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Demonizing Durban: Obscuring Racism

18 Aug

Demonizing Durban

[Prefatory Note: The post below describes the campaign carried on over the last 20 years by pro-Israeli propaganda, both government and NGO, to defame the UN dedicated anti-racist efforts as a new species of antisemitism. It is a perverse effort that shields Israel’s racist policies and practices toward the Palestinian people behind a perverse contention that criticism of these policies should be viewed as antisemitism. The piece was originally published in Transcend Media Service, and appears here in its original form. For the link to the original <; ]

EDITORIAL, 16 Aug 2021 

#706 | Richard Falk – TRANSCEND Media Service


16 Aug 2021 – An insidious campaign has been underway to demonize the UN sponsorship of an anti-racist initiative to hold a one-day conference at the UN on September 22, 2021 that is a continuation of what has come to be known as the ‘Durban Process.’ This identifies the ongoing effort over the last twenty years to implement the Durban Declaration and the accompanying Program of Action that was adopted at the “World Conference Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance DURBAN” held in Durban, South Africa 20 years ago.

The Durban Conference was controversial even before the delegates convened, anticipated as a forum at which Israel, colonialism, the legacy of slavery, and victimization of vulnerable ethnicities would be depicted and condemned. It was formally under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council, whose High Commissioner, Mary Robinson was put under pressure from the West to cancel the event. She refused, and instead of being praised for her independence, this highly principled former President of Ireland was denied support by Washington for reappointment to a second term as High Commissioner. Israel and the United States withdrew from the conference and boycotted smaller follow up events in 2009 and 2011, which explains why the forthcoming gathering is identified as Durban IV.

At the 2001 conference, which was overshadowed by the 9/11 attacks on the United States, which occurred just days after the close of Durban, there were many speeches delivered by representatives of various governments, including several that criticized Israel for racist policies and practices perpetrated against the Palestinian peoples, including the allegation that Zionism was a form of racism, which had previously been asserted in GA Resolution (see GA Res. 3379 passed by a vote of 72-35 with 32 abstentions, A/RES/3379, 10 Nov 1975; revoked in 1991 without explanation in GA Res. 46/96)). In addition to the inter-governmental Durban Conference there was a parallel NGO Forum devoted to the same agenda in which inflammatory speeches and declarations were made. Yet the overriding inspirational theme was provided by the successful struggle against apartheid in South Africa as both legitimating the event and the current need to address the long unfinished anti-racist agenda.

The Outcome at Durban

The main formal outcomes of the Durban Conference were two significant, comprehensive texts known as the Durban Declaration and the Durban Program of Action. The Durban Process subsequent to 2001 has been more or less exclusively concerned with the implementation of these two formal UN documents, which are wide spectrum depictions of a whole range of grievances arising from the mistreatment of various categories of vulnerable people by war of the enforcement of human rights law and through a variety of means including through education and the activism of civil society, NGOs, and even the private sector. There exists absolutely no basis for complaining that Israel has been singled out for criticism or that provisions of the conference documents can be fairly read as antisemitic or even anti-Israeli, yet as will be shown below, such a campaign has been relentlessly waged to discredit all that Durban stands almost exclusively because of its supposed extreme bias against Israel.

A fair reading of both documents would conclude that Israel actually been spared justifiable criticism, most probably as a result of pressures brought to bear on both the UN and media before and during the conference. If we look at the texts we come away with an impression that Israeli sensitivities were understood and respected. Apartheid and genocide were condemned in general terms, but without any negative reference to Israel, and in fact an inclusion that did single out Israel in a manner that it should have welcomed. In para. 58 of the Declaration we find the following assertion: “..we recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten.” And para. 61 takes note with “deep concern the increase in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in various parts of the world, as well as the emergence of racial and violent movements based on racism and discriminatory ideas against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities.” It seems outright perverse to discredit the Durban Declaration as a screed against Jews.

