Critical Currents: Engage or boycott?

Israel should follow Obama administration's lead and join preparatory meetings for Durban 2.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
Strategically, the Obama administration's decision to participate in the preparatory meeting for the United Nation's World Conference against Racism to be held in April is a reversal of George W. Bush's assurance to boycott the meeting, along with Israel and Canada. This change reflects two emerging themes in the new president's foreign policy: a deep commitment to resume American leadership in the struggle for human rights worldwide (as evidenced in the announcement of the closure of the Guantanamo prison), and a decided preference for verbal engagement with ideological opponents prior to any confrontational action. The State Department has made it abundantly clear that it will make every effort to have an impact on the language and content of the conference document. If it succeeds, it will then take part in the official meeting; if not, it will stay away. Israel, despite the deep trauma experienced in the first World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban in 2001, should at least consider following suit. For many human rights activists, not to speak of Jews and Israelis, the Durban meeting, heralded as the most significant global effort to tackle the complexities of racism and religious and cultural prejudice, proved to be the antithesis of its title. The unofficial NGO Forum was rife with vitriolic attacks against Jews, ugly displays of anti-Semitism and a near wholesale negation of Israel. The hatred that spewed forth at multiple panels made a mockery of the quest for international tolerance and mutual understanding. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Durban experience has come to be associated, first and foremost, with the events of the parallel forum. The official meeting, while also marred by vicious anti-Israel diatribes which led to the withdrawal of both Israel and the United States, did produce a comprehensive set of recommendations know as the Durban Declaration and Programme for Action against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (DDPA). This 62-page document deals with virtually every aspect and manifestation of racism and ethnic discrimination, including, explicitly, anti-Semitism. It does not, as many have asserted, state that Israel is racist. TWO CLAUSES relate directly to Israel. The first, paragraph 63, states that: "We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion". The subsequent paragraph (64) contains a standard plea for the resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict ("We call for a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the region in which all peoples shall co-exist and enjoy equality, justice and internationally recognized human rights and security"). Nowhere else in the document is Israel mentioned, let alone singled out. Admittedly, it is difficult to separate the spirit and the content of the official document from the language and the atmosphere which enveloped the deliberations in Durban. For this reason, Israel's reluctance to take part in any repeat performance is, regardless of one's perspective, understandable. But is the forthcoming April meeting in Geneva necessarily a "Durban II"? Only if one allows it to develop in that direction. To date, enormous efforts have been made to prevent a recurrence of past events. The venue has been shifted to Geneva. The infamous NGO Forum is, in all likelihood, going to be a poorly attended and streamlined affair. Major foundations have cut all funding for potential participants and indicated in no uncertain terms that they will not countenance any repetition of the Durban fiasco. The official conference is slated to meticulously review the implementation of the DDPA according to stringent guidelines painstakingly created to promote this goal. NEVERTHELESS, IN November 2008, Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni announced that Israel would boycott the conference. Some leading Jewish voices, most notably David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, questioned the prudence of this decision. The incoming UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay (herself a Durban resident) tried to dissuade Israel - and Canada in its wake -from proceeding with such a move. In a plea to the Israeli public published in the local press in mid-December, she called for Israeli participation in a joint effort to rectify the problems encountered in Durban and to forge a universal anti-racist agenda. Her article evoked a spate of rebuttals, while events during the past two months have silenced whatever debate existed almost entirely. Staying away from the follow-up conference may not, however, be the wisest choice for Israel today. Even if there is cause to anticipate stepped-up anti-Israel rhetoric (with anti-Semitic allusions) in the aftermath of the war on Gaza and the nature of the criticism it has unleashed, there are heady reasons why Israel might do well to reconsider its reluctance. First, absenting oneself from the preparations for the review conference, far from mitigating condemnation of Israel, will in all probability provide an opportunity for its intensification. This mistake was made frequently in the past and should not be repeated now. One cannot make one's case in absentia. Second, under increased threat of global isolation, Israel should avoid employing precisely those tools that it does not want to be wielded against it at this juncture. A purposeful boycott invites exclusion. Third, although Israeli hesitations regarding the composition of the 20-member steering committee (under the aegis of Libya and including Iran and Cuba) cannot be summarily dismissed, if it does not participate in the preparations, it forfeits any chance of shaping the agenda and contributing to its outcome. Indeed, if Israel is not a part of the proceedings, it can hardly deplore the results. Finally, and most significantly, Israel owes it to itself and to its Jewish heritage to play an active role in the struggle against racism and racial discrimination. This is its historical, religious and ethical obligation. It cannot consciously relinquish its commitment to this cause, even at the cost of exposing itself to critical scrutiny. It is not far-fetched for Israel to follow the American example and at least try to make a difference in the codification of norms to counter racism in all its forms throughout the world. If these efforts do not bear fruit then - and only then - can Israel, like the United States, decide to walk out.