The Ruse of Israel: Durban Failures.

state force. While brown faces now dominate everyday life in the center of the

city, many of those faces are gaunt with hunger and desperation.


conversation turned, precipitously, to Israel. I suspected we’d get there soon

enough because anyone who talks about the WCAR seems to find him or herself in

this imbroglio. Besides many of the youth in the courtyard had participated in

the pro-Palestine march earlier in the week, and a few posters to indicate that

event adorned the entryway into the mosque. My new friends seemed reasonably

well informed about Israel, about the restrictions to movement of Palestinians

for work, of the routine violence by the Israeli state against political

figures, of the miserable conditions of everyday life in the Authority. Ramallah

became Soweto or Chatsworth, Abu Mustafa became Chris Hani and the Pass Laws

seemed to come alive in the roadblocks and humiliations as Palestinians tried to

get to their jobs and hospitals in the state of Israel. For these very liberal

and heterodox Muslims, the conundrum of Israel was simple: here is a state for

one people (Jews) which retains a mixed population because of historical

circumstances and for its labor needs, and for security and fiscal reasons it

does not contemplate the treatment of its fellows as equals.


is all well and good, I said, but why is the issue of Israel at the heart of the

conference, indeed why has the United States pinned its own participation here

based on the question of Israel? The answer that one often heard in Durban, both

at the mosque and in the conference halls, is that this has to do with the

special relationship of the US and Israel or perhaps with the Jewish lobby in

the United States. Of course the US executive is a Republican and if anything

the "Jewish vote" is mainly Democratic, so that the latter reason is specious.

Furthermore, the US does not always stand beside Israel with such ferocity. For

example, in recent months the Israeli government has been a bit frustrated with

the tendency of the US to be critical of its excesses, such as the assassination

of PFLP leader Abu Mustafa. Why should the US alienate such a vast section of

the world, and of its own citizenry, on behalf of Israel? Or did the US really

leave Durban only because of Israel?


issue at Durban was neither merely the question of an Israeli racism nor mainly

of definitions of race. The third WCAR built from the heritage of the two

previous meetings and from our current context of neoliberal globalization. The

first conference in 1978 trashed the biological idea of race, and suggested that

"race" was entirely a social fiction. Following this it offered a strong

condemnation of "the extreme form of institutionalized racism" in South African

apartheid, and it suggested economic measures to liberate peoples around the

world from a racism embedded in our institutions. This was a far seeing document

and it set the trend for the decades to come. Five years later, again in Geneva,

the WCAR once again condemned South Africa, noted the sharp oppression of women

of color and of "indigenous people." The third WCAR, following from the spirit

of the 1978 meeting, was all principally about the question of a remedy.


African and Asian nations, and most Africans of the diaspora, put the issue of a

formal apology for slavery and colonialism, as well as concomitant reparations

at the forefront of their Durban agenda. Chattel slavery in the Americas and the

colonial extraction of materials and labor in Asia and Africa produced the

values that fueled the industrial revolution in northwest Europe and

northeastern America. Without that free labor, it is unlikely that we’d have

such a disparity of wealth across the globe: colonialism made whiteness a form

of property, and that possession was then cashed in by self-designated whites

for the resources of the world. The best justification for this is John Locke’s

Second Treatise, where he writes that only those who use god’s resources

("whites" such as himself) have title to the soil, whereas those who do not

(such as Amerindians) may be freely expropriated. The bill for unpaid back wages

was tendered at Durban.

Europe and the US of course did not want to pay that bill; indeed they did not

want to start the conversation about reparations. The former colonies asked that

slavery and colonialism must be deemed a "crime against humanity," a formulation

rejected by the European Union and the US since it might, according to

representatives of the EU, open whiteness up to lawsuits. The Zimbabwean

minister of justice, himself rather compromised by the lawless land grabs,

nevertheless was on point when he said that the EU and the USA "are more worried

about their wallets than moral issues." The EU stayed the distance of the

negotiations, eager to tender an apology for slavery and colonialism and ask

that the world community, and particularly the former colonial states,

contribute to "restore the dignity of the victims." The United States had

already left the conference by the time these negotiations came up, so that

their representative did not have to reveal that the dollar is far more

important than the dignity of its own citizens. If the EU at least came to the

table with talk of "contributions," the US government in recent years has shown

that it is averse to even such an approach (with the demise of even liberal

measures, such as welfare and other social programs, toward building the

capacity of impoverished people of color).

Israel provided the US with the high ground. Rather than deal with the mess of

history, the US could leave the WCAR on a white horse, as the champion of a

state that portrays itself as a victim. Israel bore more weight for the US State

Department than its own citizens, particularly African Americans who, poll data

indicates, overwhelmingly support some form of reparations (often as a social

investment fund rather than as individual paychecks). The US NGO delegation, a

full fourth of the total NGOs at Durban, found that they had less input into the

State Department, and indeed felt treated as interlopers in a discussion among

the powers. The issue of reparations, then, was occluded by the question of



drinking tea outside the mosque, and I’m talking to my two new friends who

migrated from Lahore a decade ago. We keep fighting each other for land, he

tells me, when we should be aware that the ground is being taken away from under

us. Neoliberal globalization wants to retain the advantages secured by history

and to undermine the limited gains made by import-substitution style anti-racist

justice. And the wily guardians of the old order, such as the US, turn us away

from those issues, prevent a discussion of such problems, and make a tragic

situation the convenient scapegoat for their own mendacity. Durban’s failures,

then, were occasioned less by the scattered debates that taught us so much about

the different forms of oppression around the world. Culpability for the failure

must be borne by the US and the EU, both eager to protect their pocketbooks and

to avoid the appearance of callous racism rather than put the creditors at bay.

No bill goes unpaid: at least the capitalist core should know that!


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