Durban Conference on Racism 2001
When antisemitism becomes 'anti-racism'
By Jeremy Jones
The week Big Brother made its debut on South African television, an event with far more Orwellian overtones took place in the Indian Ocean port city of Durban. The UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR), preceded by an international conference of Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) on the same theme, provided eye-openers, not only on racism but on the moral bankruptcy of many so-called human rights organisations and the cynicism which dictates the course of so much of international relations.
For Australians, particularly Jewish Australians, the two conferences had the redeeming feature of reinforcing just how lucky we are to live in an open, democratic society which, for all its blemishes, treats international human rights seriously.
The two main conferences were preceded by a Youth Summit, which in a sense set the scene for the following two weeks. Delegates were given free T-shirts that bore the official logo of the conference and a slogan identifying Israel as an evil regime that should be dismantled immediately.
Youth Summit delegates, or more correctly the tiny minority of Youth Summit delegates allowed to have any say in the proceedings, rejected a proposal to support peace in the Middle East and Jewish students found themselves the targets of derision, insult and abuse. Non-Jewish members of the Australian contingent which participated in this conference told me repeatedly of their concern at the way in which the conference organisers had bullied, cajoled and even threatened any individuals who suggested that democracy had a place at the conference (or elsewhere).
The early registrants at the NGO Forum were given a booklet of "political" cartoons which included some of the most obscene antisemitic stereotypes ever printed, including one which pictured a caricature of a Jew which a large hooked nose, claws and fangs dripping blood. All around Kingsmead Stadium posters and banners comparing Israel to Nazi Germany and to Apartheid South Africa were prominently displayed.
A large number of NGO delegates came from countries where there are no organisations able to legally function unless they do the government’s dirty work and these were supplemented by large and visible media contingents from countries that treat freedoms with complete contempt.
During the opening ceremony, the conference chairperson railed against Israel but did not find time to refer to many, many victims of racism who had thought that this conference would provide a platform. On the first afternoon, as the business of the Forum commenced, parallel session after parallel session provided podiums for extreme anti-Israel propaganda, pointedly provided at the expense of any meaningful consideration of many different experiences by victims of racism.
The session on Hate Crimes not only had a speaker whose thesis was that Israel’s existence is a "hate crime", but witnessed the shocking scene of a person asking a question regarding the procedure during the session being greeted with shouts of "Jew, Jew, Jew, Jew" and another questioner, a woman with a South African accent, being heckled with the abuse "Israeli dog".
By the second day of the Forum, participants were reporting that the notorious antisemitic forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" was being sold in the exhibition tent, set up for the distribution of anti-racist materials. Regular reports of anti-Jewish intimidation, including assault, were streaming into the Jewish caucus and to the conference organisers, with the latter unwilling to take any action.
After months of wrangling in the lead up to the conference, members of the Jewish caucus had secured the inclusion of a formal session on antisemitism, but by the third day of the conference, when it was scheduled to take place, there were genuine concerns for the safety of participants. When the session began it was clear that a large number of people present had come not to discuss antisemitism but to make sure that the Jewish caucus felt intimidated. It is probably worth noting at this point that one of the few rules under which the conference seemed to operate was that victims of a particular form of racism were not to have their telling of their own experience altered by outsiders. This procedure meant that any individual could stand up and personally lie, without fear of contradiction — a method used in much of the anti-Israel propagandising.
In the session on antisemitism it became clear that those who had benefited from this policy elsewhere were planning on doing their utmost to overturn it should Jewish people not simply cave in to overt intimidation. After a series of papers given by experts from the US, Canada, Uruguay, Europe and Australia it became noticeable that the crowd at the only large entrance to the meeting tent was growing in its number and aggression. When the final resource person, a student leader from Israel, was speaking, the crowd started moving towards the area where most of the Jewish participants were sitting, yelling and threatening. Their hate, whipped up by individuals whose name tags identified them as coming from South Africa, Iran, Palestine and the US, was undisguised and virtually tactile. After the intervention of a few brave souls, including one prominent African National Congress figure, enough calm was restored for the meeting to reconvene, although the only way this could happen was through the formation of smaller working groups.
