Gil Troy: Ahmadinejad’s antics, the UN’s perversity

Center Field: Ahmadinejad’s antics, the UN’s perversity

“The UN really is a beautiful thing,” I thought as I waited to pass through security at UN headquarters in Geneva. I was standing in a living, breathing poster for multiculturalism, amid delegates of different colors, from different cultures, representing different countries. My reverie was interrupted when the security guards pulled aside one delegate just ahead of me from an Arab country. Emblazoned on the folder he used to carry his papers was the slogan ZIONISM IS RACISM, with a swastika added for good measure.

This, alas, is the reality of the modern UN. The great betrayal comes from hijacking noble ideals as a masquerade to obscure harsh hatred.

Casually walking around with a ‘Zionism is Racism’ folder reflects an identity of negation, built around hate, rather than around something positive. This is modern Palestinian nationalism’s great tragedy – and crime.

Indulging the desire for destruction rather than seeking something constructive curdles the national soul – and prevents compromise. The result is the movement’s pornographic commitment to violence – for effect – and an ugliness so toxic and, surprisingly, so epidemic, it poisons noble gatherings including this Durban Conference. The admirable desire to fight racism, xenophobia, and discrimination becomes derailed. Underlying the perversion is a refusal to understand that rights begin with mutual recognition of rights for ourselves and for others, for those we like and those we don’t.

While the UN is world headquarters for producing this one-sided farce, many of Israel’s enemies are too honest to stick to the script. Just as Hamas failed to learn Yasser Arafat’s lessons about lying to the world and keeps its anti-Semitic charter calling for Israel’s destruction, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appearance on the first day of the Durban Review conference shows the modern UN’s perversity. Yesterday, at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy we learned that Iran’s commitment to fighting discrimination includes the death penalty for homosexuals and torture for dissidents, let alone the fact that Ahmadinejad has endorsed the destruction of two member states of the United Nations, Israel and the United States. Today, we had a chance to see Ahmadinejad in action.

Like all good demagogues, Ahmadinejad is clever. He knows how to work his audience. He guaranteed himself top coverage and a first spot in the speakers’ rostrum, ahead of a clump of deputy ministers and foreign ministers. No other head of state spoke today. He brought star power – and excitement – into otherwise tedious proceedings. Moreover, he fed the crowd red meat. He started by invoking the prophets, including Abraham, Jesus – and the final one – Mohammed. He earned applause from the General Assembly delegates by denouncing the Security Council as an imperialist carryover from World War II. More broadly, he blamed America, capitalism, and (if you listened carefully) liberal values for today’s economic crisis.

Of course, his speech centered on calling Zionism the personification of racism. Ahmadinejad’s speech can be studied as a classic anti-Semitic specimen, attributing to Jews (although he uses the word Zionism) disproportionate power and importance, adding a dash of Holocaust denial. Ahmadinejad blamed “the Zionist regime” for the Iraq war, among other crimes. He clearly believed that the conference against racism would fail unless it assailed the Jewish state – and broader Western ideals of liberalism, secularism, and capitalism.

Although the conference president thanked Ahmadinejad for his sentiments, the next speaker, Norway’s foreign minister Jonas Gahr Store repudiated the Iranian’s remarks. Store said Ahmadinejad expressed himself “in a way that threatens the very purpose of this conference…. Freedom of speech yes,” Store said, “but incitement of hatred, no.” Ahmadinejad’s speech, Store said, “runs counter to the very spirit and dignity of this conference.” Even more important than Store’s words were his – and his European Union colleagues’ — actions. As soon as Ahmadinejad claimed the European powers used “the pretext” of Jewish suffering to establish a Jewish state, dozens of EU delegates walked out. I remained disappointed that their countries did not boycott the conference. But the delegates did something tremendous. I never thought a parade of (mostly) men in (mostly) dark, pin-striped suits could be so moving. If only they were willing to demand the UN stick to its ideals regularly…

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Gil Troy: The Anti-Racism Conference As It Should Have Been

Center Field: The Anti-Racism Conference As It Should Have Been

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-19-09

DURBAN DIARY

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. He is attending the Durban Review conference as an observer.

Geneva is awash in the light green of early spring, nestled amid snowcapped mountains. Arriving from Israel, I found the city’s tranquility surprising, until I remembered this was Sunday morning, not Monday. Still, the quiet set the tone for this first day, on the eve of what promises to be a tumultuous United Nations Review Conference on Racism, Discrimination, Xenophobia and

Intolerance beginning Monday (the UN shifted from Durban to Geneva hoping to avoid the riotous anti-Semitic atmosphere of Durban, 2001).

