The new issue of Harper’s, not yet available online, carries a piece by Naomi Klein challenging the “fairy tale Americans have been telling one another of late—the one about having entered a ‘post-racial’ era, with their dashing president cast in the lead.” She accomplishes this, rather deftly, by looking at the U.S. boycott in April of the United Nations Durban Review Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance—aka “Durban II.” The official reason for the boycott was that Durban II affirmed the principles of Durban I, the World Conference on Racism, which took place in the summer of 2001 in South Africa. Klein argues that the first conference, which was all set to focus on Africa and the socio-economic legacies of slavery, was the wildly unfortunate victim of a pre-conference sabotage by Islamic states that wanted to introduce language into the conference’s documents asserting that Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians are a form of apartheid and genocide. That got the p.r. guns of pro-Israel groups blazing in a campaign to discredit the entire conference.
The to-do turned public attention to the Middle East, a focus that remained uninterrupted in the following months, as Durban I concluded two days before September 11. A retrospective narrative took hold, Klein argues, in which the hatemongering at events surrounding Durban I and the World Trade Center attacks became of a piece—completely obscuring the Africa/reparation centerpiece that so many Durban I attendees were hoping to advance. By the time of Durban II, the anti-Israel patina surrounding Durban I was simply the excuse President Barack Obama needed for a boycott. What he was really avoiding, Klein says, was dealing with Africa and hard questions of racism, as has been his pattern, notwithstanding his speech about Rev. Jeremiah Wright—a denouncement she labels merely a strategic move to keep Obama in the contest. Obama, she says, “has studiously avoided anything that could be considered a black issue, from mass incarceration to the abandonment of New Orleans,” and supporting a conference about racism, and reparations, challenges the pull-your-self-up by your bootstraps, no-more-excuses position that Obama embraces.
But beyond Africa or Israel, the story of Durban, Klein argues provocatively, is the story of “Jews vs. blacks, a struggle between America’s two most powerful minority groups. The rivalry long predates the conference, of course. Reparations activists frequently point out that there is a Holocaust Museum in Washington but not a single major monument to the slaves who helped build the White House, or that many schools have far more detailed curricula about the Jewish genocide than they do about the transatlantic slave Trade…. For many civil rights leaders at the conference, it seemed that Jews—more than any sector of society—should have been their natural allies in the reparations call. Instead, it was large Jewish organizations and the state of Israel—itself a form of reparations, as Roger Wareham [an attorney who attended] pointed out—that successfully undermined the one international forum in which reparations for slavery were on the agenda.”
Which will no doubt keep the conversation about all this flowing.