The Oxford dictionary gives of the word Babylon two definitions:
1- the capital of Babylonia.
2- (scornful) (among blacks, especially Rastafarians) White society or its representatives, especially the police.
As the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR), has opened its gates to 10.000 official delegates from 181 countries, since last Friday, in an atmosphere of thorny controversy over issues and final declaration draft, it is almost inevitable to think of one of the above definitions as probably applicable to the case.
1) On the one hand, the first definition sounds the most appropriate, because there is a huge controversy about language. All those peoples, like in the old legend of Babylon, seem unable to use a common language in order to communicate. Thus, the first problem of the conference is the conference itself: How are we going to understand each other if we talk so many languages?
2) On the other hand, the second definition seems no less appropriate, if we take in consideration the grievance of some black people complaining from the US and the European pressure as regards the apology and financial reparations for African slavery.
3) There may be however a third analogy well picturing the international gathering, which is the Carnival. For the seriousness or the inconsistency of such an international gathering, was a subject of polemic in the world media since the first leaks about the problem of the final declaration’s draft. This analogy is mainly suggested by the decision of the State Department secretary, Colin Powell, to stay at home.
Such analogies may seem excessive, but this is exactly the best definition of the ambience prevailing on the ongoing conference. Passion is the adequate term, and passion cannot go without verbal – or physical- violence and excess.
Let’s take these three analogies one by one:
1- The equation between Zionism and racism seemed to block any agreement between Israel allies and the Arab and Muslim countries. Including such a wording in the Durban declaration is merely unacceptable to the West. Mrs. Mary Robinson, the United Nations’ Commissioner for Human Rights, was unequivocal on the issue. She said that it would not be on the agenda, and she considered even that “it has been one very progressive step” made during the preparatory WCAR committee meetings in Geneva. That is to suggest that the Arab and Muslim countries have given up on the whole issue, for Mrs. Robinson added: “There is no confirmed language in the (draft) text that in any way refers to or relates to the Zionism and racism issue, and what is there, in brackets, has the tendency to be changed. The commitment has been given to do that.”
We know that the Israel-US camp rejected a position paper that had been prepared by Arab and Muslim countries offering a compromise on the bracketed Middle East paragraphs in the Durban Declaration and the Program of Action. The Americans made sure that they would not sign the final declaration if it includes any condemnation of Israel.
But according to some rumors, the compromise that had been negotiated in Geneva involves persuading Arab countries to further tone down the language by the time the Durban conference closes on 7 September. In return, they will be granted their long-standing wish for a conference for the high-contracting parties of the Fourth Geneva Convention concerning the protection of civilians in time of war. Otherwise, a possible acceptation of international monitoring forces in the occupied territories.
Unfortunately, it seems that the event took a bad departure: Mrs. Robinson expressed her anger against an ill-inspired cartoon about the Jews, declaring: “I am a Jew!” Then she warned: ” it is well recognized that this conference cannot solve the Middle East problem”.
Now, it is obvious that all those who are making a fuss of such subjects miss a good occasion to be useful to this Conference. The Arabs first, because as usual they start by asking for the moon and end up accepting the “unacceptable”! Thus, it seems that they have already given up the claim equating between Zionism and racism! Would they give up the rest of what they have been so intent on claiming? If it reveals to be the case, then they would have missed a very good opportunity to be wise, in staying at home, like Mr. Powell! After all, the latter’s attitude is perhaps the most interesting, perhaps the smarter!
For the secretary of state, the Conference seemed perhaps just a trap. And that is not only because of the ” too much offensive language ” as he put it. That could not have been possibly what frightened him, but rather because of the weird position in which he would be put, as the first black secretary of state. ” The feeling is that you’ve had one breakthrough in naming the first African-American to be secretary of state”, Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., says. ” Now it’s most appropriate that that breakthrough be followed by allowing that pathbreaker to go to Durban and speak about America’s track record on racism and what America intends to do in the future.” (USA TODAY. Aug.20).
