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Durban II Dispatch: Spoiling For a Fight

This conference was supposed to be filled with anti-Semites. What happened?

Geneva, Switzerland

As the second official day of the UN Durban Review Conference comes to a close, most of the media coverage has focused on Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's anti-Israel tirade. His speech continued the tradition of the 2001 Durban World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which quickly devolved into a single-mindedly anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic circus. But in the four days I have spent in Geneva, I have been struck by how the sideline dynamics that defined the 2001 Durban conference are, in many senses, completely reversed here at Durban II. "We were caught off-guard at Durban I," said one Jewish activist I met here yesterday, referring to the small delegation of Jewish students who were bullied, harassed, and physically abused at the first Durban conference. "We've been planning for this since the day Durban II was announced." As a result, hundreds and hundreds of Jewish, Israeli, and pro-Israel activists, under the aegis of dozens of Jewish groups, have descended on Geneva to ensure that it does not turn into a repeat of the 2001 hate-fest. They've been armed with every advocacy tool in the book to confront Israel's critics wherever they may strike. But one thing is largely missing: the critics.

To be sure, Ahmedinjejad's speech yesterday was filled with anti-Israel bile, and the Arab delegates have spent the past few hours using their seven allotted minutes at the podium in the Assembly Hall (where I am sitting right now) to lambaste the Jewish state. But unlike the accounts I've read of Durban I, where the entire conference seemed united in their hatred of Israel, I have yet to really see any anti-Israel protesters other than at a few sporadic outbreaks, or even much anti-Israel literature or posters--and definitely nothing even close to what was distributed at the 2001 conference. Any time I've seen an Arab or Iranian NGO giving an interview to the media, a group of Jews is waiting eagerly nearby to respond.

Unlike the scenes at Durban I of Jewish students being swallowed by hordes of Israel haters, outnumbered 50-to-1, here in Geneva, I've witnessed dozens of debates between handfuls of pro-Israel activists evenly matched with their foes. There is nothing like the "Free Palestine!" chants that disrupted the 2001 conference; if anything, the 70 Jewish French students that have been loudly demonstrating in the halls, yelling "Masquerade! Masquerade!" while decked in clown wigs, are the ones setting the tone here. The protests during Ahmedinejad's speech, which I wrote about yesterday, have received equal (if not more) media coverage than the speech itself, captured in photographs on the front pages of numerous newspapers. And Ahmedinejad was visibly startled by the protests--primarily by Jewish students--that greeted him outside his press conference.

It is hard to exaggerate how palpable the Jewish presence is here. The Jewish community of Geneva staged a massive Holocaust memorial (featuring Elie Wiesel) last night on the steps of the UN headquarters right outside the conference, and Jewish groups like the Simon Wiesenthal Center are organizing panels on anti-Semitism inside the conference building under auspices of the UN. Roaming the halls of the UN building, I've heard way more Hebrew than Arabic. When the Jewish community's security force prevented the Jewish students from leaving the "Jewish Welcome Center" because of a minor pro-Palestinian rally outside, the students balked at the ridiculousness of any security threat against them here--a stark contrast to the physical violence encountered by Jewish students in 2001. "We came here with a fire hose, when we really needed a sprinkler," another Jewish activist admitted to me.

So why such a stark difference between the two conferences? I asked that question to Ingrid Jaradat Gassner, the director of the Palestinian group BADIL, and the organizer of the Israel Review Conference I attended here this past weekend. She has warm memories of the first Durban conference. "It was such a big happening, there were thousands and thousands of activists," she says. "It was a kind of utopian program." But even she describes the anti-Israel activism there as "hysterical," admitting that "there wasn’t very much in terms of substance."

She attributes much of this to the fact that the conference took place shortly after the collapse of the Oslo peace process, during which pro-Palestinian activists were "trying to figure out what was going on at the negotiations," she says. "It kept people busy." When that fell apart, she argues, activists were lost, without clear or substantive goals. "When Durban came up, we felt that we had to just catch the opportunity--'We need something now'--so we spit out whatever we had in our minds." Over the past eight years, she says many NGOs have had time to develop substantial programs and have thus moved away from such knee-jerk kinds of activism.

There are also structural differences that have affected the prominence of anti-Israel activity at this week's conference. Many of the most egregious incidents during Durban I took place in the NGO Forum, which was a separate conference held in conjunction with the inter-governmental discussions--and which the UN decided not to hold this year. Jewish groups worked tirelessly over the past few months to lobby the UN on this issue, according to David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

They also lobbied groups like the Ford Foundation and countries like Canada not to subsidize travel expenses for NGOs like they did for the 2001 conference, which "ended up bringing some pretty bad people, however unintentionally," Harris told me in Geneva today. The major groups did not renew their funding. According to Gassner, many pro-Palestinian groups got the message that Durban II would be "much less hospitable" to NGOs. "At Durban, there was financial subsidies, infrastructure, places to stay, logistical support, help with visas," she says. "Without that, we couldn't repeat something on that level."

Jewish groups also urged the UN not hold this year's conference in "South Africa or another country that simply can’t control the crowds," says UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer. The choice of Geneva restricted how radical the anti-Israel activities could be. "It was clear that in Geneva we can't organize something like in Durban," Gassner says. There seems to have been a zero-tolerance policy implemented here toward NGOs distributing anti-Semitic literature, and the few hateful protestors I've seen were escorted off the premises within minutes.

"Many of our civil society organizations and networks just threw in the towel and did not invest any effort--'Too different, too complicated, too intransparent,'" she says, describing their attitude toward this year's conference and why most groups decided not to come. "The Palestinian component has been almost completely wiped out." In fact, many of the Jewish groups have used this breathing room to schedule private meetings with diplomats or organize events to draw attention to human rights abuses around the globe. But those who came spoiling for a fight will likely leave disappointed.

That's not to say that this year's conference has been an Israel love-fest; Ahmedinejad's speech is Exhibit A, and I'll have some more posts about how anti-Israel NGOs have managed to hijack the side sessions of the conference. But taking a broader view, there is simply no comparison between the tenor of Durban I and Durban II.

Zvika Krieger is a deputy online editor of The New Republic.

Click here to read more dispatches from Durban II.