In the course of the Declaration’s 122 paragraphs the Israel/Palestine situation is only mentioned in Para. 63, and then in a neutral manner that seems to overlook the deliberate victimization of the Palestinian people. It reads as follows: “We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation. We recognize the inalienable right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and to the establishment of an independent State and we recognize the right to security for all States in the region, including Israel, and call upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion.” What can possibly be offensive to even the most ardent Israeli supporter about such a provision, which is buried deep in a 30 page declaration in language that points no accusing fingers at Israel.

Israel’s Anti-Durban Campaign

And yet the reality of Durban, the violence of the language used to denounce these documents and the Durban Process seems extreme, and to emanate from sources known to follow closely the official line disseminated by Tel Aviv. British Colonel Richard Kemp writing on the notoriously right-wing website of the Gladstone Institute is rarely outdone in his backing of Israel’s use of force against defenseless Gaza. Kemp brands the Durban Process “as the UN’s infamous 20-year old showpiece vendetta against Israel” and pronounces his judgement that “Durban IV will re-energize this shameful process.” [“Fighting the Blight of Durban,” July 29, 2021] Kemp is comfortable invoking the hyperbolic language of UN Watch that absurdly labels Durban as “..the worst international manifestation of antisemitism in the post-war period.”

UN Watch separately expressed its venomous view of the Durban Process a month earlier in a news release under the grossly misleading headline, “Durban IV: Key Facts,” May 24, 2021, summarized by the phrase a “perversion of principles of anti-racism.” This characterization of Durban is made more concrete by asserting that it makes “…baseless claims against the Jewish people,” is used “to promote racism, intolerance, antisemitism and Holocaust denial…and to erode Israel’s right to exist.” This libelously false language of UN Watch should be compared with the texts of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action, the implementation of which is the overriding goal of the Durban Process, to gain some insight into the dark motivations of these Israeli oriented critics.

2021- Israel and Apartheid

True enough as of 2021 there would be no way to avoid supposing that ‘the plight of the Palestinian people’ was a direct result of Israeli apartheid, which is not only condemned by the Durban process, but is firmly established as a crime against humanity in both the 1974 International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and Article 7 of the Rome Statute governing the operations of the International Criminal Court. It is no longer reasonable to dismiss allegations of Israeli apartheid as extremist, much less as manifestations of antisemitism. Yet because Israel, with U.S. support, still controls the mainstream discourse in the West, the media stares at such stark findings in stony silence despite the prolonged suffering of the Palestinian people—a convincing reminder that where geopolitics and morality/legality clash, geopolitics prevails.

Redeeming the Durban Process 

There are two sets of observations that make these attacks on a laudable UN effort by way of Durban to highlight the many facets of racism and racial discrimination shameful and shameless. The Durban Process has become the core of a worldwide human rights campaign to increase public awareness and raise concerns within the UN as to the many varieties of racist criminality, as well as to underscore the responsibility of governments and the potential contributions of civil society activism.

It is notable that Israel and its behavior are not given nearly the attention in the Durban Declaration and Program of Action that such other issues as the abuse of indigenous peoples, Roma, migrants, and refugees. Indeed, in light of more recent developments that confirmed earlier concerns about Palestinian victimization the Durban Process, if anything, can be faulted for backgrounding Israel’s racism and falling into to the hasbara trap of imposing symmetrical responsibility on the oppressor and the victim, blaming both sides, precisely to foil the growing tendency of Israel’s organized support to play the antisemitic card as a growing tactic to deflect public attention away from a growing consensus that Israel operates as an apartheid state.

Perhaps, in the atmosphere of 2001 it was politically provocative to accuse Israel of racism and apartheid, although as I have tried to show, these allegations directed at Israel in the open debate at Durban were never followed up in the formal outcome of the Durban Conference. And as has made clear by its proponents, the Durban Process is primarily concerned with implementing the Durban Declaration and Program of Action. By 2021, what was provocative twenty years ago has become multiply confirmed by trustworthy and reliable detailed assessments, and indirectly endorsed by the Israeli Basic Law enacted by the Knesset in 2018. The highlights of this dynamic have taken place over the course of the last five years: –the release in March 2017 of an independent academic study sponsored by  UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia(ESCWA) that concluded that Israel’s policies and practices constituted overwhelming confirmation of allegations of apartheid [“The Practices of Israel toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid”;—the report of the Israeli human rights NGO, B’Tselem, “A regime of Jewish Supremacy from The Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid,” 12 Jan 2021—the Human Rights Report, “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution, 27 April 2021.

