Finding hope in the Durban disgrace

The conference did have at least one merit of inspiring those who truly advocate for equality, justice, and dignity to organize efforts advocating for an authentic return to these principles.

By SUSAN MAISHLISH
October 8, 2011 23:27
Durban III conference

Durban III Cartoon 521. (photo credit: Menachem Jerenberg)

Although the notion may seem counterintuitive at first, there is a silver lining to Durban III – the commemoration of the United Nations World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, which originally took place in Durban, South Africa back in 2001.

The fact that Durban III occurs under the UN banner is an abomination, yes- but it also an unmistakable symptom of a pervasive and growing phenomenon that must be diagnosed in order for effective treatment to be prescribed. As in previous years, the most recent incarnation of the conference exposed the true, malicious intentions of entities that intentionally distort reality for the sole purpose of delegitimizing the State of Israel. However, the conference has also inspired those who truly advocate for equality, justice, and dignity - the stated goals of Durban - to organize efforts advocating for an authentic return to these guiding principles.

Instead of channeling efforts into constructive activities that would encourage a viable two-state solution - a constructive solution based upon mutual acceptance, empathy and economic cooperation engendering measurable benefits for all interested parties – the Durban conferences encourage the opposite by fueling the same age-old bigotry, hatred and misinformation about Israel and her social and political policies.

This understanding is echoed by Jason Edelstein of NGO Monitor, who scrutinized the conference’s developments. Edelstein states, “There was no call to build mutual understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, no charge to take steps to foster coexistence, and no implementation of programs – business, cultural, or other – that would lead to practical changes in how Israelis and Palestinians see the other. Similarly, there was no call to build Palestinian society and infrastructure, to take tangible steps to achieve a state living in peace with Israel. No, the sole focus was on strategies to delegitimize Israel”.

Delegitimization and Durban

Based on the above sentiments, an understanding of causality allows us to better grasp the current state of affairs. The present-day delegitimization campaign was in large part inspired by Durban I, with an appeal for the international community to “impose a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state”. Durban provided the BDS movement (a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel) the legitimacy to rebrand the Arab League’s historic boycott of Israel.

It should be noted that the Arab League Boycott was implemented almost immediately after the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. Arab boycotts of Zionist institutions occurred even before Israel was founded as modern state. Of course, these boycotts existed before allegations of “Israeli Apartheid,” settlements, 1967 borders, etc. By recasting the delegitimization campaign under the “humanitarian” banner provided by Durban, it can now appeal to a broader audience on a novel level. Ultimately, events such as Durban simply enabled a historic boycott to be masqueraded as a campaign based on the ideals of universal human rights. 

For readers who are interested, I highly recommend a short film by the David Horowitz Freedom Center providing a vivid depiction of “Israel Apartheid Week”, an example of BDS, as well as counter-efforts expose the campaign. The video can be found here.

The various delegitimization campaigns have certainly influenced the international community’s attitude towards Israel in a negative capacity. Their shortsighted demagoguery ignores the constructive possibility of economic, cultural and security cooperation between Israel and the future Palestinian state. If a fraction of the effort expended towards such activities were devoted to encouraging the development of common ground and brainstorming opportunities for cooperation and coexistence, the conflict would probably look very different today. Fortunately, entities promoting such programs do exist, and beg further examination. However, their success depends on the abandonment of appeals to sensationalism, instead moving towards appeals that are sensible. This includes encouraging implementation strategies that encourage building common ground through small incentives, rather than expecting a panacea to solve all the region’s problems overnight.

In reaction to Durban’s abuse of the UN banner and its founding principles, a pro-Israel demonstration took place opposite the UN Headquarters in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, NYC. Again, this provides hope that, although Durban III is an insult to the UN’s founding vision, it has provoked an organized reaction, prompting curious individuals to dig deeper and reveal the logical linkages between Durban, BDS, Israel Apartheid Week, and many other similar events. A link to the promotional video for the protest is provided here.

In addition to civilian demonstrations, many Western nations refused to participate at Durban III, highlighting the abuse of the platform provided by the UN. Included on the list are Canada, the US, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Australia, Bulgaria, and the UK. Their consistent refusal to participate in the conference is a testament to the idea that Durban fails to properly adhere to the principles it ostensibly stands behind: eliminating racism and xenophobia. While there are a plethora of countries which are susceptible to such scrutiny, such as Somalia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, North Korea, just to name a few, the focus somehow remains on Israel.

The Anti-Durban conference, titled “The Perils of Global Intolerance: The United Nations and Durban III”, provided a venue for speakers such as Jason Kenney, Canada’s current Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism; and John Bolton, former U.S ambassador to the UN, to voice their legitimate concerns about Durban. According to Kenney, “we refuse to participate in the commemoration of a conference that sought to legitimize hatred, intolerance, and prejudice against the state of Israel, under the banner of combating racism”.

We must remain open-minded

The United Nations fills a necessary role to facilitate the organized advancement of democracy, human rights, and social and political justice. It is therefore time to dismantle the Durban disgrace indefinitely, examine its flawed design, and present suitable alternatives for the future. Ironically, the anti-Durban conference - a counter-conference against the racism exhibited at Durban III – is a wonderful example of the backwards state of affairs, and is a great example of a viable substitute.

The creation of feasible alternatives is a positive development highlighting the notion that the international community may be able to partially rectify the indefensible mess that is Durban. The founding principles of the United Nations are sound; the following questions thus arise: How can we encourage cooperation instead of spreading venom of entities with ulterior motives? As the saying goes, “talk is cheap.” How do we ensure that the true interest of eliminating racism, social discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance is honored?



Through a concerted, planned, and deliberate effort, we can learn from the Durban conferences that remind us of the importance of being informed and proactive. We are now living in an age where questioning the true interests driving public relations is more important than ever. Durban III shows us what can happen when language itself is hijacked. Luckily for us activists, truth can be reclaimed by maintaining an open mind, and the next time a conference is planned for the purpose of promoting positive change, we can ensure that we achieve real, tangible steps TOWARDS fulfilling that goal. 

In spite of the PR efforts to portray Israel as a tyrannical nation with a singular purpose, one need only make a first-hand effort to visit the country and grasp the culture, which they will find is a diverse breadth of political and ideological pluralism. In the months ahead, it will be essential to encourage a climate of cooperation and good-faith amongst countries involved in regional affairs, be they directly at the negotiation table, observers, or the international public. It may thus be realized that there are many individuals on both sides of the conflict wishing to encourage a situation of coexistence.

Social responsibility entails that, when faced with “evidence” that contradicts existing beliefs endorsed by seemingly legitimate entities such as Durban, individuals be willing to re-examine their own biases and perceptions. Without such open-mindedness, the region will revert back to the dark ages. We should do everything in our power to ensure such a scenario doesn’t materialize.     

The writer is a Canadian-Israeli journalist focusing on Middle East affairs. She received her MA in Conflict Resolution and Mediation from Tel Aviv University and is a regular contributor to the social/political site, www.israelicentrism.com


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