By Tal Shmerling
I am writing this on April 20, 2009, and today still feels strangely surreal. It is 8pm and the French UN Ambassador for Human Rights has come especially to explain directly to the World Jewish Student Taskforce his dramatic walkout in protest at Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hateful rants. I reflect now on the progression of events and I can still feel the rush of adrenalin pumping through me. It is certainly a day that I will not forget quickly.
The day began at 7am. It is the first day of the Durban Review Conference (DRC) in Geneva and our student taskforce has decided to split up for the morning. Some students went directly to the UN precinct. The plan for them is to line the walkway leading into the UN holding placards containing messages of solidarity with the victims of the atrocities being perpetrated in Darfur. I, however, head off with a group of 10 students to the registration tents in order to lobby the NGOs. Our aims are very clear. Ahmadinejad’s Iran is a state characterised by racist treatment of women, homosexuals, children, minority groups and others. Ahmadinejad should not be an invited guest at the UN. Rather, he should have been in the dock as the accused! Thus, we want to urge NGOs to protest his speech by walking out.
I speak to many NGO representatives and a familiar pattern begins to emerge. Many people are extremely responsive and interested in what I have to say. It is clear that many NGOs are not happy about Ahmadinejad’s presence as they suspect it will only further discredit the DRC. However, to my surprise, there are approximately an equal number of people I spoke to who support the Iranian president. Some responses are particularly confronting. In one encounter, I asked a middle aged Middle Eastern-looking man whether he knows that homosexuality is criminalised in Iran. He smiles at me and confirms that he does know this. Feeling heartened by his encouraging response, I continue. I tell him that in Iran, women suspecting of adultery are punishable by stoning. He nods his head solemnly in response. Believing I have him convinced I go on to explain the proposed walkout. However he stops me quickly, smiles politely, and states without any hesitation that he will not walk out because he supports Ahmadinejad unwaveringly. I am left confused and somewhat aggravated by what has transpired.
I spend the early afternoon attending NGO side events, but it is clear that everyone is waiting for 3pm. At 2:30 I leave the side event I am attending – “Combating Racism in Work” – and head towards the NGO hall inside the UN where around 250 people are sitting nervously, ready to watch the proceedings on a large screen. No one knows what to expect and the tension in the room is tangible. The Jewish caucus has planned to walk out in protest during the speech but I feel guilty for secretly wanting to stay to hear what the man has to say. The plenary session is opened and the crowd laughs nervously as the chair struggles to pronounce Ahmadinejad’s name. He then starts to speak and chaos erupts. Someone has turned off the translators and no one in the room understands what is being said. Everyone is on edge and no one knows quite what to do. Suddenly a booming voice comes from the crowd of NGOs. Alan Dershowitz, the eminent Harvard law professor and renowned human rights advocate, is standing up and demanding that the translators be turned on, because not doing so is a violation of our rights. Mayhem erupts. The Jewish caucus has stood up and has started to leave the NGO hall and is not making any attempt to do so quietly. This does not sit well with the rest of the room. One woman stands up and starts cursing the leaving Jews urging them to “get out quickly and stay out.” A few Jewish students engage the woman in verbal debate.
Suddenly the heated debate is disturbed by the most unlikely of events. I look up and see that a few French Jewish students dressed as clowns have managed to infiltrate the plenary. Many people laugh, others clap, but everyone seems completely shocked by this strange turn of events. We still do not understand what is being said before I see what I was hoping to see. France has stood up and is walking out of the plenary in protest at Ahmadinejad’s racist comments against Israel and the Jews. Others are following, including the Czech Republic and all EU countries. Even Jordan, to our surprise, stood up and left the assembly hall. Morocco declined to attend his speech from the beginning. Half the NGO hall erupts into applause.
Soon after, most of the Jewish caucus leaves the assembly hall, but I decide to wait where Ahmadinejad will have his press conference immediately after his address. I don’t have to wait long before Ahmadinejad walks directly past me towards the press room. Ahmadinejad is escorted into the press room and within 30 seconds the hallway is filled with around 200 excited and angry people. Many Jews and non-Jews fill the hall holding signs and chanting ‘human rights’ and ‘shame’. The corridor seems to quickly split into two distinct groups – those who condemn all that Ahmadinejad stands for, and those who support him (a considerably smaller group). It becomes a contest and I feel that we are winning. An Iranian man holds up a large sign “Zionist=Racism” and shouts “end the holocaust in Gaza”. Within seconds he is drowned out by louder chants of ‘human rights.’ I look to my left and see Academy Award-winning actor Jon Voight being interviewed and condemning the Iranian President. I look to my right and see Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Laureate, being interviewed. Everywhere I look there seems to be something else I am captivated by. I am overwhelmed. One student stands to read the UN charter on human rights, line by line, with the crowd eagerly repeating after him. All seems to be going well.
We leave the UN precinct satisfied. The conference now seems totally undermined and Ahmadinejad has unwittingly alienated Iran from the rest of the nations. Our protest has worked both in the NGO hall and the plenary. In particular, we all feel that the event that transpired in the corridor outside the press room was a resounding success. After a couple of hours most of us start to calm down, but then get excited again when we realise that it is only an hour or so since the event and already many of us are on the front page of blogs, internet sites and newspapers.
We then head together toward the Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) ceremony. It is a moving ceremony, however I find myself constantly thinking back to the hectic day’s events. I get the distinct feeling that this day will be long remembered in the UN. I feel that I have witnessed history in the making.
Tal Shmerling is Treasurer of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students. He attended the Durban II conference in Geneva as part of the European Union of Jewish Students delegation.