It is no longer plausible to contend that associating Israeli treatment of the Palestinian people as antisemitic. As a Jew myself, I regard Israeli justifications for its behavior toward Palestine as the embodiment of antisemitic behavior, bringing discredit to the Jewish people.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019). 

Learning from Others (about racism in German and the American South)

8 Dec

Learning from Others: Germans and White Supremacists


Susan Neiman has written a remarkable book, Learning from Others: Race and the Problem of Evil (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019). What makes it remarkable is the clarity, approach, and particular angles of interpretation taken toward racism, exploring with depth and originality the mystifying evil realities of prolonged lethal racist behavior, with a focus on its toxic longevity, and the importance of learning how its legacy in particular contexts might be best addressed. Neiman brings to bear her knowledge and craft as a professional philosopher, who at the same time philosophizes in an instructive manner that is far removed from the fixations on language and logic that is the mainstay of contemporary Western philosophy, whether Anglo-American or Continental. In this regard her stance toward philosophy is also a therapeutic undertaking that in its own way seems as vexing as is racism itself. In her own relevant words of lamentation, “(T)here was a time when American philosophers brought passion and clarity to the major social and political events of their day.” (261) She illustrates this observation by reference to Emerson and Thoreau, who in their time not only decried slavery, but supplemented their moral condemnation by engaging in acts of nonviolent and unlawful solidarity. Such is Neiman’s engagement with her challenging subject-matter.


Neiman insists that her preoccupation with evil is not so strange for a traditional philosopher. She is, as always, clear about her work being situated in what was once the philosophical mainstream: “How should we live in a world riven with evil? Is the question that has driven philosophy from its beginnings.” (18) Surely, this is one of the questions, but is it the question? I have my doubts. And certainly, the main philosophical work of the past century has dwelled on evil here and there. It is my impression that the most influential Anglo-American philosophers during my lifetime have made it almost dogma to avoid altogether the challenge of evil as a dimension of the human condition.  


A further feature of Nieman’s book, not often encountered in a self-consciously ‘philosophical’ book, is the insinuation of autobiographical details that express her personal connection with the argument being advanced. She informs readers at the very outset: “I began life as a white girl in the segregated South and I am likely to end it as a Jewish woman in Berlin.” (3) And she finishes her book by describing the failure of her attempt to live with her children in Israel. She was put off by what she experience of Israel’s tribalism, and this discomfort occurred despite the rather strong sense of Jewishness and its traditions that informs her worldview. That she feels more at home in Berlin than in Tel Aviv is both significant and intriguing, and goes along with her obvious tough love engagement with the deep South, especially the state of Mississippi. I suppose part of an explanation is an obsession with the occurrence of evil, how it happens, how it can be overcome, and above all how might the evil genie be returned to its bottle, although without minimizing the risks of a future escape as part of a justification for the preoccupation. In this sense, Learning from Others, can be read as citizen engagement on behalf of avoiding the recurrence of racism and other evils, or put crudely, as a way of taking seriously the rather flip slogan, ‘Never Again!.’ Her sense of citizenship, it strike me, centers on working to sustain freedom and a democratic spirit, in essence, a neo-Jeffersonian commitment to the ‘eternal vigilance’ Jefferson believed vital if democracy was remain true to its values in the course of time.


