Revisiting the trauma of the Durban conference

A Jewish activist's experience.

peleg reshef 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
peleg reshef 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When I first heard about the Durban Conference, I knew it as the World Conference against Racism (WCAR). As someone who cares deeply about human rights and who, at the time, had just been elected chairman of the World Union of Jewish Students, and as someone who believes that Jews should be at the forefront of the fight for human rights, I obviously thought it would be a good opportunity for Jews to speak out. We were prepared for there to be debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it seemed to us that the Jewish world was not so prepared for what the event became. We [WUJS] had a small delegation of about eight people, Europeans, Israelis and local South African Jewish students. When we arrived at the Youth Conference (the first of the three conferences being held), we saw people in the hall leading to the meeting room wearing keffiyahs and holding posters of a map of Israel overlaid with a Palestinian flag. They were wearing T-shirts with the iconic image of Mohammed al-Durra and his father on the front and the words "IsReal Apartheid" on the back above the official logo of the conference. There it was, a perfect connection between Israel, apartheid and Mohammed al-Durra, and they were handing it out. We were quite amazed because we thought there would be other groups campaigning and protesting in that same area, but it was just that gimmick being handed out. The people handing out the shirts were not only Palestinians either, they were from Europe, America and elsewhere. The whole debate at that first conference for the students became focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We realized that we had no place there and we walked out. We spoke to the secretariat, telling him about the T-shirts bearing a biased message with the official logo of the conference. Everything felt one-sided there, like there was no room for us. Then the NGO conference began. There were over 50,000 people there. We needed to decide what to do. We could either walk out and not participate, or we could speak out and make our stand as the Jewish students of the world. In the end, considering the fact that we had come from all over the world to represent Jewish students, we decided to attend The NGO conference was held in a network of tents emblazoned with images of Palestinian women crying. Books were on display showing anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli cartoons. The emphasis was on the Palestinians and no other issue or disenfranchised group mattered. We decided to set up a small stall near the media tent where we displayed some pamphlets, materials about Jews and the State of Israel and an Israeli flag. In less than five minutes, there was a mass of people charging at us and threatening violence, and the police had to interfere by standing between our little display and all those people. We were very intimidated and concerned for our safety as we encountered attempts at physical violence, as well as outright verbal violence. Then someone from our group started singing "All We are Saying is Give Peace a Chance" by The Beatles. We just sang it and sang it and sang it, and the opposition kept charging at us. The next day we bought some yellow flowers from the markets and began to hand them out as we sang. The media picked up on this effort, which helped begin to balance the message being sent out from the conference. The pro-Palestinian lobby was well-organized, well-financed and very well prepared for this event. The Jewish and Israeli establishments were not. The Durban Conference was a wake-up call for the Jewish and Israeli establishments. Today, any event-especially the 2009 follow-up to the Durban Conference- will be taken much more seriously. But we [the World Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations] are evaluating the situation at all times and if the follow-up conference is biased and not being led by objective parties, and if it becomes once again about Israel-bashing, we may decide to boycott it. The World Jewish Congress has been invited by the United Nations to take part in the Durban follow-up and is very seriously planning and preparing for its participation in the event. The important role of young people and new strategies for advocacy are being seriously considered. The Durban Conference was traumatic for the Jewish establishment. I think the Jewish people were traumatized and did wake up. As a result of that experience, we can now better understand the potential impact of such events, and the Jewish establishment has learned the importance of preparing and coordinating our efforts involving these events. The writer is director of future generation activities for the World Jewish Congress. (Interviewed by Rory Kress.)