Anyway, what is all that dispute about? Zionist ideology and racism? Everybody knows that the issue is just a moral “compensation” for the Arabs unable to reach victory or peace. It is out of offense and humiliation that they are acting, and certainly not against the Jews or their religion. We all saw how Palestinians and Rabbis were demonstrating together, hand in hand, in Durban on the first day of the Conference, under banners stigmatizing Zionism as hateful apartheid. So, why should the Bush administration and the European governments be more royalists than the king? Are those Rabbis ignorant of what is Zionism? Are they treacherous to the Jewish people? The answer is no, but like the Arabs, they know that the Jews can be victims of the Zionism, in the same measure that many peoples have been victims of some political ideology of salvation, Marxism included.
Then, who the Western leaders boycotting the conference, seemingly on this ground -: protecting Zionism! – were thinking they are fooling? Certainly neither the Arabs nor the Africans, but perhaps the Israelis! Yet not all of them. For even for the latter, Zionism is perhaps already a dead ideology, and the Western leaders do not even suspect it. Here is an example:
On August 12, the Israeli columnist and author Tom Segev, writes in the New York Times that until last September, ” many Israelis seemed willing to re-examine fundamental issues of identity, including even the validity of the Zionist ideology itself”. For them, a “post-national” stage of development called ” post-Zionism” has led to support the 1993 Oslo accords, ” including the withdrawal from the Palestinian towns occupied in 1967″. T. Segev acknowledges that the Jews born after that date no longer believe in the Zionist ideology. This is also the case of an increasing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews, as well as for the Jews – about a million – who left the former Soviet Union: ” Most of them came for economic reasons, not in response to Zionist ideals…”
Would we believe a writer who is talking about something he deeply knows, since it is the society he is living in and writing about for so many years, or those who, despite they own power and influence, pretend that they can do nothing more to alleviate the plight of the Palestinian people? Why should Mr. Powell be more righteous than the modest rabbi walking in the streets of Durban, hand in hand with a Palestinian?
Thus, all that hysterical Western hotchpotch was about protecting an ideology that, had the horrible Sharon never appeared on the scene, the Israelis themselves would have sent to the antique where it really belongs, just like the Marxism and a lot of other old myths. But now that Sharon is Prime Minister, and that the Israelis are hostages of their military class, it is pointless to speak of post-Zionism: this is a stage described by the former Premier Netanyahu as ” post-post-Zionist”, according to the same Segev, which means the return to the old myths that accompanied the birth of the Israeli state, and baptized it with blood and fire- so dear to the general Sharon!
2- So in staying at home, Mr. Powell just avoids to be trapped or even pilloried, as he thinks. Maybe! Yet, despite that remarked absence the influence of the US is deeply felt, and resented. Some people believe that Washington is behind a massive campaign to keep the conference from dealing with the question of reparations. Meanwhile, new expressions have emerged, such as: ” African Diaspora”, ” the right of return” for the African Americans, ” the motherland and the Diaspora” for the blacks, etc. And it is almost impossible for any observer not to notice the resemblance with the longstanding Jewish terminology. It is well the first time that we hear that the blacks outside Africa, are not at home. So whether they live in America or anywhere on this planet, they are undergoing exile! Whence, the idea of ” return ” and “reparation”. Is that a political if not a philosophical trend, with a solid theoretic basis and clear aims, or just an improvisation or an occasional provocation – what the French call a ras-le-bol? Given the fact that a black political literature has already inspired many movements, either in the USA, (MalcomX, Luther-King, Farrakhan, etc.) or in Africa itself (the negritude movement led by Leopold S.Senghor, and the Pan-Africanism, from Jomo Kenyata to Kaddafi), it is obvious that the current trend is not to be cut off these roots. In the wake of the conference, we are reminded that the first Pan-African Conference on Reparations to Africa and Africans in the Diaspora, held in April 1993 in Abuja (Nigeria) never reached the American people. Few of them know also about the International Conference of the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission, meeting On 17 August 1999 in Accra (Ghana), which issued a demand for $ 777 trillion for the enslavement of Africans.
