Below are pictures of empty chairs. The empty chair of Israel, who boycotted the Durban Review Conference. The empty chair of the United States, who sent a delegation to the Conference but decided the process was beyond salvation and chose to also boycott. The empty chair of France, who is attending the Conference but walked out of Ahmadinejad’s speech as soon as he referred to the Israel as a racist country and Zionism as a racist institution. Then there are countries, such as the eloquent ambassador from Norway, Jonas Gahr Store, who sat through Ahmadinejad’s speech and then gave a rousing speech of his own stating that “Norway will not accept that the odd man out hijacks the collective efforts of many” and noted that Ahmadinejad’s ideas "run counter to the very spirit of dignity of the conference." (See link on the right for the video of Norway's Speech)
Each of these choices have been questioned and criticized (with the exception of Israel’s decision not to attend – however they have spent the entire week having their very existence questioned and criticized). And that is yet another tragedy of Durban. Countries that support human rights and object to the hateful rhetoric of Ahmadinejad are still divided in how to respond. Well-meaning individuals and governments now must spend time debating how to respond to those actions that seek to vilify Israel, restrict free speech and turn the idea of human rights upside down instead of spending time debating how to address growing threats such as Islamophobia and how to address the genocide in Darfur.
In the end, the tragedy is that this conference is filled with distractions. Ahmadinejad is a distraction. Zionism is a distraction. Israel is a distraction. As long as people are debating whether Zionism is racism, they are not talking about what actions to take to help the survivors of the genocide in Rwanda. As long as people are debating whether it is appropriate to stand for a moment of silence for those killed in Gaza, they are not talking about the discrimination against the Dalits in India. As long as country after country is naming Israel – and only Israel – as a violator of human rights who should be dealt with by the United Nations, the eyes of the world will view this week as a circus instead of an opportunity to bring attention to minority groups from around the globe who are oppressed, tortured and killed by the actions of their governments.
We have heard criticism that the Jewish presence is only here to talk about Israel and does not actually care about the victims of racism. This criticism is, at once, both fair and unfair. We would like nothing more than to have the opportunity to learn about the victims of racism from around the world. Indeed, our group participated in the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy where we listened to genocide survivors from Rwanda and Darfur, dissidents from Cuba and Belarus and torture victims from Iran and Libya. We are here to educate ourselves on these issues so we can bring them back to our communities.
However, because so many of the events have been hijacked by the anti-Israel, anti-Semitic crusaders, we feel we need to be present to bear witness to this hate speech and, as appropriate, speak up to defend Israel. Because of this, it may appear that we only care about Israel. But we did not put Israel on the agenda and we surely did not put Israel in the spotlight. Others made that choice, and now we have spent our Conference doing what we could to minimize the damage. We would like nothing more than to be able to spend all our time going into panels and talking seriously about how to fight racism, intolerance and xenophobia and learning about the minorities around the world who suffer every days because of these tragedies. Instead, we are forced to defend Israel, to correct lies and to point out the hypocrisy. Instead, we are forced to bear witness. We did not want to have to make this choice, but in the end, it was the only choice we could make.
As the Conference draws to a close tomorrow, I know the questions that will face me at home. Were the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Poland, the Czech Republic, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany right to boycott the conference? Were the remaining countries of the European Union as well as others including Morocco (and, interestingly enough, the representatives from Palestine) right to walk out of Ahmadinejad’s speech? Was Norway right to sit through his speech? But really, there are no right answers here. There is no perfect response here. But there is clearly a wrong answer here. The wrong answer is to sit idly by and do nothing. The wrong answer is to remain silent in the face of evil. Regardless of whether one agrees with the empty chairs, at least these countries made a choice to do something. Regardless of whether one agrees with Norway’s decision to remain in the room, at least Norway made the choice to respond. The real evil is not limited to Ahmadinejad and those who applauded him. The real evil includes those countries that, in the face of evil, sits idly by and do nothing.