Your job just got a whole lot harder,” quipped Naomi Klein after Iran’s Prime Minister, Ahmed Ahmadinejad’s address on April 20, at the opening day of the Durban Review of the World Conference Against Racism. In the lead-up to the Conference, I had written and lobbied tirelessly to defend it against allegations that it was an anti-Semitic hate fest.
Naomi was right. The world’s powers instantly condemned the speech to banner headlines. President Obama called it “harmful” and White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs called the speech “hateful rhetoric.” Peter Gooderham, British ambassador to the UN said it was “outrageous” and “anti-Semitic.” British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, labeled it “offensive, inflammatory and utterly unacceptable.” And French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned it as “an intolerable call to racist hate.”
The fact that the UN had allowed Ahmadinejad to speak became yet another “proof” that the Durban Review was indeed anti-Semitic. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gloated about his government’s decision over a year ago to boycott the Review: “Our government is leading the world, not following it. We observed clear, unmistakable signs this conference will again scapegoat the Jewish people.” Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs summed it all up: “The offensive and inflammatory incitement and humiliating and intolerable appeal to racist hate by the Iranian President…constitute clear proof, for those who still require it, that the conference’s agenda has been taken hostage and diverted from real and necessary racism-related deliberations - to an unabashed tirade against Israel.”
All of these right-wing attacks were to be expected. They had opposed the process from the beginning. But when Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor of Tikkun Magazine, jumped onto the bandwagon of demonizing Ahmadinejad’s speech, in an e-letter endorsed by many of my Jewish friends, I realized I had to set the record straight. As a delegate from Independent Jewish Voices, I had watched the drama unfold on April 20, as I sat in the UN gallery. I knew that both Ahmadinejad and the Durban Review were getting a bum rap which was now drawing progressive Jews into a fatal alliance with right-wing supporters of racism and injustice.
In the polarized context of opposing narratives, it is risky to appear to defend the “bad guy.” Everyone “knows” Ahmadinejad equals bad, anti-Semitic, Holocaust denier. So why defend his speech? I don’t endorse his values and I regret that, in his speech, he did not acknowledge injustice, anti-Semitism, and racism in Iran. However, it is NOT true that this particular speech was an anti-Semitic diatribe that denied the Holocaust.
I heard what Ahmadinejad actually said (which dropped language describing the Holocaust as “ambiguous and dubious” from an earlier draft— the one quoted by most mainstream and Jewish press). You can hear his actual speech by going HERE and scrolling down to 15:00. In that taped episode, you can also see his speech being disrupted by a pro-Israel delegate dressed in a clown wig running at him just as he started speaking, by rude catcalls from pro-Israelis in the gallery, and by a pre-arranged walk-out by 23 European delegates.
In his speech, I heard much with which I agreed. For example, he objected to the UN Security Council’s veto rights over the democratic wishes of the world, particularly in supporting Israeli war crimes and violations of international law. He labelled the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq as exercises in imperial conquest, causing massive suffering, expanding the narcotics trade, and benefiting arms dealers. He blamed the US and its allies for the worsening economic crisis because “they imposed a financial and a monetary system without a proper international oversight” which discriminated against most of the world’s countries. And he called for a new world order based on equality, justice, democratic participation, and on acknowledging past wrongdoings. Finally he urged our collective effort to “make the world a better place full of love, fraternity, and blessings; a world devoid of poverty and hatred.”
In spite of requests by the UN General Secretary not to, Ahmadinejad did include one major swipe at Zionism and Israel in his 34 minute speech (which became the excuse for the diplomats to walk out.) “Following World War II, [world powers and Zionists] resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless on the pretext of Jewish sufferings. And they sent migrants from Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world in order to establish a totally racist government in the occupied Palestine…And in compensation for the dire consequences of racism in Europe, they helped to bring to power the most cruel and repressive, racist regime in Palestine.”
Although it certainly was impolitic of him to say so, especially in this setting, this is actually an accurate statement. Ilan Pappe, Norman Finkelstein, Michael Newmann and many others have demonstrated that Zionist forces destroyed hundreds of Palestinian villages in 1948, that Zionists showed more concern about creating a Jewish state than about saving lives of Holocaust victims, that Holocaust victims have been treated as second class citizens in Israel without adequate compensation, and that Israel created a Holocaust-exploiting campaign post-1967 to divert attention from its illegal seizure and occupation of Palestinian territories. Israel brutally discriminates against both Palestinians and Arab Israelis economically, politically, judicially, and militarily in ways which many, including Desmond Tutu and John Dugard, believe is actually worse than South African Apartheid.
Ahmadinejad certainly attacked Zionism as a political movement which has had disastrous consequences for Palestinians. However, he did not attack Jews in any way throughout the speech. In other words, it was not anti-Semitic. Compared to Israel’s and pro-Israel organizations’ calls for war against Iran and daily attacks on Iran and on Ahmadinejad personally, his criticisms of Israel could be seen as relatively mild. Although he criticized Israeli racism, he certainly did not call for war against Israel. Instead, he called for love, justice, and equality.
It is also nonsense to claim that Ahmadinejad’s views represent those of the Durban Review. The UN rules require that heads of state be allowed to speak. So the Secretariat had to give him the podium, which regrettably, he used for his own political ends. The UN Secretary General did have some success in toning down Ahmadinejad’s speech. But if Obama or Harper, for example, had chosen to attend the Durban Review, they too would have had an opportunity to present their viewpoints. However, largely because of the smear campaign by the Israel Lobby (along with the US, Canada, and some EU countries), no other heads of state attended.
