“UM Schmum,” Or: The UN? Who Needs It? (Part Two)

During the four months I spent researching the film before we flew to Geneva for the Durban Review Conference I occupied my time by talking to as many people as I could and reading article after article.  I learned as … Read More

By / November 24, 2009

During the four months I spent researching the film before we flew to Geneva for the Durban Review Conference I occupied my time by talking to as many people as I could and reading article after article.  I learned as much as I could about the background the story of the film would be based upon: other UN conferences on racism, the buildup to the mayhem of the first conference (which began when the Israeli delegation was denied visas to attend to a preparatory meeting in Tehran), what actually happened on the ground in Durban, how each side felt and the details of the conference eventual outcome document – the Durban Declaration and Program of Action – which was a robust statement in support of victims of racism around the world.

Most importantly I learned how the UN, the pro-Zionist organizations and the pro-Palestinians were actively organizing to tell their version of the story. The Jews wanted desperately to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2001.  Palestinians and their supporters didn’t see anything wrong with the events of 2001 and, still without a state of their own, thought they could use the Durban Review Conference to continue pleading with the international community for help. UN officials, who felt the 2001 conference was a landmark success, wanted to continue their momentum without being criticized by the NGO community, members of which had been the most vocally anti-Israel. As the April 20, 2009 start date got closer the tension was high, with many countries, including the US and Israel, threatening to boycott. It didn’t take long for me to realize the pro-Israel, pro-Zionist groups were obviously very well funded and very well organized in getting their message out. Antisemitic language had not in fact been included in the UN conference outcome document. But the anti-Semitism the Jews felt that week in Durban led to an eight-year-long fight to never let it happen again. A quick Google search for ‘Durban hate-fest’ produced endless results. Groups such as the ADL, B’Nai B’rith, WJC, AJC, The Israel Project etc. had spent a tremendous amount of time speaking to the media, had published numerous pamphlets, media-guides, and op-eds and had been able to control the message, effectively re-branding the first conference an utter failure. They also seemed able to convince Obama administration officials the same. When I called these organizations they were happy to talk, to give me interviews, to help out in whatever way the could. In the film you’ll meet many of these key strategists: –Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Simon Wiesenthal Center (speaking about a man he met at the 2001 conference): "In the middle of the handshake he pulled his hand back and he said, ‘Are you a Jew?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and he wiped his hand off on his jacket."



–Anne Bayefsky, Hudson Institute: "Saudi Arabia and Cuba and China are all members of the UN Human Rights Council, the lead UN human rights body. It doesn’t do human rights. It does anti-Semitism, and the destruction of the State of Israel is its number one agenda."

–Gerald Steinberg, NGO Monitor: "Durban One wasn’t just a conference, it wasn’t just a week and a half of angry words and declarations targeting Israel. Durban was a strategy. And the Durban strategy was to use the United Nations, to use the rhetoric of human rights, to use international relations, to use the legal system as a weapon of war and against Israel."



In order to present a fair and balanced story we were intent on providing strong pro-Palestinian voices in the film. I wanted to hear their version of the events in 2001. According to Ingrid Gassner, director of BADIL, a major pro-Palestinian NGO, "There were no anti-Semitic events on the ground in Durban." The 2001 conference had marked the beginning of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which Gassner helped lead. This is a loosely organized body of groups all over the world intent on taking down the Israeli Government in the same fashion the South African apartheid government was made to implode in the 90’s. The movement had grown over the years and is now international. Israel Apartheid Week is held every year on college-campuses around the world.  They were beginning to get their message across to the world community.
However, Palestinian supporters, as I could tell by the dearth of supportive articles in English, were having difficulty influencing Western media to take notice – in part, it seemed, because they had limited access to funds. I spent hours calling pro-Palestinian groups in Egypt, Israel, Cairo, the UAE, Iran and all over Europe. Besides the language barrier, distrust, I surmised, was also an issue.  It was very hard for me to get anyone to return my calls or e-mails. In the end we did manage to speak to some of the BDS movement’s leaders and we acquired archival footage of others to help support their case.

–Ameer Makhoul, Ittijah: "I believe that the Palestinian cause is one of the very clear, just causes in the world, but its victims – it’s a victim of the system of not only the Israeli racism but international racism, to put aside and to marginalize and to [silent] the voice of the victims in order to protect the order and to protect in fact, de facto, the oppressors."


–Omar Barghouti, Human Rights Activist: "Israel’s particular form of apartheid is different in many ways from South Africa’s, as has been mentioned. It is a three tiered system of oppression, consisting of occupation and colonialization of the 1967 Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem; denial of Palestinian refugee rights, including the right to return; and the system of racial discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel."
The two other main groups we wanted in the film: UN officials who organized the conference and representatives from the US administration. UN officials, after much negotiating, finally accredited us to shoot. Understandably, they were very concerned we were going to be critical, and when we were in Geneva UN public affairs minders watched our every move. The UN had severely limited the space for NGOs at the Durban Review Conference in order to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2001, and they were concerned when they overheard us asking NGO leaders about it. In a surprisingly candid moment though UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay admitted this was true. " I come from the NGOs myself," she said, "and I am embarrassed that they were not given sufficient space to participate."  But Palestinian supporters did manage to infiltrate – passing our fliers that read ‘Zionism is Racism’. Whenever it happened UN security removed them from the grounds. Israeli supporters also managed to cause some trouble – as you’ll soon see.
The US, who in the end decided to boycott the conference in support of Israel, would not speak to us at all. Hours and hours of calls to every corner of the US State Department, NSC, White House and UN missions in NY and Geneva came up short. If the US wasn’t going to participate they didn’t want the message getting out. They were controlling our message – by not talking to us. Would the Middle East again disrupt the attention of the Durban Review Conference away from those in need? When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the only head of state who accepted an offer to speak at the opening of the conference, took to the stage it seemed inevitable. This was a perfect storm – eight years of intense Israeli organizing, eight years of intense Palestinian organizing, a UN conference on racism beginning with a speech by a man who denies the Holocaust. What else could one expect but mayhem to ensue? Part Three will be posted Tuesday, December 1st

THE BATTLE OF DURBAN II: ISRAEL, PALESTINE & THE UNITED NATIONS will be screening Wednesday, December 2nd at 6:30 PM at NY’s Simon Wiesenthal Center.

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