3:14 pm 4/20/09
The entire day was preparing for this moment. We had attempted without success to sneak into the room where Ahmadinejad and the government delegations would be speaking. Retreating into the room designated for NGOs to watch the conference through video, tension was high as Ahmadinejad took the stage, and as we placed the translating earpieces on our ears.
I have been to a fair amount of UN meetings in Geneva since I studied and interned there last semester. And in my experiences, the translators have always worked. Coincidentally or not, for the first time I have witnessed, the entire room was unable to understand his speech, unless of course one spoke Arabic. Due to technical difficulties. It was an outrage.
Alan Dershowitz, a world-renowned American advocate for Israel and author of "The Case for Israel," and "The Case for Democracy," stormed out enraged and yelling that we were being denied our fundamental rights to hear what was being said. What happened next was something I anticipate I will never see again.
The room was in uproar. People were standing on tables. Everyone was engaged in some form of debate. I was watching heated arguments take place between the Neturakarta and fellow students, an extremist ultra-orthodox Jewish group believing so vehemently Israel can only be created when the messiah comes that they actively and vocally support Ahmedinjad and terrorist actions against Israel. There were debates between Iranian and Palestinian delegates with Jewish and Israeli delegates. There was even an African American group seeking economic reparations from the transatlantic slave trade who stated the Jews controlled the slave trade and slavery in the United States, and economically benefited from the civil rights movement. One of my engagements during this mayhem was with an African American from the latest group. I had asked her a question as to why the other slave trades, including the one across Sub-Saharan and eastern Africa which is estimated to have enslaved 14 million Africans, were blatantly ignored. Not expecting such a verbal affront on my question (she came within inches of my face, raised her voice to near screaming, and grabbed my arm) I asked her politely to simply “take it down a notch so we can have a discussion.” With this, she launched into how I [as a white person] was using my “superiority” over her.
So my first experience with racism happened at the World Conference Against Racism. Ironic.
Moving beyond an argument that did not seem to add greatly to my experience or mood, I asked an African man where he was from and what cause he was supporting. He told me that he was there as an NGO delegate for the Democratic Republic of Congo. Once again, my first exchange with a person from the DRC. I told him I was personally appalled at the fact that his country’s tragic and terribly situation which has recently escalated to 4 million casualties, was not being appropriately addressed at this forum. That an issue without racial claims was hijacking and dominating all of the other injustices that demand much greater global attention than they were receiving. His answer was heartbreaking. He said it did not seem to matter because his country was a weak one and was not a part of the international power structure so thus, no one cared. As defeated as he sounded, I offered my support to his country and told him my delegation was here to fight indiscriminately and proportionally against all cases of prejudice around the world.
We were then interrupted by chaos on the screen as two French Jewish students with rainbow clown wigs and red noses ran up to Ahmadinejad in protest of his welcomed—even honored—presence on a UN platform. The two students were instantly removed and our room broke out in applause followed by a mass walk out. Soon after, several Western delegates as well as Jordan and Moroccan delegates also walked out in protest of the Iranian President’s speech stating Zionism "personifies racism," calling Israel a Nazi regime and an apartheid state.
And let me remind everyone the extent of the mockery. To add insult to injury, Ahmadinejad, who was welcomed to Switzerland by the Swiss president himself, spoke today on the eve of Yom HaShoa, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance.
Despite the rise in blood pressure that occurred all across the Palais des Nations in Geneva, the day closed in peace with words of Elie Wiesel, Irwin Cotler, Bernard Levy and others, and a reminder to all of us of our duty to humankind.
To speak out against injustices.
To truly fight against indifference.
To "never forget" and commit ourselves to "never again."