Evian 1938 - Geneva 2009

Will the conference on the Swiss side of Lake Geneva parallel the one held 71 years ago on the French shore, which gave the green light for the Holocaust?

evian conference 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
evian conference 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is less than three quarter of an hour by car from Geneva to its much smaller sister city Evian-les-Bains on the French side of Lake Geneva. What Evian lacks in size and political importance, it makes up in history and style. This rather sleepy, but healthy, town at the foot of the Alps can boast with one the grandest fin-de-siècle resort hotels of its kind as well as the bottled water which bears its name. But Evian has a less friendly side which has left its mark in history. Simply Google "Evian" and you come up with a resort, a water and a conference which by some historians has been called "Hitler's green light for genocide." Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the Evian conference on the future of the Jewish refugees, but it was effectively forgotten as France at the time chaired the European Union. As President Nicolas Sarkozy hosted the conference which was to launch a new era of cooperation around the Mediterranean Sea, the last thing France wanted to be reminded about was Evian 1938. You cannot blame it. Evian goes down as one of the darkest chapters of modern European history when appeasement was the mode of the day and anyone who did not believe in "peace in our time" was simply disregarded as a warmonger. It is not only the proximity between the two cities which is striking but also the zeitgeist of Evian 1938 and this year's United Nations Conference against Racism. Whereas the original UN conference against racism in Durban in 2001 spiraled out of control with its obsession with the Judenfrage, there are no guarantees that this year will not be a repeat. Western governments have been paying lip service to their commitment to withdraw from anything that would resemble the hate fest in 2001, but words will be cheap when the commitment of the Western nations to stand true to our universal values is tested. BACK TO EVIAN in 1938. As Hitler had annexed Austria and hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees were seeking a safe haven outside of the Nazi-controlled areas, the free world knew that something had to be done. It was the US president Franklin Roosevelt who finally called together the conference with the objective of seeking a solution to the Jewish refugee problem. Thirty-two nations were invited to participate. It soon became clear that the conference was not going to solve anything, as one country after another explained that they all agreed that this was a major humanitarian problem which needed to be solved, but that their respective country could not do anything about it. Others were less diplomatically skilled. "Our country is simply not big enough to receive any Jewish refugees," said the Canadian representative. When asked how many refugees Canada could receive the answer was, "One is too many." "Australia has no racial problem and we are not desirous of importing one," is a quote which today is on display in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The list of obscenities does not stop there. A proposal to rescue the refugees by simply letting 10 countries receive 25,000 Jews each was flatly rejected. While these tragic decisions were made, which would ultimately have consequences for millions of Jews, some historians note that pleasure cruises on Lake Geneva were very popular among the delegates, as were tennis and golf in the fresh mountain air. PERHAPS IT is again the allure of cosmopolitan Geneva and the same mountain climate which makes it so difficult for Western diplomats to simply say no to the UN conference which singles out only one country, Israel, as the racist state of the world and calls its policies "apartheid." What makes this conclusion even more surreal is the fact that the working group, which has been drafting the text, consists of human rights champions such as Libya, Iran and Cuba. The language in the draft resolution has been unacceptable for many, still the decision to withdraw seems difficult to make. At the moment only a few governments beside Israel has decided to boycott the conference, namely the US, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and Italy. One thing is clear. The UN conference in Geneva, which starts today and runs through Friday, will not be a friendly place for any of us who sympathize with the Jewish cause. But things could be worse. In 1938 the world was said to be divided up in two categories, those nations which Jews could not enter and those which wanted to expel them. The promised Jewish homeland was not even considered as an option for resettlement since it was believed to create more tension in then British Mandate Palestine. A few years later there would be six million Jews less to accommodate but then, finally, the urgency of creating a Jewish homeland was realized by the world community. But the prize to pay was far too high. It is of course the irony of time that a conference dedicating itself to fighting racism, the very disease which lead to Hitler's Holocaust, is currently paving the way for a legitimizing of Jew hatred and Israel bashing around the world. Let us hope that the world will have learned its lesson this time. When only one people's state is singled out as racist in the whole world, we are awfully near to Evian 1938. On the second day of the UN conference, Tuesday, April 21, which also happens to be Holocaust Remembrance Day, a commemoration event will be held in the small synagogue in the city that hosted the fateful 1938 conference. The writer is the founding director of the European Coalition for Israel.