be shielded from legitimate criticism or inquiries simply because it is a Jewish state.

Until there’s a forum that can meet those conditions, the whole thing is an exercise in futility.

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