Rabbi Michael Lerner’s e-letter reiterates the standard allegation that the Durban Review only targets Israel and is silent about other forms of racism worldwide. This also is nonsense. The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) and the documents developed for the Durban Review roundly condemned a wide variety of racist practices in many countries (including discrimination against African-descendents, indigenous people, the Dalit, migrants, refugees, victims of human trafficking, the Roma, people of Asian descent, national, ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities, victims of sexual violence, and homosexuals). In the 8 years since the World Conference Against Racism, many African, Asian, and Latin American (but not Western) countries have made concerted efforts to redress these practices. But under heavy pressure from the US and EU countries as well as from a coalition of pro-Israel lobby groups, the final document under consideration was cleansed of almost all its specific content.
Rabbi Lerner also accuses Ahmadinejad of claiming that “the Zionists were running the world, the imperialist countries were merely extensions of the Zionist project, and thus ascribes to the Jewish people a power that exceeds that of all other forces on the planet.” Ahmadinejad said no such thing. Instead, he correctly noted that imperial powers work in concert with Zionists to promote their broader aims. For example, the US views Israel as a major “strategic asset” in promoting US interests in the Middle East. And the US, Canada and EU countries hid behind false allegations of anti-Semitism to foil Durban Review calls for reparations for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and decimation of indigenous people, for which they would have been liable.
The power of this Zionist cabal was shockingly evident at the Durban Review. I witnessed over 1,000 pro-Israel agents proudly united under the International Jewish Caucus waging a massive, disrespectful assault inside and outside of the UN to disrupt and discredit this crucial world effort to end racism. The International Jewish Caucus is composed of the Anti-Defamation League, Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, B’nai Brith International, CEJI: A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, European Jewish Congress, European Union of Jewish Students, Jewish Human Rights Coalition (UK), NGO Monitor, Simon Wiesenthal Center, South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Women’s International Zionist Organization, and the World Union of Jewish Students. Many other Zionist lobby organizations also attended or demonstrated outside the UN, for example, the World Zionist Congress, UN Watch, the Magenta Foundation, Human Rights First, and the Hudson Institute. These Zionist groups worked in close cooperation with key Western countries, which also were reluctant to implement the DDPA’s powerful recommendations.
Planned with military precision reminiscent of that with which Israel attacked Gaza, the assault included:
Extensive propaganda starting before the 2001 Durban World Conference Against Racism exploiting isolated incidents in which a few groups distributed anti-Semitic materials during the NGO pre-conference to write off the entire WCAR as anti-Semitic. (There is actually not a single anti-Semitic word in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action1.) This served to discredit criticism of Israeli treatment of Palestinians and also to pre-empt calls for reparations for the slave trade.
Threats and intimidation of the UN and charitable foundations to prevent them from funding NGO participation in the Durban Review conference. As a result, there was hardly any assistance for low-income NGO delegates to get to Geneva, and no provision for a civil society meeting at all. At the last minute, a tiny team of volunteers managed to pull together a ragtag civil society meeting in donated space outside the UN.
Heavy pressure from the US and the Israel Lobby on the UN, the EU countries, and on the pre-Durban Review conferences to prevent any mention of Israel or Palestine or slavery reparations in the Durban Review document. As a result, the Secretariat slashed the 60+ page document to 17 pages of mostly platitudes.
Heavy pressure on Western countries to boycott the Durban Review or to work inside it to prevent anything controversial from being addressed. (Canada and Israel were the only countries to boycott until a week before the conference. In the end 10 countries, including the US boycotted.)
Large anti-UN demonstrations outside the UN organized and paid for by Israel Lobby organizations on 3 of the 5 days of the Durban Review Conference, complete with a huge stage, screens, high profile speakers, T-shirts, and paramilitary security guards.
Flying in and training over 1,000 Israel Lobby delegates to attend and disrupt the Durban Review Conference, constituting at least 1/3 of the total number of NGO delegates. Delegates were assigned UN staff and national delegates to target for lobbying and intimidation. As well, they disrupted both the formal proceedings and the side events, wearing clown wigs and noses, putting up insulting posters, and jeering loudly and frequently.
Holding many Zionist front side-events (large, open meetings alongside the formal UN meeting) with high-profile people like Irwin Cotler, Alan Dershowitz, and representatives of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who attacked Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and defended Israeli war crimes in the name of “human rights.” In deference to Israel Lobby pressure, Palestinian rights groups were not allowed to hold any side events in the UN.
Nelson Mandela was unable to attend the Durban Review. But shortly before Ahmadinajad’s speech, his spokesperson read his powerful, ethical message of support for the Durban Review, appealing for respect for diversity of opinions and our mutual commitment to end racism. His words stand in stark contrast to the belligerent, divisive, and abusive behaviour of the Zionist juggernaut. He started by emphasizing the importance of the World Conference Against Racism: “The Sept. 2001 conference against racism held in Durban and the resultant Durban Declaration and Programme of Action has been hailed as the most comprehensive framework of its kind to combat racism, xenophobia and all other forms of discrimination.” He acknowledged that “in conferences of this nature there are bound to be disagreements and divergences of opinion. Given the diversity of the people and the interests of states participating in the conference, such divergences are normal and indeed healthy. We must however not allow differences of opinion to ever paralyze our efforts towards attaining a world free of racial bigotry, hatred, discrimination, and intolerance.” And understanding the brutal attacks on the Durban Review, he ended with this poignant appeal: “ Let us always remember that the victims of this phenomenon are children, men, women, in their millions. Do not allow their dignity, their human rights to live in peace and prosperity be compromised because of the often obscure differences among policymakers. It is in your hands to make a difference.”
As Jews, we have a proud history of working to end slavery, oppression, and injustice. I urge you not to collude with inflammatory and false allegations against Ahmadinejad or with this disgraceful attack on those who want to end racism!