The much anticipated U.N. event marking the tenth anniversary of the Durban Conference against racism was more about the empty seats than the ones that were occupied.
For the U.N. organizers, it was one of the key events of this years? gathering and as such it was hosted by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and given the General Assembly main hall as a venue. But the conference drew little attention inside the U.N. and was overshadowed by discussions regarding the Palestinian issue.
The U.S., Canada, Israel and most Western European nations boycotted the event, as they did in the previous follow up meeting convened in 2009. For Israel and its supporters, this meant success. With at least a dozen seats left empty, the Durban process has lost its legitimacy and the conference which became synonymous with criticism of the Jewish state, was sidelined. Secretary Ban tried to focus on the advance made in the past decade in fighting racism, but also spoke of the controversy the Durban process created because of its focus on Israel. ?This process is meant to further the world?s essential fight against racism,? Ban said. ?We should condemn anyone who uses this platform to subvert that effort with inflammatory rhetoric, baseless assertions and hateful speech.?
But while inside the U.N. headquarters celebrations of the Durban anniversary drew little attention, across the road, in the Dag Hammarskjöld plaza, the event stirred high emotions.
A colorful and noisy gathering, organized by a group called Iran 180, tied together the Durban event with the speech of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who spoke from the U.N podium at the same time. The group, made up of 33 NGOs, staged what they described as ?street theater? which included a mock wedding of Ahmadinejad with Syria?s dictator Bashar Assad and a nuclear missile attached to a ticking clock. Several hundreds of participants who came to the protest were given colorful clown wigs and red noses, presumably to demonstrate how the U.N. had become a circus.
Driving this point home was Professor Alan Dershowitz who told the excited crowed that the building across the road is to blame for everything that is wrong in the Middle East. ?There are two letters that to me signify why there is no peace in the Middle East and those two letters are U and N,? he said.
Dershowitz repeated this message a short while earlier when he spoke at a day-long conference against the Durban conference organized by the Hudson Institute and Touro college. A day earlier B?nai B?rith also hosted a discussion on the same interest.
The high level activity of Jewish groups against commemorating the Durban conference was viewed by Israel as a flawed strategy. A senior diplomat said the Israeli foreign ministry had tried to convince Jewish organizations to maintain a low profile and to let the event go practically unnoticed. The diplomat said Israel believed protests would only give the conference attention it would otherwise not receive.
But the protests went ahead anyways, and despite early reluctance on behalf of the Israeli government, cabinet minister Yuli Edelstein attended one of the anti-Durban events.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.