Durban Day 3: Tal encounters the Neturei Karta

April 24, 2009 by J-Wire
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Tal Shmerling reports from Geneva where he is representing AUJS in the European Jewish Students; Union demonstrations

Day 3 of the Durban Review Conference- Tal Shmerling

Today was different from the previous two days. The governmental forum, the official component of the conference, has essentially ended since the outcome document was adopted by acclamation late yesterday afternoon. Some of our Jewish student delegation headed off to the UN and they later tell me that, unlike the previous days, the halls of the UN were unexciting. Inside the assembly hall, a few countries were given the chance to speak and, unsurprisingly, some countries used it as an opportunity to criticize Israel. The Iranian delegate’s response to criticism of Ahmadinejad’s speech is probably the most eventful speech of the day.

I, on the other hand, head off to a full-day parallel event called the “Conference Against Racism, Discrimination and persecution”, organized by the Jewish caucus, the united body of Jewish organizations working together in Geneva. The list of speakers is extremely impressive, including the chair of “UN Watch” Alfred Moses, Canadian MP Irwin Cotler, Harvard Law Professor and renowned human rights advocate Alan Dershowitz, and French philosopher and author Bernard- Henry Levy. Half the speakers speak about Israel’s political complexity and the challenges it faces. However, I found it refreshing that many of the speakers simply speak about Israel’s rich cultural diversity. The standout for me is a young Ethiopian woman who describes the difficulties she faced trying to adapt to Israeli society and how she ultimately prevailed to become a well integrated and proud Israeli. The event is predominantly attended by Jews.

All those who have attended the parallel event then proceed to the main square outside the UN for an ‘Israel inspires’ rally. The rally is extremely well attended and there are no serious threats of any counter rallies. Everybody holds up signs about Israel and wear pro-Israel T-shirts. The speakers deliver their speeches with gusto and inspiration, leaving plenty of room for enthusiastic applause.

One question that continues to bother me now is whether it is appropriate to have a huge pro-Israel rally outside the United Nations building at this time. After all, Israel’s main criticism of the UN is that it has allowed a conference to be hijacked and distracted from the real issues of racism. Could running this kind of event also constitute hijacking the conference to further our own agenda? I do not yet have the answer.

Probably the only really interesting incident of today was my encounter with Neturei Karta. The man, wearing a long black coat and sporting a flowing grey beard appears stereotypically Jewish, yet his beliefs are far from stereotypical. The man is vehemently anti-Zionist to the point of supporting Ahmadinejad as a method of dismantling the Jewish state. I see a Sudanese Darfuri come up to the man and hug him, thanking him for yesterday’s rally in support of the oppressed Darfuri people! It just shows how problematic it is when non-Jews incorrectly assume the Neturei Karta to be representatives of the Jewish people, when nothing could be further from the truth.

I approach the man to engage him in debate. His presence bothers me immensely. I ask him: “How can you call yourself Jewish and then embrace Ahmadinejad who calls for the extermination of the Jewish people?” Before I have the chance to continue, he asks me is whether I keep Shabbat and Kashrut. Seeing my hesitation, he retorts that I have nothing to contribute to the discussion if I do not keep Halacha properly. Infuriated, I decide to disengage, realizing that there is nothing productive that could come from this discussion.

My disdain for the Neturei Karta began yesterday at one of the NGO side events. The event was called “Racism- the road to genocide” and there were two Neturei Karta in the room. Being Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance day, one of the speakers called everyone to stand up for a moment’s silence in the respect of those who perished in the Holocaust. Only a handful of people refused to stand up, including those men from Neturei Karta. An Israeli student lost control and lashed out verbally at the man. I continue to struggle to understand how Holocaust denial can fit in their world view.

After two incredibly intense days, today was a more relaxed day and I suspect tomorrow will be much the same as the conference winds to a close. Tomorrow over a hundred NGOs will be allocated a 2 minute time-slot to address to plenary, including 4 or 5 Jewish NGOs. The Jewish caucus has been struggling all day with the decision of who should represent Jewish communities, and I look forward with interest to seeing who will be chosen.

So much has happened, and I look forward to the “calm after the storm” to reflect on all I have seen and heard over these past few days. The experience has been extremely confronting but also extremely satisfying at a personal level. Though I will need a few days to digest everything, my gut feeling tells me that the Jewish student’s presence in Geneva has made a valuable and significant impact on the conference. We were able to help expose the conference’s true colours and I am proud to have been apart of that.

Another significant positive to come from this experience has been the interaction within the Jewish caucus. Could this have been one of the first times that many of the most important Jewish organizations from around the world, Bnei Brith International, UN Watch, WJC, AJC, the British BOD, and numerous others, have been so united? For me, seeing what amazing successes the Jewish world can achieve when we work together is what has left me feeling most positive about the future of the Jewish people.

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