The Ruse of Israel: Durban Failures.
The 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.
This 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?
The 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.
Many 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 Israel.
We're 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! --