Durban II: Vanquishing the ghosts of Durban I

It was all in the preparation. The ghosts played no small role, either.

The result was a massive, organized and inspiring Jewish presence at Durban II, the U.N.-sponsored conference held April 20-24 in Geneva.

Liora Gelblum

I attended the Durban Review Conference (DRC) as part of a 23-member young adult delegation of the American Jewish Committee, joining Jewish participants from around the world, all of us welcomed by the local Chabad with kosher food and drink. Jews reportedly represented 10 percent of all non-governmental organization (NGO) accreditation. Together we demonstrated what is possible with smart planning and well-executed strategy.

In the months leading up to the conference, the input of Jewish groups was a factor in the choice of Geneva as the conference location, and in the scrapping of an NGO forum that could have been hijacked by polarizing groups.

Jewish groups also urged governments to develop guidelines for their participation. As a result, nine countries withdrew from the event when it was clear their guidelines would not be met. The American Jewish Committee assisted the Obama administration in its review of the conference document, and also supported the administration’s decision to withdraw from the event.

On the first day of Durban II, following Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rant against Israel that incited a walkout by 23 E.jU. delegates, Jewish students led a vocal protest outside alongside Alan Dershowitz and Elie Wiesel. Ahmadinejad left the U.N. compound to the sight of protesters waving signs reading “Shame” and “Human Rights in Iran.”

Jewish participants often found themselves providing the “other voice,” speaking up on behalf of Israel at hostile NGO side panels.

Jewish participants spoke to multiple media outlets, explaining why we were here and what was wrong with Durban. We also held diplomatic meetings with ambassadors to hear about their perspectives on the conference and to share ours.

It was a different story in 2001 at the original World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa.

Back then, just 10 students from the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) participated, eager to attack the multitudes of racial conflicts around the world. Instead, the students faced blatant anti-Semitism and hatred for Israel. 

After this episode, the Jewish community and many Western countries vowed to prevent a similar outcome for the DRC, planned eight years later to examine implementation of the final 2001 document and address continuing racism issues.

With the memories of the disastrous Durban I present in our minds, this time we came ready with a central message: By focusing disproportionately on Israel, Durban was failing to address major racism and discrimination issues — Darfur, the Congo, Roma, women, homosexuals, etc. — around the world. This time, the EUJS joined African students in a “Save Darfur” rally to remind the world that while the United Nations debates, people are dying.

We did experience sparks of hope — putting aside the “Zionism=Racism” sign and the belligerent anti-Israel comments shouted during two “Islamophobia” panels. There was the Pakistani film producer we befriended, the Egyptian human rights reporter who came to the Israel rally so we could continue dialogue, and the devout Muslim woman who joined us for dinner. 

Perhaps most meaningful were those rare moments where we moved beyond sound bites and had genuine conversations with our “opponents.”

Amid the Israel hoopla, I briefly experienced another Durban. I talked to African American groups who wanted to strengthen African identity in the United States, Berbers in Morocco whose culture was being eroded by the government, and Afro-Caribbeans who felt discrimination in Costa Rica. Seeing groups genuinely seeking resolution to their concerns made me sad that Durban didn’t work.

I lament the failure of the United Nations to achieve even-tempered aspirations; while it is successful in particular missions, it generally falters in the noble tasks for which it was created.

I now understand that while the United Nations is an important global forum, multilateralism rarely breeds justice. With 56 Muslim states often countering the Western countries, and nonaligned countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America looking to promote their interests, little room remains for progress. Coalitions form, countries defend themselves, convenience supplants reality, and as such, the United Nations carries forth.

Durban II is now over, a success of the Jewish community. Now we must continue to focus on the issues the conference ignored. In the name of tikkun olam, repairing the world, we must strive to fight discrimination and promote human rights for all people.

Liora Gelblum will be a full-time MBA student in the fall at the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley. She is a member of ACCESS, the young leadership affiliate of the American Jewish Committee, San Francisco/Northern California.