The 2009 World Conference Against Racism, the fourth conference of its kind, organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), was held in Geneva from 20-24 April.
The conference was notable mainly for the controversy it elicited, with a number of (rich white, along with the junior members of the EU club) countries boycotting or walking out. The scenes were not dissimilar to those witnessed at the last such conference, held in Durban in 2001, when the US and Israel walked out over a draft resolution that likened zionism to racism (and when the European countries pulled together to defeat a resolution calling for individual apologies from each of the countries responsible for slavery, recognition of it as a crime against humanity, and payment of reparations).
The US, Germany, Holland, Poland, Canada, Israel, Italy, Australia and New Zealand all boycotted the 2009 conference, citing the alleged ‘anti-semitism’ of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who had stated his intention to attend. Other countries warned they would stage a walkout in the event of Israel being labelled as racist. The French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, told France Info: “If he [Ahmadinejad] utters racist or anti-semitic accusations, we will leave the room immediately.”
In the event, all the delegates from the EU countries in attendance (around 40 people, from 23 countries) walked out near the beginning of Ahmadinejad’s speech, in a move aptly described by Jeremy Paxman as a “political stunt”. British ambassador Peter Gooderham, who was among those who walked out, described Ahmadinejad’s comments as “offensive and inflammatory ... Such outrageous anti-semitic remarks should have no place in a UN anti-racism forum.” He added that the charge that Israel is a racist state is one that “we unreservedly condemn” (Quoted on english.aljazeera.net, 23 April 2009)
Were Ahmadinejad’s remarks racist?
Here is what the Iranian president said that was so offensive as to prompt 40 well-educated, well-paid diplomats and ministers to throw their toys out of the pram:
“Following World War II, they [the western powers] resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless on the pretext of jewish sufferings. And they sent migrants from Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world in order to establish a totally racist government in the occupied Palestine.”
The reaction to this was mixed: the Asian, African, Middle Eastern and South American delegates applauded wildly; the European delegates left in a huff. Ahmadinejad continued: “And in fact in compensation for the dire consequences of racism in Europe, they helped bring to power the most cruel and repressive, racist regime in Palestine.
“The Security Council helped stabilise this occupation regime and supported it in the past 60 years, giving them a free hand to continue their crimes. It is all the more regrettable that a number of western governments and the United States have committed themselves to defend those racist perpetrators of genocide whilst the awakened, conscience and free minded people of the world condemn aggression, brutalities and bombardments of civilians in Gaza.”
It goes without saying that we, as communists, come from a different political and philosophical background to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and would naturally disagree with him on any number of points. However, we can find nothing wrong with the statements above, which are a simple statement of fact. To deny the racist nature of zionism and to deny the brutality with which the Palestinian population is treated is equivalent to denying the Nazi holocaust (something Ahmadinejad is frequently accused of, although we cannot find any evidence of this; indeed he refers quite clearly above to the “dire consequences of racism in Europe”, surely referring, not least, to that holocaust).
Israel is a racist state, and so are the countries that back it
Racism is the belief in the inherent superiority of a particular race. The state of Israel is built on precisely this belief. ‘Racial discrimination’ is defined by the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination as “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life”.
To be a Palestinian within the borders of Israel means to have your human rights violated, day after day, year after year. You cannot travel from place to place without the humiliation, delay and unpredictability of Israeli checkpoints. You cannot buy or rent property in many of the towns that you or your ancestors were expelled from. Your health, education, transport and leisure needs are ignored in favour of your jewish settler neighbours.
If you live in the Occupied Territories, you may not marry someone who lives in Israel. You almost certainly live on or below the poverty line. You are unlikely to have access to regular employment. You live under constant threat of your land being expropriated. You can’t get a building permit.
If you live in Gaza, you are subjected to the psychological torture of sonic booms and the physical trauma of war. You are far more likely than your jewish counterpart to be sent to prison, and, even if you avoid that fate, you are still a prisoner in your own country.
To be a Palestinian outside the borders of Israel, or the West Bank and Gaza, means to be denied the right to return to your homeland. You may not travel to the land where you or your parents were born. Meanwhile, any jew, even a new convert, without the slightest family connection to Israel, is entitled to become a citizen of Israel and to set up home there, perhaps in the house of a Palestinian family now rotting in a refugee camp in a neighbouring state.
Israel is racist to its very core, and to label it as such is uncontroversial. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and its most revered political statesman, made it quite clear: “We must do everything to ensure they [the Palestinians] never do return ... The old will die and the young will forget.”
The following unambiguously racist words of former Israeli Knesset member Rabbi Meir Kahane sum up the racism that lies behind the state of Israel: “We are different; we are a chosen one, and a special one, selected for purity and holiness. There is no reason to being a jew, unless there is something intrinsically different about him. No, we are not equal to gentiles, we are different. We are higher.”
And what of the countries that boycotted the conference? These included “the US, Canada, Israel, New Zealand and Australia — the major settler states that through genocide displaced indigenous populations from their territory. The Netherlands, the plunderer of Indonesia, and Germany and Italy, which waged murderous wars against barely armed African populations, joined them, as did Poland, now itself a semi-colony.” (‘Racist states walk out of Geneva meeting’, Workers World, 23 April 2009)
The record of Britain in relation to the populations of India, Ireland, the Caribbean, Zimbabwe, Kenya and other countries (not to mention those members of its own population with Irish, Indian, West Indian, African, South American or East European heritage) is well-known.
In the US, one in 15 black men and 1 in 36 Hispanics over the age of 18 are in prison, as compared to 1 in 106 white males. The poverty rate for blacks was 24.3 percent in 2006; for whites it was 8.2 percent.
We must conclude that those countries which boycotted, or walked out from, the racism conference did so in order not to protest at the racism of Iran’s president but rather to divert attention from the fact that they themselves are racists and imperialists.
Why and how we fight racism
Racism must indeed be countered and defeated. We don’t say that because we’re nice middle-class liberals who wish everybody could just get along; we say it because racism is a powerful weapon that has been used (often painfully effectively) against the working class by the capitalist class, and against the oppressed nations by the oppressor nations.
Racism is used to ‘divide and rule’ on two fronts: at home, it seeks to prevent the unity of the working class in order to keep that class weak and impotent; on the international level, it seeks to prevent the development of a united front between the working class in the imperialist countries and the oppressed masses of the third world, painting the latter as brutal barbarians whose desperate circumstances are brought about by inter-tribal rivalry, incompetence and the like.
Ultimately, racism isn’t going to be defeated by UN conferences; it’s going to be defeated through the necessity of joint struggle. Faced with the inevitable decay of capitalism, black and white workers in Britain have no option but to unite and fight, and the resultant movement will reject colonialism and imperialism and will express the utmost solidarity with the masses of Asia, Africa and Latin America, who are leading the struggle against imperialism.