Entering the city, I passed the Intercontinental Hotel, where Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is staying before addressing the conference Monday. Many Swiss citizens are urging their president not to shake Ahmadinejad’s hand. “But,” my taxi driver shrugged, “protocols must be followed.”

What a perfect welcome to Europe – and to the UN’s moral myopia. By cherishing protocols more than human rights, the world enables dictators. Despite advocating Israel’s and America’s destruction, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be welcomed like a head of state, rather than the genocide-seeking rogue he is.

Fortunately, twenty human rights NGOs hosted a “Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy,” or what I call the “Anti-Racism Conference as It Should Have Been.”

Offering a mirror image of the Durban Review conference leadership, many of the speakers suffered repression thanks to the leaders of today’s UN Human Rights Council. The 22 speakers from Iran, Cuba, Libya, Iran, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere, along with the hundreds of attendees, rejected the toxic combination of European politesse and dictatorial manipulation perpetuating what one speaker called the “coalition of autocrats around the world.”

That speaker, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, imprisoned in Egypt for three years, said that having Libya lead the human rights council made a mockery of human rights. He also denounced “the indifference of the democrats,” regretting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s vow that human rights issues would not sour American relations with the Chinese. “When people no longer denounce injustice … we are giving an oxygen boost to dictators so they can continue to trample on people’s rights,” Jose Gabriel Ramon Castillo, a Cuban activist warned.

In the emotional opening session, victims of the Darfur and Rwanda genocides moved delegates to tears, by describing the evil they endured. Dominique Sopo, the President of SOS Racisme, condemned the Durban Review conference’s “negationism,” ignoring real the human rights crimes. “It is unbelievable that Darfur is not on the agenda,” Sopo insisted. “What is the point of having a conference against racism if this is ignored?” Contrasting the UN’s passivity with the opening panelists’ activist idealism, Canadian MP Irwin Cotler thanked the dissidents for “inspiring us to act and do that which needs to be done.”

Celebrating sixty years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention, sessions examined the declaration’s various articles. This afternoon’s session examined Article 5, the “right to be free from torture and cruel or inhuman treatment.” Parvez Sharma described “Jihad for Love,” his film describing the discrimination endured by Islamic homosexuals. Ahmed Batebi, a dissident imprisoned in Iran for nine years, recounted how he was thrown in solitary confinement on flimsy legal grounds. He recalled: threats, mock executions, brutalization of friends, and how “they tied my hands to a chair and kept me awake until I lost consciousness, then cut me and poured salt in my wounds to wake me up.” This cruelty, he explained, “is an attempt to crush the spirits” of anyone who criticizes Iran’s regime.

Finally, Dr. Ashraf El Hagog, a Palestinian doctor, and Kristina Valcheva, a Bulgarian nurse, described how Libya falsely accused them of spreading HIV, then tortured them with beatings, electrical currents, and sexual sadism. “It’s disgusting” that Libya is chairing the UN human rights council, Dr. El Hahog shouted, “SHAME ON YOU LIBYA.” Noting that a Jew was one of the first people to help him get out of prison, Dr. El Hagog admitted that he had been imprisoned in his own ideology, and now regretted his bigotry.

“Please use your liberty to promote ours,” Soe Aung, a Burmese dissident begged. Once, that slogan was the UN’s watchword. Today, the sentiment challenges UN protocols.

We owe it to these democratic heroes to do what we can to use our liberty to promote theirs – while pushing the UN to fulfill its historic mission. Meanwhile, we buckle our seatbelts for the farce that Ahmadinejad and his fellow dictators will launch tomorrow.

Gil Troy: Open Letter to our Diaspora Affairs Minister

Center Field: Open Letter to our Diaspora Affairs

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-19-09

Dear Minister Yuli Edelstein,

On April 5, Anshel Pfeffer welcomed you as Diaspora Affairs Minister with a bleak open letter in Ha’aretz, lamenting: “What a pity you’ve been given the emptiest brief of all in Netanyahu’s mammoth cabinet.” Pfeffer called your portfolio useless and toothless, with no budget, status, or clear mandate.

I disagree. Of course I wish you had a huge war chest and a clear mission. But there is such a vacuum of leadership in this area, and such a pressing need for visionary statesmanship, you can accomplish much as a public leader. Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are thirsting for inspiration. The Minister of Israel-Diaspora Affairs is essentially responsible for promoting, fulfilling – and at this historical juncture – reviving Zionism. You have what American President Theodore Roosevelt called a “bully pulpit” to complete this important task. Good luck with it.

