Thursday, March 12, 2009

Neither the Yarmulke or the Durban

Ian Williams: We can’t be selective about human rights or their abuses
March 12, 2009 Tribune

NEXT month Geneva will host “Durban II”– the United Nations’ review of its 2001 conference on racism. Listening to the hysterical demands for a boycott from die-hard pro-Israeli writers, you would think it was a reconvened Nuremburg rally. So far, Israel and Canada have said they will stay away. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is considering it.

There are some serious issues that deserve to be raised the conference. Some Islamic states are trying to criminalise “projecting negative, insulting and derogatory images of religions and religious personalities” and the introduction of “a code of ethical conduct” for the media. The attempt is outright wrong and almost guaranteed to give ammunition to Islamophobes. But since the issue is being conflated by pro-Israeli boycotters, let us remember that only the House of Lords saved Britain recently from a racial and religious hatred bill which was, was much stronger than the Islamic amendment. Only a few years ago, Britain found a poet guilty of “blasphemous libel”, although it abolished the offence last year. Canada still has it in its criminal code with a two-year sentence. But such pernicious ideas are best fought on the conference floor.

Those calling for a boycott include John Bolton, George Bush’s choice to represent the United States at the UN, who has never seen anything good about a UN conference or resolution. In the Jewish Chronicle, Melanie Philips, one of the conductors of the boycott chorus, splenetically described the coming “hatefest”, which she claimed, “is shaping up to be a vicious and racist onslaught against the human rights of the Jewish people. Its draft declaration singles out Israel for vilification. It accuses it of committing ‘apartheid’, a ‘crime against humanity’ and ‘a form of genocide’. It says the Palestinians are the victims of Israeli oppression, implies that Zionism itself is racism, and calls for the end of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and (as in Durban I) for the ‘right of return’ for Palestinians, which would mean the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.”

It is worth examining her allegations in detail. It was appropriate for the first conference to be in Durban. The South Africans have a detailed knowledge of apartheid, the most elaborately articulated system of racism in history. It is remarkable how many of the anti-apartheid leaders recognise it being practiced in the West Bank. It is true that they may be somewhat prejudiced since Israel was a major partner of the old apartheid regime, but it will be a foolhardy critic who accuses Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and other human rights icons of anti-Semitism. Even apartheid did not have segregated roads, the West Bank settlement’s contribution to modern racism, echoing the parody in the old television comedy The Goodies in which blacks and whites had to hop on the appropriate-coloured stripes of a Zebra crossing.

The “right to return” for Palestinians was enshrined in the resolutions that admitted Israel to the UN, and was accepted by Israel at the time. It is certainly less exceptionable than a “right to return” for Jews whose connections to the land are far more tenuous.

It is accepted by every nation in the world, not one of which now hosts an embassy in Jerusalem, that the city is occupied. The International Court of Justice has ruled that the separation wall is illegal. The UN accepts that the settlements are illegal and in violation of the Conventions. It is true that the accusation of genocide is a stretch – but so it has been in many recent abuses of the term from Bosnia to Darfur, where it has become synonymous with mass murder.

The elision between the Jewish people and Israel was always a stretch, but even more so now when so many prominent Jewish community leaders such as Gerard Kaufman have recoiled in horror from the identification. “My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza. The current Israeli government ruthlessly and cynically exploit the continuing guilt among gentiles over the slaughter of Jews in the holocaust as justification for their murder of Palestinians. The implication is that Jewish lives are precious, but the lives of Palestinians do not count”, Sir Gerald told the House of Commons in January.

Such sentiments expressed by anyone else would lead to pre-emptive charges of anti-Semitism. In Kaufman’s case, it put him up there with “Jews for Genocide”, as Phillips termed those Jews whose universalist ethics rise above a defensive tribalism on the incursion into Gaza. Philips concluded: “It is the UN and the architects of Durban II who are the racists and murderous bigots. Denounce this sick farce, and pull out now.”

There is no doubt that many Islamic states are covering their own sins at home – and their spinelessness in the face of American support of Israel – with their fervent attempts to condemn the latter. However, it is also true that the descriptions of racism in the document would apply to Israel’s conduct whether or not the Jewish state was singled out by name – which is why the boycotters are pre-emptively trying to devalue its outcome. Human rights apply to both Jews and Muslims and they include the freedom of speech and the consequent right to be critical of any religion.

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