Throughout these first three days there were a series of instances where a small group of Jewish students distributing material critical of the anti-Israel maximalism were confronted by a large group of noisy and aggressive protesters. Police had to intervene on a number of occasions and it is telling that, as all photographs and film footage reveal, all the offensive and threatening behaviour came from the anti-Israel side in the "confrontations".
In response to the hostility, which resulted in many of the Jewish delegates hiding their name tags and even to some of the kippa-wearing male delegates wearing caps out of fear, the Jewish caucus convened a media conference, inside the media tent, as this was regarded as the least likely place in which Jewish delegates would be physically attacked. However, before the opening statements could be completed, a group of shouting, jeering, fist-waving, shoving demonstrators, including a number wearing media badges, forced the abandonment of what had been hoped would be a rare opportunity for Jewish voices to be heard.
The situation had deteriorated to such a degree that a workshop that comprised a formal part of the program, on the subject of Holocaust Denial, had to be cancelled on security advice.
While all this was going on, a group of Hamas supporters were parading about the conference centre and its environs with three members of the eccentric Jewish sect Neturei Karta, who purport to be the only "authentic" Jews and espouse the view that Israel’s existence is a sin. Their commitment to Judaism was well illustrated by their decision to demonstrate against Israel, carrying placards, on the Sabbath, while the Jews they describe as "unauthentic" were attending synagogue services. The fact that these street performers found no problem with the distribution of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" or doing the dirty work for organisations which speak not only of their dream of destroying Israel but also of subjugating Jews was unfortunately of no interest to the media throng excited by the prospect of "dissident" Jews.
Not too dissimilar in their actions during the conference were a number of "anti-Zionist" Jews, from Israel and South Africa, who also seemed to have no problem with the overt antisemitism, as long as they were still given a platform at the conference to give their views on why Israel should cease to exist.
Given the conduct of the conference, it was hardly surprising that the final documents produced, as an alleged summary of the consensus views of the Forum, should be approved and adopted in a manner reflecting the corruption, dishonesty and racism of the conference organisers, supplemented by the cynicism and immoral pragmatism of conference participants. It was hardly out of step with the way the conference had proceeded that the final Declaration was not adopted until many NGO participants had left Durban. To her credit, UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, refused to participate in a ceremony to accept the forum outcome documents.
One of the saddest outcomes of the behaviour by the organisers and anti-Israel/antisemitic bully brigade was that many issues of real concern received very little airing, if any. Many fine human rights activists and brave spokespeople for victims of racism had come to the Forum in the hope that others would learn of some of their pain and work towards alleviating contemporary racism and the scars inflicted by previous practices of racism. The Dalits, the lowest rung on the caste ladder in India, were probably the only group which made itself heard above the intensive propagandising of the anti-Israel lobby.
There were no "winners" in the NGO Forum. The organisers were responsible for a corrupt process and breaking their own rules as the days went on, which set the stage for what many have described as the most antisemitic international event in the post-war period.
The anti-Israel campaigners may have achieved an insertion of hateful language in the final documents but lost an enormous amount of credibility through their bullying and inability to respond to the arguments of a small and ill-prepared group of Jewish activists. The tirade of antisemitism which so much of the so-called human rights community either promoted or tolerated is of great concern to Jews and to all who genuinely oppose racism. Victims of racism around the world lost after their forum was so crudely hijacked by the most fanatic of single issue propagandists.
About the only people who left the conference with their dignity intact were the members of the Eastern and Central European caucus who showed a genuine concern for all victims of racism while lambasting the dishonesty and outrageous behaviour which marked so much of the Forum.
As the NGO Forum was concluding, the UN conference was opening. With official delegations from over 150 countries, the formal atmosphere and the leadership from the secretariat was far different from that which prevailed in the NGO Forum, but the tension remained high.
The Conference convened with only working drafts of the Declaration and Program of Action, which meant that a great deal of work had to be done at the conference itself. The issue of the participation by Israel and the US figured prominently in the minds of delegates, as did the issue of the way in which slavery and other "past" issues could be settled in any consensus manner.
The opening speeches were marked with appeals, desperate appeals, for participants to not waste time throwing invective at Israel or other parties, but to concentrate on producing a blueprint for combating racism. Nevertheless, formal speeches at the plenary by member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and their totalitarian allies were replete with hate-filled anti-Israel invective. Leaflets on the desk where delegates collected their daily program included some referring to "Nazi-Israel Apartheid" but these paled into irrelevancy when compared to the formal speeches by some of the designated representatives of national governments.
