Speech at UN Watch Conference
22 April 2009
Let us just imagine that this week the leader of a so-called Christian or northern caucasian state had taken the podium at a United Nations conference and made remarks about Muslims or about black people or about a democratically constituted rule of law nation such as those that were made by the President of Iran on Monday. There would have been an outcry. There would have been a mass walk out from Latin America, from Africa, from Asia. There would have been calls for sanctions and reform of the UN to prevent such a scandal happening again.
Instead we just had a pitifully small number of European states showing their disgust at listening to the racist claptrap that was heard on Monday. This is the disaster of double standards which sadly causes such damage to the United Nations.
That said, those who constantly call for boycotts of the UN or who denounce the UN do themselves no justice. There must be one forum in the world in which all the states of the world can meet and have their discussion.
This week at least we have seen a reversal of the disastrous emergence of organised anti-Semitism into UN procedures which was on witness eight years ago at the so-called Durban 1 conference.
Anti-Semitism has quit the back rooms of the neo-Nazi and extreme right-wing parties or the tracts of the Holocaust deniers or the obscure writings of Islamist ideologues and has now become mainstream politics.
Our task as anti-racists and as anti-antisemites is to move the issue of anti-Semitism from the lecture room and the academic monograph into active engaged politics.
To do this we have to understand the new ideology of 21st century anti-Semitism. And to understand ideology you have to return to the text, the text, always the text.
In the 1930s the Palais des Nations was where the pitiful appeals against fascism could be heard as states trembled at the march to war of the right wing dictators. This week the Palais des Nations was allowed to become the platform for as vicious a rant against Jews and Jewishness as the world has ever seen since Der Sturmer stopped publication in 1945.
Every anti-Semitic statement and accusation since time immemorial was heard here in Geneva on Monday from the President of the UN member states – there was the treatment of the Holocaust as "dubious", the most classic of contemporary anti-Semitic tropes which is to deny the very suffering that the Jewish people alone amongst all the great religious groups of the world experienced as their organised, scientific, cross border, mass murder was put into operation by one of the most advanced states and bureaucracies of then world history.
We heard that Jews controlled the economy and that Jews controlled the media. This, of course, is what the BNP, our home grown little anti-Semitic and racist party says in Britain.
But anti-Semitism is now a formidable ideology and organising force. It is developed by thinkers, clever men, who can write elegantly, and whose thoughts are then taken by propagandists and proselytisers and conveyed to a broader mass of people.
Anti-Semitism lies at the heart of the rise of the new extreme right in Europe. Have no illusions. On June 4th in Britain and then June 7th in most EU member states will take place elections to the European Parliament. There is every chance that the number of extreme right politicians whose party leaderships are based in part or in whole on connection to anti-Semitic and Jew-hating politics of the past will be elected to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. They will have parliamentary immunity. They will have offices. They will have income and large allowances to employ staff to pedal their extreme right and anti-Semitic language and ideas.
And anti-Semitism, of course, is turned into formal international diplomatic policy by states like Iran or by Saudi Arabia with its export of its Wahabi doctrines. I remain at a loss why the United States in particular where there is a great deal of sensitivity to the problem of anti-Semitism and the attacks on Jewish people and of course on the Jewish state of Israel take so little action to tell the rulers of Saudi Arabia that their state sanctioned export of anti-Semitic ideology does a very grave disservice to world peace and good relations with the democracies of the world.
What is to be done? I want to report to you simply as a parliamentarian that one can take action in the democratic forums of the world that are constituted by parliaments and congresses and national assemblies. Four years ago I helped set up and chair an all-party commission of inquiry into anti-Semitism. We operated as a classical parliamentary committee of inquiry does. We had evidence sessions in the Commons. We travelled around the country to take evidence. We invited people to send in their arguments and experiences relating to this subject including many comments from thoughtful people who believed that the subject was exaggerated or was being misinterpreted.
