Who's Calling Who A Racist?

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Israel’s former UN ambassador, Dan Gillerman, has urged  Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to "keep away" from the upcoming UN World Conference Against Racism to be held in Geneva in April.

Gillerman warns that the conference — commonly known as Durban II — will be used as a stage to condemn Israeli policies and equate Zionism with racism. He adds that "countries like Australia who, to my mind, represents the best of what democracy and civilisation can be, shouldn’t take part in this charade".

For some time now Israel and Canada have indicated that they will be boycotting the conference, and on Friday the US State Department announced it will be following suit. After attending a series of discussions in Geneva ahead of the conference, the US decided that the process was "unsalvageable" from its point of view.

Israel’s fierce opposition to Durban II stems from the discussion of Israel’s controversial policies in the Palestinian Occupied Territories that is expected to occur there, and the declarations that may result. In 2001 the Israelis stormed out of Durban I, along with the US, describing the event as "anti-Semitic".

However, Israel’s opposition to the forum is questionable. The purpose of the anti-racism conference is to highlight problematic areas in the world where racism is persistent and dangerous. Indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a hot spot for ethnic, religious and racial tension — is an obvious focus for any discussion of racism globally. Despite being scathing of Israel’s policies, participants at the previous Durban I conference explicitly denounced anti-Semitism as well as Islamophobia.

Israel’s bid to equate criticism of its policies to anti-Semitism is merely an attempt to deflect attention from its handling of the Palestinian question. No country likes to admit that its policies have traces of racism or they are committing fault. It took Australia seven decades to abolish the White Australia Policy, and it took years for us to even acknowledge that stealing Indigenous children from their parents was wrong.

What the conference does raise is the necessity to examine and question Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. Progress is impossible without self-reflection and global scrutiny, something that Israel desperately needs to help it move away from pursuing policies that — according to many participating states at Durban II — are racist.

Durban II will indeed include criticisms Israel would prefer to ignore. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the concrete wall imprisoning Palestinians in impoverished enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza, which arbitrarily bisects many Arab properties and separates them from other Arab and Jewish villages.

There is also the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, often serviced by roads that only Jewish people are allowed to use, while the Palestinian population must make lengthy detours. At the same time, Israel carries out a continued program of demolishing Arab homes and confiscating Arab property.

It is also likely that some participants at the conference will voice their objections to Israel’s recent onslaught upon Gaza, where indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and the illegal use of white phosphorus caused 1300 deaths.

Israel can hardly expect the conference to ignore that over the last 60 years the Israelis have imposed a multi-layered social reality based upon racial and religious discrimination. A Jewish Israeli citizen enjoys the privileges of social freedom, economic prosperity and access to Jewish-only enclaves. A Jew who arrives tomorrow from Russia with no historic or family attachment to the land will immediately receive citizenship and government assistance. A Palestinian in their own home with roots to the land going back centuries risks having that home bulldozed or shelled. 

The racism Palestinians experience under the Israeli system is so entrenched that in one way it defines the whole issue. In contrast to the first-world living standards of Israeli Jews, many Palestinians within the Holy Land are forced into squalid refugee camps. While new illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank are plush with tree lining, new roads and essential services, Arab villages languish in squalor and few if any Israeli public works efforts ever reach the occupied villages that they are required, under international law, to administer.

Palestinian movement is severely restricted, and if travel permission is granted, it’s often conditional upon humiliating checkpoint inspections. In many cases Palestinians wishing to move from one part of their own personal property to another are required to have the approval of Israeli military personnel manning the many military checkpoints scattered across the Occupied Territories.

In Israel, this massive gap in people’s quality of life is decided for them by the Israeli Government on the basis of race alone.

The everyday racism of Israeli political discourse took a turn for the worse after the recent electoral victory of the far-right party led by Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman’s campaign caused uproar when he proposed a "loyalty oath" whereby Arabs would have to sign a pledge to Israel as a Jewish state or risk being stripped of citizenship.

Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper has criticised Lieberman in an editorial likening the extremist leader to Austria’s infamous Nazi sympathising politician, the late Jörg Haider, and to France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. Now Lieberman looks likely to take his place as part of a new right-wing government in coalition with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

But, as Michael Brull has recently discussed in newmatilda.com, racism is a fundamental part of the Israeli politics across all the main political parties. The difference between Israel’s main parties is more in style than in substance. No main political party has shown any inclination to break from traditional Zionism, an extremist nationalist ideology that aspires to create a Greater Israel within the boundaries of historic Palestine.

Israel’s Prime Minister-designate, Benjamin Netanyahu, has rejected conceding land to the Palestinians in a peace deal and favours the expansion of illegal settlements. He also prefers a military hardline answer to the Palestinian problem, and has expressed his opposition to peace talks with Syria.

His main rival, Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, also offered nothing that demonstrated a will to break from Zionism, but instead called for the removal of Israel’s 1.3 million Arab citizens into the Occupied Palestinian Territories in order to ensure Israel’s Jewish purity.

Nor has there been much sign that Israel’s Labor Party is prepared to push a meaningful peace agenda and break with its history of furthering the Zionist program, which even under the relatively moderate Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin did, by his own account, more than anyone to build Jewish settlements on Arab land.

The UN conference is one forum that can and should make the point that Zionism is inherently racist in its drive to create a Jewish-only homeland. It is an attitude that systematically denies the human rights of the indigenous Palestinian people and identifies them as an enemy to its aims because of their very existence, whether or not they engage in armed resistance to their ongoing dispossession.

Israel is by no means the only state in the world to have engaged in racist policies, particularly concerning indigenous peoples. For the better part of the 20th century, Australia’s engagement with Aboriginal peoples was also clearly racist, defined by a familiar story of land grabs, restriction of movement, forced impoverishment etc.

Gradually, Australia has made an attempt to come to terms with the consequences of its racist history. This is the painful journey that led to Kevin Rudd’s official apology to the Aboriginal people for the Stolen Generations in 2008. On that day the nation acknowledged error in its racist approach to Indigenous people. The idea of racial purity is nonsensical, and most of Australia realised as much decades ago.

Contrary to Dan Gillerman’s idea that strong democratic nations like Australia should steer clear of the anti-racism conference in Geneva, countries like Australia and Israel both have a lot to gain from attending a forum dedicated to addressing the persistent issue of racism across the world. Within such a forum, and after it, Australia can make a valuable contribution by helping Israel to move away from policies that inevitably cause racial hate, violence and failure. As a friend to Israel, Canberra must make it clear that the country’s pursuit of the racist path will not result in a peaceful solution for either side.

Attending Durban II will send Israel the message it needs to hear from its closest friends in the world: Tel Aviv must abandon its racist approach to the Palestinian conflict. And we, with recent experience in taking a pivotal step in racial reconciliation, are in a good position to help Israel accept its own indigenous population.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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