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

Imagine it — thousands of protesters in the streets of South Africa chanting ‘Death to Israel’, screaming ‘Israel is Apartheid,’ people holding signs with a star of David, an equal sign and a swastika. Signs read ‘Hitler was Right’, others … Read More

By / November 17, 2009

Imagine it — thousands of protesters in the streets of South Africa chanting ‘Death to Israel’, screaming ‘Israel is Apartheid,’ people holding signs with a star of David, an equal sign and a swastika. Signs read ‘Hitler was Right’, others "Zionism = Racism." My initial reaction when I saw the footage — "You have to be kidding me?!" I had never seen such offensive imagery and on such a large scale. I had never even heard of the 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, where these photos were taken. Sixty years after a Holocaust of immeasurable atrocities and people have the gall to call Jews Nazis. It all struck me as completely absurd. Yet there it was.

I had been hired in February 2009 by a small, award-winning media company called Globalvision Inc. to help produce a new documentary about the United Nations and the upcoming Durban Review Conference to be held in Geneva, Switzerland that April. The Review Conference was meant to review progress that countries had made in addressing racism and intolerance in their respective borders since the first Durban Conference in 2001. I was still coming down off the intense hopefulness that the election of our new biracial president gave me and I began the project optimistic and excited. It was a new era.  Maybe now the world could finally come together and make real progress addressing the needs of the millions of marginalized, repressed, suffering people on our planet. Now that the film is finished, after endless hours of research, interviews with many of the main conference organizers, UN representatives and heads of NGOs from around the world; having poured through hundreds of hours of articles, photos and footage, and having thought a great deal about how effective a huge multilateral institution such as the UN is in truly provoking change, unfortunately much of my cynicism has returned. Why?

Let me tell you the inside story of the making of this film – The Battle of Durban II: Israel, Palestine & the United Nations (which you should all see, by the way) – and you’ll get a sense of why, when examined through the prism of the Middle East, my positive conceptions on the efficacy of the UN have been shattered. A bit of disclosure to begin – I was raised a Conservative Jew, was very active in USY in high school and have visited Israel numerous times. As a journalist, I follow world affairs closely and know, as we all do, that the Israeli-Palestinian divide is an extremely heated one.  As an American, although I haven’t been directly affected, I do have strong emotions about the situation. Since I was a little boy (the Camp David Accords were signed 9 months before I was born) I’ve watched it all play out in newspaper headlines, non-fiction literature and fiction (Skinny Legs and All!), in long conversations with friends and family, blogs, Al-Jazeera and the occasional documentary on PBS’ POV or at the local Jewish Film Festival. Images of Orthodox Israeli settlers desperately trying to keep their houses while being forcefully removed by Israeli soldiers; Palestinian refugees waiting in long lines only to be turned away at the checkpoint border into Israel; Jewish groups rhythmically swaying during prayer at the Kotel, Jimmy Carter getting lambasted for his new book ‘Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid’ during conversations at the Passover dinner table, young Palestinian children starving, bombs dropping into Sderot; etc. all continuously swirl in my head when I think about it.  How can one not get emotional? Though the emotional effect of these images goes only so far.  They never taught me one very important part of the struggle, the strategies both sides of the divide use at the international level to get their message heard. And where else better to get their message heard then the UN, the body that’s supposed to be a forum to solve the world’s troubles? After seeing and interacting with Palestinian sympathizers and staunch Zionists trying to get their voices heard directly in trying to make this film I realized that this is what much of the conflict is actually about – controlling the message. Not who is right and who is wrong, but who can best convince the largest group of people to believe in their position. Watching the intense political jockeying that took place during the build up to and during the Durban Review Conference was an amazing chance to see and document this process in real time. The UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance had been held in the summer of 2001 in the midst of the second Intifada. World headlines reported daily on suicide bombings all over Israel and about the increasingly desperate plight of the Palestinian people. Figuring that a World Conference on Racism was an excellent chance to get additional media attention to their cause, masses of pro-Palestinian protesters took to the streets of Durban. They fought hard at a parallel forum for representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations, which preceded the official UN conference, to encourage UN officials to incorporate critical language about Israeli treatment of Palestinians into their final report or outcome document. Halfway through the UN conference the fight got so heated delegations from the US and Israeli delegations walked out in a flurry of protest. This was not the first time the Middle East issue had derailed a United Nations effort. Founded out of the ashes of the Holocaust, the UN was meant to be a place where the world could come together and prevent conflict. But when it comes to a discussion of human rights the Middle East conflict tends to occupy most of the conversation. The Middle East was the subject of 76% of country-specific UN General Assembly resolutions, 100% of the Human Rights Council resolutions, 100% of the Commission on the Status of Women resolutions, 50% of reports from the World Food Program, 6% of Security Council resolutions and 6 of the 10 Emergency sessions. These decisions, passed with the support of Muslim countries represented by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) among others, invariably criticize Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. Even though the UN in effect created the State of Israel in 1948, the country has obviously never felt at home there. Many UN delegates believe Israel should not even exist. Zionism was officially declared a racist practice in a 1975 resolution by the UN General Assembly. This was repealed in 1991 but, as we saw on the ground in Durban in 2001, the concept was far from being forgotten. In our interview with Gabriela Shalev, Israel’s current Ambassador to the UN in New York, she reminded me of a famous quote from David Ben-Gurion: "UM-Shmum" which roughly translates from Hebrew to "The UN? Who needs it?"  More loosely: "When Israel feels danger, it feels it can’t depend on the world community to support it, so why even try?" Admittedly, at times during the making of this movie, I’ve tended to agree.
But then the journalist in me thinks – why shouldn’t it be criticized?  No country is perfect.  If Israel is wronging people it should be held accountable. I also see the way the world quickly divides itself into blocks when Israel is criticized – with the US and Europe invariably supporting it, the Arab countries against it, and all the other suffering people the UN is supposed to help screaming, "What about us!?"  What a mess! 

Part Two will be posted Tuesday, November 24th 

Part Three will be posted Tuesday, December 1st

For more information, you can visit to watch the trailer or become a fan of the movie on Facebook.

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