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Israeli rejection of U.N. conference silenced potential talks


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 9, 2001

Israel, with the blessings of the United States, pulled out of the U.N. conference on racism in Durban, South Africa. Initially, I thought that Israel should have sent delegates to the conference, even as Arab leaders and their supporters equated Zionism with racism.

Israel, with the blessings of the United States, pulled out of the U.N. conference on racism in Durban, South Africa. Initially, I thought that Israel should have sent delegates to the conference, even as Arab leaders and their supporters equated Zionism with racism.

However, a colleague who was much closer to the events in Durban than I was dissuaded me of this view by explaining that the level of anti-Semitism among many Arab conferees posed real physical danger to Israelis who would have attended the non-governmental organizations' meetings. Easily, we could have witnessed a repeat of the Black September massacre, when, in 1972, Arab terrorists kidnapped Israeli athletes at the Olympic Village in Munich. Two Israelis were killed in the village, and nine others died at the airport.

The Durban crisis was unfortunate because if Israel is ever going to be brought into a serious moral discussion, including harsh criticism, about its treatment of the Palestinians, the venue must be conducive to such talks, and the other participants must be willing to sit down with Israelis.

But the anti-Jewish elements at Durban handed Israel a legitimate reason to stay home. This means that instead of earnestly facing up to the "Palestinian question" and how this problem threatens to kill the Jewish state's very soul, Israelis can continue to self-righteously deny and rationalize their misdeeds.

After a half-century as a country and after supporting itself in part with billions of American dollars, advice and political connections, Israel needs to grow up and become the moral beacon that its Jewish traditions and principles inherently call for. After all, Israel is the only democracy in a region run by iron-fisted, repressive strongmen and a thug or two.

An honest round of critical introspection at Durban would have been a good beginning for Israel and the rest of the world. Although such a move may not have silenced any of Israel's enemies, it would have put the Jewish state squarely in a continuing discussion that one day may yield positive results.

"By failing to criticize Israeli human rights violations adequately, world Jewry made itself vulnerable to the illegitimate criticisms in Durban," writes Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, in the New York Times. "And short-term protection from the racism of the resolutions at Durban achieved by joining the American walkout masks a deeper danger: Jews risk becoming identified with the forces in the world that oppose the struggle against racism."

The inhumane treatment of the Palestinians -- by a democracy -- has no place in contemporary life. Only the morally bankrupt would try to justify such treatment, as did New York Times columnist William Safire a few days ago when he described the current intifada as "the bloody guerrilla war launched last year against Israeli civilians. . . ."

Excusing Israel's sins and any role in the uprising, Safire totally dismisses the slow, perpetual dehumanization of the Palestinians. Yes, a war, guerrilla and otherwise, is raging in the Holy Land, but its root causes go far deeper than suggesting that Palestinians arbitrarily started hurling rocks and strapping bombs to their backs. This is a dangerous distortion of political history and a dismissal of the complex forces tearing the region apart.

The true cause of this war lies in what Lerner calls the institutionalized violence of the occupation, daily acts of humiliation against Palestinians and acts of settler violence to which the Israel Defense Forces turn a blind eye. The decades-old occupation -- including settlements, bombardment of defenseless towns, extended closures of entire cities, checkpoints, denial of medical treatment, tanks surrounding refugee camps, bulldozers demolishing homes, bypass roads and tunnels around and through Palestinian communities -- is nothing short of state-supported inhumanity.

The degradation inflicted on the Palestinian people is immeasurable and perhaps impossible to heal.

"We support an end to the violence, but an end to the violence that would leave the settlements in place, a few million Palestinian refugees with no way to get compensation, and an occupation continuing in all its vicious brutality would not really be a solution to anything," Lerner writes in a signed Tikkun editorial. "We have to recognize that the occupation and the settlements are in their essence institutionalized violence, so it makes no sense to ask one side, the Palestinians, to stop their struggle while the occupiers remain in place."

Jews need to acknowledge that Israel's current policies, including state-sponsored assassinations, are self-destructive and morally indefensible.

How does Israel justify its actions? The physical security of its citizens, a necessary concern, is understood and accepted by the world. I certainly have no argument with a nation that protects its own people.

But another dynamic is and has been at work since the creation of Israel in 1948. Marc H. Ellis, professor of American and Jewish Studies and director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University, argues that the Jewish establishment and its large right-wing following excuse Israel's sins by proclaiming the Jewish people's moral innocence -- a self-evident moral innocence "born of Jewish suffering."

In other words, because of their historical dispersal, the Holocaust and other horrors, Jews should be excused for their treatment of the Palestinians, or, at the very least, the world should not protest too much. Ellis argues, however, that "Jews were never more innocent than other peoples. . . ." They certainly are no more innocent than the Palestinians, their permanent neighbors.

Durban is history, but the Palestinian morass deepens with each new denial and rationalization. Many people, including Israeli Jews, have given up on any chance of peace ever coming to the region.

I am not one of these people.

At some point, perhaps not in my lifetime, a morally driven Israeli leader who will say "no" to the occupation and will implement changes necessary to initiate that sense of security Israeli Jews demand. On the other side, a courageous Palestinian leader will emerge, a leader who publicly and consistently condemns the violence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad against Jews.

Meanwhile, voices of reason everywhere need to sound off and drown out the extremists on both sides of this conflict -- a conflict in which no one is morally innocent, one in which everyone involved is responsible for finding a solution.

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