One other feature of the way Neiman proceeds arises from her sense that reality needs to be approached by listening with great care to how others with relevant experience articulate their engagement with this blight of collective racism, whether the voice is that of victim, resister, or even perpetrator. Her words: “I just became aware that you need to see events from many different angles before you can get as close as possible to the truth about them.”(83) What I found most impressive about this willingness to listen attentively and at length to all sides is that these conversations that appear throughout the book build toward moral clarity rather than encourage a suspension of judgment or the adoption of a posture of moral neutrality. Neiman avoid any pretense of detachment or professional distance, refusing to copy the supposed objectivity of a natural scientist or mathematician. Neiman leaves even the most casual reader with little doubt as to where she stands with respect to refusals by a social order and its members to purge the present of the past (that is never entirely past) by redressing evil, although she empathetically acknowledges that in the face of military and political defeat, such a redemptive healing process is more likely to occur, but takes time, patience, persistence, and maybe a bit of luck.


The thematic unity of the book is achieved by a focus on one of those incredibly inflected German words, vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, which Neiman renders in English as ‘working-off-the-past.’ (7). In effect, the taint of past evil, in this case the twelve years of Nazi rule or the stages of racist abuse, from slavery to Jim Crow to the resurgence of white supremacy in the American South, do not disappear on their own. It requires a deliberate often anguishing willingness to look the past in the eye, and to be sure in the present to rid the societal landscape of glorifying reminders of what needs to be rejected. In this regard she revisits in detail debates about the presence of monuments to Confederate heroes of the past and the ongoing attachment of most white southerners to the Confederate flag. She contrasts this American failure to get beyond its shameful racist past with the relative success of the German experience. It would be unthinkable, for instance, for a Nazi town or city to erect a statue of Hitler or fail to preserve the memory of a nearby death camp. The book acknowledges that maybe Germans were helped by not only losing the war, but by being occupied by foreign liberating forces for fifty years thereafter. The contrasting non-repentance of the American South is a major theme.


There are some surprising, well-reasoned, conclusions that give an interesting twist to German post-Nazi experience, living as a divided country from 1945 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I had never stopped to think why former Nazis seemed to have such an easy time in West Germany. Neiman sets forth two convincing explanations from her research and experience. Perhaps, most prominent, was the priority accorded in West Germany, especially by the United States, to anti-Communism, a credential that for a time virtually erased any blight from past Nazi affinities and activities so long as deactivated in the present. Of course, in East Germany under Soviet occupation and influence, the equation was somewhat reversed. Anti-Communism in any form was totally unacceptable, while anti-Fascism was the order of the day, infusing education and ideology. In effect, for this reason it took West Germans much longer to clear their body politic of the Nazi virus. Neiman is certainly not giving the East Germans a clean bill of health when it comes to addressing contextual evil, as she takes note of the failure of East Germany to acknowledge, much less repudiate, the crimes of Stalinism and the Soviet Union. At the same time, she believes that Nazism was a much more severe immersion in evil, and rejects the fashionable claim of their equivalence.


When it comes to American racism as still manifest in the South, Neiman convincingly notes the impact of conservative American presidents, including Nixon, Reagan, and most of all, Trump who has given racist dog whistles so loud as to be discernable by the most dimwitted. They signal that it is okay to revere the Confederate ethos and its heroes, that it is part of the American past, acceptable at the time, that need not be hidden or occasion shame. In her view, this tolerance of past racism unsurprisingly encourages extreme and pathological racists to translate their views into action in the present, and incidents such as the Charlottesville March and the Charleston massacre in a black denominational church are almost bound to occur.


A distinctive dimension of Neiman’s methodology is the presentation of extensive interview material from prominent historical figures, community leaders, and ordinary folk with stories to tell. Such an approach, according value to the voices of those with a relationship to memories and remnants draws on Neiman’s skill as an interviewer, or more accurately, a conversationalist. This includes the capacity to listen sympathetically, yet never foregoing her own unwavering and unconditional repudiation of racism whether in Germany or the Southland of America. I know of no philosopher of her distinction that dismounts from the elegant horses of philosophical abstraction to gather evidence from the trenches where the relevant realities of her inquiry are situated. The lucid prose style gives the book a clarity enlivened by a kind of storytelling quality. It is against this background of blending philosophical concerns with deep aspects of the human condition—in the spirit of Hannah Arendt—that a profound understanding of prolonged racism occurs. Neiman’s special type of empiricism blends philosophical inquire with social science. It makes this treatment of overcoming racism rather unique. Its special quality is also enriched by Nieman’s long personal experience in both Germany and the deep South. She does not write as an outsider, but in neither setting does she fully qualify an insider.


