What do the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Italy and Israel have in common? They are all either European or European-settler states. And they all decided to boycott this week’s UN conference against racism in Geneva – even before Monday’s incendiary speech by the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad which triggered a further white-flight walkout by representatives of another 23 European states…
Ahmadinejad’s grandstanding played straight into that agenda. The most poisonous phrases in the printed version of his speech circulated by embassy officials referred to the Nazi genocide as “ambiguous and dubious” and claimed Zionist “penetration” of western society was so deep that “nothing can be done against their will”. That a head of state of a country of nearly 70 million people is still toying with Holocaust denial and European antisemitic tropes straight out of the Tsarist antisemitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is not only morally repugnant and factually absurd. It’s also damaging to the Palestinian cause by association, weakens the international support Iran needs to avert the threat of attack over its nuclear programme, and bolsters Israel’s claims that it faces an existential threat.
But, perhaps as a result of an appeal by the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Ahmadinejad dropped those provocations at the last minute. What in fact triggered the walkout of European Union ambassadors was his reference to Israel as a “totally racist regime”, established by the western powers who had made an “entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering” and “in compensation for the dire consequences of racism in Europe”.
The rhetoric was certainly crude and inflammatory. Britain’s foreign secretary David Miliband called it “hate-filled”. But the truth is that throughout the Arab, Muslim and wider developing worlds, the idea that Israel is a racist state is largely uncontroversial. The day after Ahmadinejad’s appearance, the Palestinian Authority foreign minister, Riyad al-Maliki, echoed the charge in the conference hall, describing Israeli occupation as “the ugliest face of racism”. It’s really not good enough for Britain’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Peter Gooderham – who led the Ahmadinejad walkout – to say of the charge of Israel’s racism, “we all know it when we see it and it’s not that”.
This is a state, after all, created by European colonists, built on the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population, whose founding legal principles guarantee the right of citizenship to any Jewish migrant from anywhere in the world, while denying that same right to Palestinians born there along with their descendants. Of course, Israel is much else besides, and the Jewish cultural and historical link with Palestine is a profound one.