'I'm a Zionist': Activists protest in Geneva

Jewish groups from all over the world head to Swiss city to combat anti-Semitism at Durban II parley.

pro israel demonstration geneva (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
pro israel demonstration geneva
(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Shouting "I'm a Zionist" in English and French, several thousand pro-Israel activists rallied Wednesday in Geneva against the United Nations' week-long anti-racism conference, which opened with a call from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to eradicate Zionism. Standing on a makeshift podium, in the concrete square just outside the UN building where Ahmadinejad had stated that Zionism was "the paragon of racism," historian Gil Troy of McGill University told the crowd he was proud that Israel was a country where Pessah Seders were held with Darfur refugees who had found a home there. To his left, a number of protesters held a large sign that stated: "Zionism is our response to racism." It was one of a host of activities held by Jewish groups from all over the world, who this week headed to Geneva determined to combat the kind of anti-Semitism that dominated the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which was held in Durban, South Africa. The Geneva Jewish community, with the help of Chabad, opened a visitors' center a short distance from the conference venue, where they handed out coffee, sandwiches and provided meeting rooms as well as computers. Fearful that people might be traumatized by what they saw and heard at the conference, the community even had a psychologist on call. But although Durban II was preceded by a two day anti-Israel conference by non-governmental groups and a number of small anti-Israel rallies were held - including one that compared Israel's actions in Gaza with those of the Warsaw ghetto - the atmosphere around the conference did not replicate Durban I. A federation of 20 Jewish groups headed by the World Jewish Congress and B'nai B'rith International lobbied diplomatically behind the scenes to influence the conference proceedings. To counter the anti-Israel rhetoric, the non-governmental group UN Watch gathered together victims of racism and genocide from places such as Rwanda and Darfur. To focus attention on the many human rights abuses occurring in those countries and around the world, UN Watch held two side conferences of its own this week and organized a side panel in the UN building with victims of racism and genocide. Well-known human rights advocates such as Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Prof. Alan Dershowitz of Harvard University, former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky came to Geneva to oppose the conference. As he sat at the pro-Israel rally on Wednesday evening, former US Ambassador Alfred H. Moses, who heads UN Watch, told The Jerusalem Post that he felt a victory had been achieved in Geneva. "We changed what could have been a tragic travesty into a triumph," said Moses. Instead of hearing only Israeli wrongs, he said, emphasis has been placed back where it should be - on worldwide human rights abuses. Speaking at a UN Watch event earlier in the day, French philosopher and author Bernard-Henri Levy said that the 2009 UN's anti-racism document was only barely acceptable. The Durban conferences, he said, should be replaced by a Geneva III, which speaks on behalf of worldwide victims. Gibreil Hamid of Darfur said at the UN Watch Forum Wednesday morning that he is "one of the lucky ones" who survived the massacres there. The United Nations now has become a "awful word" for him as a result of its failure to deal with the mass killings in his country. But even as Jewish groups on Wednesday took stock of their success in providing alternative forums for human rights issues and in keeping new anti-Israel language out of the 2009 summary document, they also noted with concern that the text refers to Israel in a document that speaks about racism. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was political, not racial, and as such it had no place in a text about racism, said Betty Ehrenberg of the World Jewish Congress. Reframing the conflict as a racial one opened the door to criminalizing Israel's actions and ultimately delegitimizing it, she said. Richard Heideman, who headed the B'nai B'rith delegation to Geneva and who was also at the first Durban conference in South Africa, said that holding the event in Geneva where there is a UN infrastructure helped, as did the elimination of the NGO forum that existed in the first conference. At that event, he said, there were signs "of death to the murdering Jews" and "offensive slurs against Israel, Zionists and the Jewish people." On the other hand, unlike Durban I, that kind of attack was brought into the plenum itself by Ahmadinejad's speech, he said.