When I walked in the door of the Israel Review Conference, I expected to find manic, kaffiyah-clad activists burning Israeli flags and chanting "Death to the Jews." The gathering, entitled “United Against Apartheid, Colonialism and Occupation: Dignity & Justice for the Palestinian People,” was sponsored by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee. Being the main anti-Israel event planned for the weekend of the Durban Review Conference, I assumed I would find the same rabid activity that I read about during the first Durban conference.
Instead, in the basement of a run-down hotel in a quiet Geneva neighborhood, I found a tame gathering of about 150 academics, intellectuals, and stern-faced activists. The majority of the crowd was white, over 50, with graying hair, sensible glasses, and corduroy jackets. No mohawks, Che shirts, or button-laden messenger bags. And not one kaffiyah (not even one of those trendy pastel-colored ones from Urban Outfitters).
There was no sloganeering, chanting, or hate-filled rhetoric. Instead, there were laborious panels debating the minutiae of international law as it related to the Palestinian plight. The sessions were on such technical topics as "Examining the Applicability of the Crime of Apartheid to Israel" and "Civil torts claims and related mechanisms in US courts," led by professors and graduate students from obscure universities, human rights lawyers, and a "Swiss feminist economist." To be honest, coping with jet-lag while listening to two academics debate the difference between Bantustans and cantons, I definitely had trouble staying awake. Is this really the best they could do?
To be sure, the table outside the meeting room was filled with the usual anti-Israel paraphernalia, such as "Free Palestine" stickers, the charter of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (one of the conference's co-sponsors), postcards with maps of Israeli settlements, and flyers advocating a boycott of beauty products from Israeli company Ahava.
I kept myself awake during the sessions by reading zines filled with articles about Israeli war crimes in Gaza, Israeli army refuseniks ("Israel's real heroes"), and three French and Canadian Jews who have asked that their grandparents names be removed from Yad Vasshem. Israel's holocaust memorial, since Israel's treatment of the Palestinians "disqualifies Israel to be the center of the memory of the harm done to Jews." One pamphlet, "The truth about Gaza," claims to debunk the "myth" that Israel "tries to minimize civilian casualties" by saying that "Israel has the most technologically advanced weaponry in the world." (No connection is made to the fact, as noted in an entry elsewhere on the page, that "Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas on earth.")
But beneath the veneer of dry academic debates, there were actually some interesting discussions going on. One such discussion was whether to use analogies to Nazism or words like "genocide" or "ethnic cleansing" in advocating for the Palestinian cause. Some activists argued that using such language would alienate more moderate people. Joseph Schechla, the Cairo-based coordinator of Habitat International Coalition, advocated using "the language of 'crime'" rather than genocide, which could lead to smaller-scale trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity. “Putting people in prison and getting reparations for victims would be plenty enough to get results,” he said. But shortly after, an Iranian professor stood up and declared, "All of us believe that the Israeli regime is … committed genocide … Israel must be tried and punished."
Do these tame discussions bode well for the tenor of the rest of the conference? As the first day of the conference came to an end, a group of Iranian men in dark suits sketchily slipped into the back of the conference, surveying those in attendance. All of them were wearing white baseball caps that read, "Imam Khomeini: Israel must be wiped away."