What to remember from Geneva

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s antics in Geneva on Monday were exactly what was implied by his clown-bewigged protestors: a sideshow. The real important development from the Durban Review Conference occurred yesterday, when countries approved, with no alterations, the text of the anti-racism resolution that had been worked out in the weeks beforehand. No one will confuse this document — whose creation was led by Western countries that still remained in conference negotiations and includes not a single mention of Israel — for an Ahmadinejad rant, but I already worry that memories of the conference will play right into the Iranian leader’s hands and focus on his distractions over the conference’s substantive output.

It’s also worth noting that the 2001 Durban anti-racism conference — inaccurately derided on the right for doing nothing but criticize Israel — took the whole week alotted to it to arrive at a consensus document. Its successor avoided the problems and protracted debate — some of which, yes, was caused by some participants’ inordinate focus on Israel — that marred the Durban conference by, it seems, learning its lessons.

For one, this conference has lacked the additional sideshow of a parallel NGO forum, which had been the site of most of the anti-Semitic filth in 2001 and to which the UN and philanthropic foundations smartly decided not to provide any assistance this time around.  The anti-Israel protests and literature that roamed the streets of Durban have not occurred in Geneva, and, at any rate, Jewish groups have come prepared — bringing “a fire hose, when we really needed a sprinkler,” as one activist confided to The New Republic‘s Zvika Krieger.  Even Palestinian activists have objected to the sporadic Ahmadinejad-esque hysterics that have occurred here, rightly arguing that it harms the very cause that it claims to support.

Ahmadinejad’s bit of disgusting theater notwithstanding, the real work in Geneva had been done beforehand. Belgium, Norway, Russia, and Egypt had already brokered a compromise document, one that avoided the “red lines” of mentioning Israel of the “defamation of religions.” The only flimsy justification left for boycotting countries was that, merely by citing the document produced in 2001, which did mention Israel, albeit in a rather benign way, was prima facie unacceptable. Pointing stubbornly to this boilerplate language, amidst all the real concerns of racism that the document could help address, is simply not productive.

I’m not saying the conference is going swimmingly. The last one certainly didn’t either. But both produced resolutions that, while not ideal, could provide the basis for continued anti-racism work. If the United States wants to engage with the rest of the world, it will have to accept compromises like these. And if leaders like Ahmadinejad want to be taken seriously, they’ll have to stop the distractions and take the substance seriously.