Perhaps, the most intriguing conclusion drawn from the comparative aspect of Learning from the Germans is that the Germans have done a better job of overcoming their past than have their American counterparts. Although Neiman discussed the rise of the far right AfD Party in considerable critical detail,  she seems to feel that although the AfD is a disturbing reminder that the Nazi virus is still present in the German body politic, it is a marginal phenomenon, drawing its strength not so much from the past as from the anti-migrant stance that has nudged the politics of all major European countries to the right. By way of disturbing contrast, the American people have elected as their president a person who actively encourages and embodies such a rightwards lurch, including a disparagement of the most basic institutions of constitutional democracy, as well as many signs of tolerance for if not sympathy with extreme racism as manifest in the majority racist politics of several southern states. I find Neiman’s insight here significant. In effect, Trump exhibits a pre-fascist potentiality in America, which is more fearsome than having a neo-fascist presence at the margins of mainstream politics as seems the case in Germany. Of course, if conditions change the margins can be erased or erode the mainstream in ways that should not be ignored as future possibilities. And in America, if Trump and Trumpism are repudiated in the 2020 elections, the country might again seem to resume the trajectory of creative democratic constitutionalism.   


With moral clarity Neiman supports the call for reparations to be paid to African-Americans. She considers the arguments opposed to reparations, but is unpersuaded, suggesting that it is an unpaid debt to the victims of slavery and Jim Crow that needs to be paid to survivors and descendants, if nothing else, . Neiman rejects the contention that those not victims are undeserving or those not perpetrators have no responsibility. She points to the wealth that slavery and racism brought to white society, and the impoverishment endured by African Americans, currently reflected in their differential wealth and income. In this instance, Neiman support a controversial argument, put forward most coherently Ta-Nehisi Coates, that even progressive political figures , such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren have not adopted, which would strike the American mainstream as unacceptably ‘radical.’  In effect, Neiman insists that working off the past of white racism requires something more tangible and ongoing than an apology, and that given the past enrichment achieved by society due to racist forms of exploitation, a monetary form of redress is quite appropriate.


This brings me, finally, to the question of Palestine as it plays out in Germany. Although Neiman does not embrace conventional Zionist arguments that are now insisting that criticisms of Israel are the ‘new anti-Semitism,’ she fails to take note of the unlearned lessons by Germans and Germany with regard to Israeli anti-Palestinian racism as practiced over the course of several decades. As a result of several recent actions Germany had taken strong official steps to discredit the BDS Campaign and its supporters. Beyond this the German Government has refrained from any criticism of the unlawful and abusive policies and practices relied upon by the Israeli state in dealing with the Palestinian people. Overcoming the Nazi past would seem to involve a repudiation of racist patterns of behavior, regardless of the identity of the perpetrator. For Germany to be inhibited from criticizing Israel because it proclaims itself the nation-state of the Jewish people is to confuse the behavior of a state with hatred of its people. To criticize Israel is not to attack the Jewish people, provided of course that the criticism rests on evidence and is proportionate to the wrong perceived. I find this oversight on Neiman’s part to be the only serious shortcoming of her book, and as serious in its way as she finds the failure of the United States to pay reparations to African Americans.


As indicated at the outset, Susan Neiman has contributed to an indispensable addition to the scholarship addressing links between past and present with respect to racism. Although the objects of her concern are limited to Nazism and the American South, the methodology of her inquiry and the insights that result can be derived from comparable studies of past evil and its legacies. Unfortunately, the histories of genocide and racism remain incomplete, with new

circumstances of moral outrage emergent in many distinct civilizational settings. In the end we are challenged by Neiman not to consider racism or evil as matters of destiny, but fully subject to the vagaries of human responsibility, which includes the domain of a free society.