And at this point let me stress as all of us engaged in this cause have to do that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic. It’s true that all anti-Semites hate Israel but the Israeli Government has to exist in the court of its own national as well as international public opinion and accept responsibility for what it does. I was very pleased to hear last night Professor Alan Dershowitz make clear his own condemnation of the Israeli Government’s use of cluster and white phosphorous bombs in the recent Gaza conflict.
We published our report and the British Government agreed to implement its recommendations. These require the police to report more faithfully and accurately on anti-Semitic incidents. It requires the people who run our universities to make sure that campuses are not where Jewish students can feel intimidated or where anti-Semitic and Jew-hate politics and philosophy can be propagated.
The British Government has pledged each year to revise what it is doing to combat anti-Semitism and a report will be out soon.
I believe and my fellow parliamentarians believe that other congresses and parliaments and national assemblies can follow suit. Each will have to adapt this procedure to their own ways of working but it sends a powerful signal out that the democratic parliaments of the world take this issue seriously just as we must take the fight against racism, discrimination, intolerance and xenophobia seriously.
In February we sought to internationalise this procedure by holding a conference at which was an international coalition of parliaments to combat anti-Semitism. There were delegations from most European states, from Australia, Canada, the United States and very powerful contributions from political friends in Morocco and Tunisia. The next conference will take place in Canada next year and I hope this process now will continue to alert parliaments around the world of the need to combat anti-Semitism.
And of course we have to insist that the UN should be the locus of a global fight against racism as anti-Semitism is one of the most egregious forms of racism. I think we can acknowledge this week that after the disaster of Durban 1 in 2001 with its festival of anti-Jewish hate efforts have been made worldwide to ensure that the so-called Durban 2 conference here in Geneva was not hijacked by Jew hatred. I congratulate UN Watches and all the forces for democracy that have successfully argued the case that the UN should focus on racism and on those countries that practice discrimination of which Iran in terms of its treatment of its Arab citizens, its women, its gays and its young boys and girls which Iran executes in a form of judicial murder of children is the most egregious example. But just a friendly word of warning. We should not cry victory and those of us dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism should not be triumphalist as a result of the political achievement in ensuring that this week there was no repeat of Durban 1.
I pay tribute to the leadership of two foreign ministers, David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner, who made clear that their delegations would walk out if as we saw on Monday the UN allowed its podium to be used to launch attacks against Jews.
Undoubtedly, the original text proposed by the UN would not have been changed as radically as it was without the pressure of a boycott call from Canada and the United States but be careful. Before we celebrate boycotts or insist that everybody should boycott everything we will give ammunition to those who call for boycotts of journalists or academics in Israel as the efforts by those who hate Israel or hate the right of the Jews to exist in their own state often focus on trying to organise boycotts.
But this week undoubtedly is a week when we can legitimately say ‘No pasaran’, the Jew-haters did not pass. But the victory will be pyrrhic unless we all work to defeat and expose racism and discrimination. The racism that my Muslim constituents who have strong links to Pakistan experience in terms of the lack of economic possibility for those of a different race living with majority populations. The contempt for their faith. The refusal to accept that now in much of the northern world we are living with a mixture of races and cultures and we must make a success of this. Racism is still there and must be combated and perhaps when Durban 3 or the next conference on this subject is held there can be a unity of purpose between the great Jewish tradition of fighting for civil liberty and against racism and intolerance and the needs of people whose voices have been drowned out by the Ahmadinejad fiasco and feel that this conference this week has not heard any of their legitimate demands and complaints.
Finally, we also have to defeat the discrimination against women, against gays and against people of different faith that is so prevalent in so many countries of the world and we have to defeat one of the most important denials of human rights – the right to write. We are meeting here in the city of Geneva where Voltaire would come to escape in the 18th century from the censorship and repression of the clerical authoritarian regimes of 18th century France. It was literally unbelievable that some states were proposing that this conference should try and adopt a policy which sought to declare as discrimination criticism of religion. There is no right not to be offended.