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Anti-semitism, the Durban Declaration, and reparations

I’ve subscribed to Harper’s Magazine for almost 20 years: It never stops being incisive, or surprising, or discomfiting. Case in point: Naomi Klein’s September cover story, covering the misinformation surrounding the United Nations’ 2001 World Conference on Racism held in Durban, South Africa. Some countries did inject harsh anti-Israel language into an early draft, and a parallel meeting of NGOs included some horrifying anti-Semitic incidents. However, the official, final Durban Declaration did not contain the vicious anti-Semitism claimed by many of its detractors:

... the BBC World Service ran a revealing segment on that original Durban Declaration. The host was Julian Marshall, and one of his guests was Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Marshall began by asking what all the fuss was about: “Why exactly is Israel staying away from the U.N. racism conference?” Palmor replied that it was “because it isn’t a U.N. racism conference, it is a conference about Israel-bashing, just like its predecessor.” He told Marshall that “in the previous conference, Israel was singled out as the most racist state on earth, probably almost the only racist state” and that these claims were not made in a few inflammatory speeches but in the conference’s official final declaration.

At this point Marshall stopped Palmor, saying that he had been reading that much-maligned sixty-one-page Durban Declaration and had been unable to find anything in it that fit Palmor’s description. He then proceeded to do what almost no journalist had done before. He quoted, at length, the specific clauses in the 2001 Durban Declaration that have to do with anti-Semitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ones that supposedly accused Israel of being “the most racist state on earth” and were so unfair that the U.S. government could not attend any conference that “reaffirms” them. Here are those dastardly passages:

Paragraph 58: We recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten;

Paragraph 61: We recognize with deep concern the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities;

Paragraph 63: We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion.

As Marshall read these statements, each less offensive and more banal than the one before, Palmor became increasingly agitated. “I’m not sure we’re talking about the same conference,” he said, “because even though I don’t have the text in front of me, I remember quite precisely some quotes that were completely contrary to those that you’ve just quoted. So we must be speaking about two different documents.”

So why is Durban maligned as an example of the United Nations being too spineless to stand up to anti-Semitism? Klein offers a few causes, one of which is the unfortunate date that the Durban Declaration was finalized: September 9, 2001.

... the real trauma happened when [Jewish delegates at Durban] went home and immediately faced the far greater shock of the September 11 attacks. The pro-Palestinian activists in Durban seemed to merge with the Muslim hijackers, becoming a single, hostile Arab mass, while the political threat Israel faced at the conference dissolved into the very real attacks on New York and Washington, until somehow these wholly unrelated events fused into a single, seamless narrative.

But there may also be another reason: Durban was a concrete step forward in calling for reparations for the slave trade, which is something that the Bush administration was strongly against.

The final Durban Declaration became the first document with international legal standing to state “that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade.” This language was more than symbolic. When lawyers had sought to win slavery reparations in U.S. courts, the biggest barrier was always the statute of limitations, which had long since expired. If slavery was “a crime against humanity,” however, it was not restricted by the statute—something, [U.S. delegate E. Michael] Southwick told me, that State Department lawyers were very concerned about at the time.

On the final day of the conference, after Canada tried to minimize the significance of the declaration, Amina Mohamed, now a top official in the Kenyan government, took the floor to make a dramatic speech. “Madame President,” Mohamed said, “it is not a crime against humanity just for today, nor just for tomorrow, but for always and for all time. Nuremberg made it clear that crimes against humanity are not time-bound.” Any acts that take responsibility for these crimes, therefore, “are expected and are in order.” The assembly hall erupted in cheers and a long standing ovation.

And what of the 2009 follow-up, in Lake Geneva? The Obama Administration chose to boycott it, citing the anti-Israel bias of Durban. Politically, it probably makes a depressing amount of sense that the first African-American President would skip it:

Ahead of his July trip to Ghana, Obama let it be known that he was tired of hearing that Africa’s troubles were “somehow the consequence of neo-colonialism, or the West has been oppressive, or racism—I’m not a believer in excuses.” He has sent much the same message at home, lecturing black families on personal responsibility (“No excuses! No excuses!” he told a gathering of the NAACP in July). Meanwhile, Obama has studiously avoided anything that could be considered a black issue, from mass incarceration to the abandonment of New Orleans. For Vernellia Randall, an expert in international human rights law at the University of Dayton, the problem is obvious: Obama’s “desire to be color-blind,” she says, is wholly incompatible with the entire premise of the Durban process. “You can’t be color-blind and go to a racism conference.”

For the record: I would support reparations if there were a reasonable chance of the money to be spent sensibly and not just be squandered by some massive bureaucracy built by a distracted Congress. I’d even be okay with my taxes going up a bit to fund it. But I can’t believe it’ll ever actually happen in my lifetime.

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