Your most important job is reminding many Jews in Israel and abroad what peoplehood means while bringing pride back to the label “Zionist.” Too many Jews have internalized our enemies’ disdain. Zionism – the national liberation movement of the Jewish people – has been falsely linked with racism, as Arab enemies have spread a despicable big lie with Nazi-Soviet roots. As a refugee from that insanity, as a legendary refusenik who escaped Soviet Communist oppression to find freedom in modern Israel, you are living proof of Zionism’s power and legitimacy. Use your inspiring personal narrative of renewal to infuse new relevance and resonance into Zionism, our people’s collective narrative of renewal.(And if the rumors are true and Natan Sharansky becomes the head of the Jewish Agency, the two of you have a tremendous opportunity to revolutionize the Zionist Movement).

The past few years have witnessed great advances on the Israel-Diaspora front, despite some disturbing trends. On the plus side, over 150,000 inspired Birthright Israel alumni, and thousands of annual Masa participants, illustrate the transformational impact Israel experiences can have on Jewish life worldwide. Birthright’s “Mifgash” program with Israeli soldiers and the Jewish Agency’s successful P2K, Partnership 2000 have also demonstrated the benefits for Israelis from learning and working with Diaspora Jews.  Moreover, ease of transportation and communication, along with the globalized youth culture gives someone with a powerful platform like your new job affords you tremendous reach.

Unfortunately, this globalized culture often undermines Jewish identity, addicting many Jews in Israel and abroad to the worst, most indulgent elements of modern materialism. Moreover, too many Israeli and Diaspora Jews believe Zionism is passé, and Israel an embarrassing anachronism in a cosmopolitan, politically-correct, multicultural world. As a Zionist hero, you should build bridges between Israeli and Diaspora youth, and, within Israel between the National Religious camp and the Secular Zionist camp. This latest economic upheaval shows that human beings need anchors, frameworks for meaning, a sense of collective purpose beyond individual indulgence; you are uniquely positioned to explain how Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism, can provide those nurturing ideological roots and core values, for Israelis and Diaspora Jews.

Every nationalist movement shapes a people’s present and charts the future by defining its past. For Israelis to appreciate Zionism they must learn more about the past and about Diaspora life. You must ally with the Education Ministry, work with the Jewish Agency, and woo the media to instill some important Zionist lessons about Israeli and Diaspora life. Without returning to the outmoded notion of negating the Galut [the exile], you have to push Israelis to have a more sophisticated understanding of the realities abroad and the values they should be appreciating at home. That entails weaning so many Israelis from their obsession with all things American, fostering an appreciation of the benefits of living in a Jewish space by Jewish time, and learning about the historic conditions in the Diaspora that first triggered the Zionist revolution. It also entails embracing creative initiatives like Herzl Day, which gets Israel schoolchildren celebrating Zionism’s founder.

In this anti-Semitism looms large – but handle this part of your portfolio carefully. On the eve of the Durban II conference in Geneva, we need greater vigilance against anti-Semitism, and your predecessors, especially Natan Sharansky, have launched important initiatives to combat hatred. However, Israel-Diaspora relations must be about more than fighting anti-Semitism. Zionism and Israel cannot just be the central headaches of the Jewish people. Without denying the negative, you must celebrate the positive. Work with Mayor Nir Barkat to use Jerusalem, for example, the Jewish people’s capital, as a unifying asset, welcoming Jews from all over the world to build and be rebuilt there.

In dealing with Diaspora Jews, make sure to fill your role as a Zionist icon – and never underestimate the potency of the celebrity aura an effective, publicly savvy Israeli Cabinet minister can generate. As the Jewish state’s representative, start every conversation, every speech, in Hebrew – emphasizing that Hebrew, not English should be the Jewish people’s lingua franca. Make sure to deliver the good news about Israel, the updates about normal life in the Jewish state, not just the bad news. And make sure to challenge Diaspora Jews constructively – to use Israel as a vehicle for finding ideological fulfillment and communal satisfaction, to step in and take responsibility to make sure that the successful initiatives of the last two decades like birthright and Partnership 2000 do not languish due to this financial crisis. Be the shaliach-in-chief, an emissary to synagogues and schools, to organizations and foundations. But remember how many Diaspora Jews are unaffiliated, and reach them through non-traditional means in the general media and on the internet.

Life in Israel is a daily tableau illustrating the beauty and perils of the Zionist return to history. On both sides of the Atlantic, we know the perils. Make sure to remind us of the dream, and help us fulfill it.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He splits his time between Montreal and Jerusalem and is the author of Why I am A  Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.