Two positive highlights of the plenary session were the dignified and thoughtful paper delivered by the Israeli representative Mordechai Yedid and the intervention by Australia in response to the Declaration of the NGO Forum. In the latter situation Australia’s Ambassador to the UN, John Dauth, used his Right-of-Reply (a procedure used only sparingly during the conference) to point out that the Declaration was unacceptable and a discredit to all identified with it, due to sections which were "deplorable".
While speech after speech took place in the plenary hall, national delegations were going through hundreds of paragraphs in the Declaration and the Program of Action, attempting to reach consensus on every sentence, word and punctuation mark. After a short time it became clear that Australia, Canada, the European Union, most Latin American and some Asian and African countries, were working to produce rational, positive and forward looking documents, while the Arab League, the other nations in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Cuba and a number of Caribbean and African states seemed hell bent on using the conference purely as a platform for promoting propaganda at the expense of any serious work against racism.
As if the work in these sessions was not demanding and exhausting enough, slabs of paragraphs relating to the Middle East (and related subjects such as antisemitism, Islamophobia and the Holocaust), the Past (slavery, colonialism and the like) or those containing lists of victims or grounds of victimisation were referred to small groups of designated states.
The decision of Israel and the US to attend, at the very last moment, reminded serious delegations that the credibility of the Conference depended on it sticking to its aims, rather than being distracted or redirected by those who had come, as they were happy to tell anyone who would listen, to ensure that the Nazi Holocaust was not mentioned in the Conference documents, antisemitism was either excluded or had its meaning maliciously twisted and for Israel to be identified as the only country in this world which deserved to be singled out for alleged "racism".
At the half way point of the Conference, the US and Israel determined that the fight against racism was best served if they were to leave. One will never know if their timing was optimal, if it would have been better if they had never arrived or if the process would have been expedited had they stayed. What can be said is that, after they left, the democratic nations of the world with Australia, the European Union and Canada in the lead, were steadfast in their refusal to allow the Holocaust to be denigrated, "antisemitism" to be twisted and contorted by antisemites or Israel to be treated as a pariah.
At the time the Conference was scheduled to end, nothing approaching final documentation had achieved agreement. As the Conference clock ticked into overtime, agreement was reached on the way in which the Conference would describe the victims of racism, the grounds for racism, the legacy of past practices such as slavery and colonialism and, well after all had seemed lost, an unhappy compromise regarding the Middle East was achieved.
In the matters which were not so contentious it is worth placing on record the leading, constructive role played by Australia, with experts from Canberra being responsible for some of the more logical, progressive and achievable aims in fields such as education, potential for NGOs to participate in decision-making and in international cooperation against trans-national racist activity.
The outcome of the Conference was such that countries such as Israel and Australia were able to make it a far more successful exercise than seemed possible in the days, weeks and months leading to it. Although the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and their allies had been defeated in just about every one of their assaults on common decency, logic and truth, they still managed to distract attention from the many and numerous human rights abuses which they commit or promote. They also achieved an unhelpful mention of the Israel-Arab issue in documents on racism and even a pair of offensive paragraphs, which one can only hope are not allowed to undermine progress towards peace.
In the Government Forum, Australia can hold its head high as a supporter of the highest democratic principles and for its willingness to often say things which needed to be said but which other countries may have chosen to leave alone. The European Union, Canada, Guatemala, Brazil and a number of other countries which may not have been as vocal but were similarly guided by a commitment to combat racism also showed dignity and strength.
The host country, South Africa, was, to say the least, schizophrenic. Some of the South African delegates were part of that core working to try to achieve something valuable from the Conference while others seemed more attracted to the pseudo-Marxist rhetoric of the one-party dictatorships.
It is not possible at this point to assess whether the Conference will prove valuable or will have damaged the struggle against racism or, for that matter, resulted in something between these two poles but we can say that, if they surprise us all and indulge in some honest self-reflection, the anti-Israel claque will admit that they were, most deservedly, humiliated as a consequence of their disingenuousness and transparent dishonesty.
Jeremy Jones was an Australian delegate to the UN World Conference Against Racism, and represented the World Jewish Congress at the NGO forum.
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