But a lot of this talk about ” reparations” seems to the Westerners irrational. Their first reaction is to point out that if slavery there was in the past, they were not the sole slavers. It is known that all the races have been involved in that trade at one stage or another of their development. The blacks were not the sole victims either. Besides, it is well the Western democracies of Britain and America ” who first outlawed and suppressed the slave trade”, and America even underwent a civil war to that end. So, who is going to pay if everybody – this is a historic fact- has been involved in that business? Moreover, If the White Westerners are targeted, they may also ask for reparations: France, Spain, Italy, Greece, and other European countries have been victims of the Arab privateer activity in the Mediterranean Sea for centuries. Why should they not ask for reparations also? Until recent times, they say, slavery has been an admitted trade in many Arab countries, although silence was kept about it. So, what should the Arabs reply if they are told: If you have really nothing on the conscience about that slavery business, go and ask for reparations with the blacks? Then, if we are to believe George Kerevan writing for the Scotsman (Aug.31), the President of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade is one of the fierce opponents of reparations. He noted: ” If one claims reparations for slavery, the slaves of my ancestors, or their descendants, can also claim money from me. Because slavery has been practiced by all people in the world”.
Yet, some delegates do not see the point behind organizing such a conference, if it is just to exchange polite and void verbiage! It would be a waste of time and money, they say. South Foreign Affairs Minister Dlamini-Zuma said it was unrealistic to expect delegates not to discuss these issues: ” Whatever forms of discrimination, particularly as they relate to racism, will be discussed”.
3- Apparently understanding these needs, the organizers thought of opening a forum, which is viewed by many attendees as more important than the conference itself. As regards the Middle East, the NGO forum has not balked from taking a stand on the issue and a final version of its draft declaration condemns the actions of the Israeli State for imposing an unjustifiable war against the people of Palestine. The declaration also says the case of Palestine is one of the most serious cases of foreign occupation.
The forum is also easily transformed into a bleeding arena. That is what disappointed one of its reporters, who bitterly depicted it as ” a vehicle for racism rather than to combat racism!”(Daily Mail & Guardian, Aug.31).
People are relaying to make sententious assertions and grandiloquent declarations about issues they deem sensitive, among an incredible display of national and identity symbols, from clothes to haircut, whence the feeling of African feast or carnival: The Untouchables of India lobbying against the caste system. The bleeding hearts – white activists- still acting as quasi-handlers for the minority and indigenous people. Tibetan monks asking for the liberation of their people from the Chinese yoke. Muslim representatives of Europe warning about Islamophobia. Nuns talking about the role of the church in ending racism. Griquas from the Northern Cape. Romany Gypsies of Europe. Jewish Caucus and Palestinians. African-Americans…etc. And above all, 13 heads of state, mostly African, and not one from the White, tranquil West!
Obviously nothing disturbs the quiet West! Yet, its leaders are not confident to the point of attending a conference, “apparently” headdressed by the UN, but “controlled” by ” little” nations, some of which are deemed to seeking revenge against the industrial world.
It is almost comprehensible in this context of passion and conflictual interests that those who feel the wind blowing against them choose to set back and watch. Yet, this conference cannot be a success if it does not prevail over its own demons. In Seattle and in Genoa, the industrial world was triumphant inside, while violent demonstrations outside were transforming the neighborhood into an inflamed scene of street fighting. In Durban, the great majority of the offended and humiliated that feel they have been excluded from progress and welfare, seemingly intends to make its voice louder. However, it would be unfair to omit that the most incisive critic of Mr. Powell’s attitude perhaps came from the USA itself. Civil rights groups have actually demanded that the Secretary of state lead any US delegation sent to Durban. For him not to go would be “a tragedy… a travesty”, says Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. That was also the position of Jess Jackson as well as other black personalities who wanted the US government to account publicly for the past misdeeds. Some of them likened between two issues including Jews and blacks: ” The US applauded the decision by German corporations to pay compensation to slave laborers in Nazi concentration camps,” wrote Earl Ofari Hutchinson in the Black Press USA.Com (Aug.20), ” and helped broker a deal in which Swiss bankers agreed to pay billions to holocaust victims for pillaging their bank accounts”.
The conclusion is not hard to guess: like it or not, the Zionism and the reparations’ issues seem linked. The argument goes this way: if the Jews – engineered by the Zionist organizations- have been able to convince the West that it owes them money, why the descendants of the slaves cannot do the same thing? Furthermore, if they have documents proving their assertions, like the Jews, and if they know who were the slavers of their fathers and forefathers, why should they be denied compensation? Last, but not least, if financial compensation seems unpractical and too hard to carry out, for numerous and varied reasons, why not accord to the victims of racism and slavery a moral reparation?
Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.