David Harris, the long-time executive director of the American Jewish Committee, is just back from doing battle with the anti-Israel contingent at the United Nations racism conference in Geneva.
Harris says he was encouraged by what happened in Geneva -- especially the ways in which growing numbers of European countries were willing to stand up this time to those who he said had hijacked the first racism conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 to demonize Israel.
At a forum at the Andover Newton Theological School on Sunday night, Harris said the withdrawal of ten countries from the Geneva follow-up session was a major breakthrough. In 2001, only the United States and Israel boycotted the Durban racism conference.
"I think it's a threshold moment," Harris said. "And if we meet again in ten years, I hope each of you can name all 10, because they deserve, if nothing else, our memory."
He noted that in addition to the United States, Israel, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, five European countries also boycotted: Italy, Holland, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany. "The five countres in Europe that broke the EU consensus, which is key to Europe, created a different kind of precedent in the EU."
Harris also applauded the 25 or so countries whose delegates walked out of the conference when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- the only national president to attend the conference -- used his seven-minute time slot to deliver a half-hour speech laced with anti-Israel language.
"The moral majority in multilateral diplomacy focuses on the EU. When they walked out, their statement was powerful, it was thunderous."
Harris said he respected the choice of some countries, including Britain and France, to stay within the conference process and to pressure for compromises on the final declaration, which eliminated the specific criticisms of Israel that had been in the draft declaration. Many countries that took part in the 2001 conference made the same argument. And the final version in 2001 also excluded most of the anti-Israel language, including clauses equating Zionism with racism, that had been in the early drafts.
"This is a classic argument of staying in or leaving. If you stay in you become tainted, but if you leave you become detached. Not every country will agree on what is the trigger point," he said. But compared with 2001, when Israel's supporters were outfoxed and outmaneuvered in the main conference as well as in the non-governmental forum and street demonstrations, Harris said that this time defenders of Israel were far more effective in blunting the attacks.
And he said that despite complaints from some Jewish organizations, the AJC and others engaged successfully with the Obama Administration to consider whether to participate in Geneva. That gave the AJC more weight in arguing ultimately against taking part, he said.
The Boston chapter of the American Jewish Committee created a Web site to track developments at the Durban II conference, including the evolution of the drafts. The site, www.bostonfreedomforum.org, offers the local AJC take on the Geneva proceedings.
About this blog
About James F. SmithJim Smith came home to his native Boston in 2002 to become the Boston Globe's foreign editor after spending 22 years abroad. He was previously based in Buenos Aires and Mexico City for the LA Times, and in Johannesburg, Tokyo and The Hague for the AP. In 2007 he became the Globe's national political editor, coordinating presidential campaign coverage. He is a Yale graduate, and has an MBA. He is married to Maxine Hart and has two sons, Matthew and Daniel.
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