Why the US will boycott global racism conference
A meeting to judge progress on racism is likely to be captive to Israeli-Palestinian and Islamic defamation issues.
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Then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson found the forum recommendations so toxic she refused to "forward" them on to the governments.Skip to next paragraph
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Often forgotten is the fact that the gathered diplomats stripped out the most incendiary anti-Israel language. Yet the final document, under the heading "Victims of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance" did cite "the plight of the Palestinian people." In the context of an antiracism proclamation, Israel's defenders say this implied racism, and the text identified no other state.
In a statement released Saturday, the US State Department cited the 2001 Durban text in explaining its withdrawal from this conference. That document "singles out one particular conflict and prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians," it said. And since the draft document for this meeting is based on the previous meeting's, the US could not participate.
Defamation of Islam?
Meanwhile, Islamic concerns have grown. First came post-9/11 "ethnic profiling"; then the 2005 Danish cartoons that depicted the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. Some Muslim clerics rallied followers to stage anti-Western protests that turned violent. In what some see as a sign of what will happen at the racism conference, in late March the UN Human Rights Council approved a Pakistan-sponsored resolution that condemned "defamation of religions," citing Islam and the cartoon firestorm.
And pro-Israel activists say this time they're better prepared. They'll bring out some of the most visible defenders of Israel, such as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Harvard University professor Alan Dershowitz. Plus, they'll co-sponsor a "Conference Against Racism, Discrimination, and Persecution," which will include speakers such as Martin Luther King III and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. The goal is to project a more positive image of the Jewish state, says one Israeli involved.
"Durban went far beyond legitimate criticism, as terms like racist, apartheid, and 'the new South Africa' created this feeling in Israel that the world is against us," says Gerald Steinberg, executive director of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor. "If that impact can be reversed in Geneva, it could lead to greater willingness among Israelis to interact with the UN."
Though the recent war in Gaza fueled sympathy for Palestinians, some question whether or not racism plays a role in that struggle. To supporters of Palestinians, there's no doubt. "We all believe racism and racial discrimination, not just ideology, is what drives Israeli policy and practices," says Ingrid Gassner Jaradat, director of the Bethlehem-based BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.
"Since people here feel a lot of similarities with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, one would expect that at an antiracism conference, Israel would be on the agenda."