By Benjamin Schuman-Stoler
Well, it’s not as if the United Nations Durban II conference against racism was ever going to avoid controversy. The primary storyline going into the conference was the contentious–if not by any means surprising–abstention by the United States and Israel (as well as Canada, Italy, Germany, Australia, and Holland).
But news has just come out about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech earlier today that we must post first.
JTA has the scoop on the speech, which occurred a few hours ago, in which European diplomats walked out in protest:
In a speech at the U.N.-sponsored anti-racism conference in Geneva, the Iranian president first blamed the West for injustice, then went on the offensive against Israel, calling it the “racist perpetrators of genocide.”
“Under the pretext of Jewish suffering, they have helped bring to power the most oppressive, racist regime in Palestine,” Ahmadinejad said, to heavy applause from Iranians in the upper gallery and pockets of Muslims elsewhere on the floor. “They have always been silent about their crimes.”…
At the first mention of “Jewish,” representatives of the 23 European Union countries that chose to participate in the conference noisily got up from their seats and marched out the door—a move met by more clapping from Iranian and Arab delegates, while other diplomatic delegations refrained…
Ahmadinejad went on to criticize the United States for the bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for the global economic crisis.
He railed against those who use their “economic and political influence” and control of the media to back the “barbaric racism” of the “Zionist regime.” He called for the world to “put an end to abuses by the Zionists” and the “conspiracies by some powers and Zionist circles.”
It is a bit disconcerting for Jewish onlookers to read that his comments were met by applause from the Arab delegates and that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remained in his seat.
And it will go down as another sad day for the UN, because no matter where you stand on the issue of abstaining from the conference or branding Israel as racist, it is universally disheartening to see the organization founded on the principle of bringing nations together here serving as a medium to split them apart.
Yesterday, US President Barack Obama and the State Department defendedthe decision to abstain from the conference:
Obama noted that the initial 2001 Durban conference, which was supposed to be about racism, instead “became a session through which folks expressed antagonism towards Israel in ways that were oftentimes completely hypocritical and counterproductive.”
“We expressed in the run-up to this conference our concerns that if you adopted all the language from 2001 that’s not something we could sign up for,” Obama said. “If you’re incorporating a previous conference we weren’t involved with that raised a whole set of objectionable provisions, it wouldn’t be worth it to participate because we couldn’t get past that previous issue.”
He added if that if there had been a “clean start, fresh start,” the United States would have been “happy to go.”