Cooper and Simon Wiesenthal Center International Relations Director
Shimon Samuels – who are American and French, respectively – wished to
attend the Tehran conference, but the Iranian hosts said they would not
allow Israelis or Jewish NGOs, nor Kurd or Baha’i representatives, to
attend. Former Irish president Mary Robinson, who was UN high
commissioner for human rights and presided over the Durban conference,
despite Iran’s blatant bias, insisted that Iran let everyone in.
promised again and again to let us in,” Cooper recounted. “We got our
invitations right after the last flight for Tehran had already left from
Paris,” which meant they could not actually attend.
events at Durban were foreshadowed by the results of the Tehran
conference. There was no mention of racism in the Arab and Muslim world,
such as intolerance for non-Muslims, the recent destruction of ancient
Buddha statues by the Taliban or mistreatment of women in society.
Israel, however, was accused of “ethnic cleansing of the Arab population
in historic Palestine,” “a new kind of apartheid,” an “increase of
racist practices of Zionism.” The declaration warned of “the emergence
of racist and violent movements based on racist and discriminatory
ideas, in particular, the Zionist movement, which is based on race
superiority.” And Robinson congratulated the delegates, saying the
meeting was productive.
the four regions came together in May and June 2001 to form a unified
draft, Palestinian suicide bombers were regularly murdering Israeli
citizens, but the World Conference Against Racism was drafting a
declaration that would paint Israel as the new South Africa and even
Nazi Germany, setting the stage to shun it. Organization of Islamic
Cooperation (OIC) countries insisted that the anti-Israel text remain.
the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the US Congress, took
particular umbrage with an attempt to change “the Holocaust” to
“holocausts” and insert a line about “holocausts and the ethnic
cleansing of the Arab population in historic Palestine.”
June 18, 2001, then-US secretary of state Colin Powell told Robinson it
was inappropriate to only single out one country – Israel – and one
regional conflict, and that the US would pull out if the language was
not removed. In addition, the US would not apologize for slavery, though
it would express regret.
told Lantos she was working to convince Arab states to remove the parts
calling Zionism racism, but that they felt settlements must be
urged Robinson to consider the implications of appeasing the radical and
fundamentalist forces that wanted to turn the entire aim of the
conference on its head,” Lantos later wrote. “In fact, the OIC language
on Israeli settlement policy and other wording, twisting the meaning of
antisemitism went far beyond the concept that Zionism equals racism.
They sought to make Israel itself the focus of hate. The forces
promoting the inclusion of this language understood... [that they] could
turn the Middle East conflict from a regional territorial dispute
(which could be resolved by compromise) into an ideological and
existential one that could only be resolved by driving Israel into the
At the final
draft meeting in Geneva, Robinson “refused to reject the twisted notion
that the wrong done to the Jews in the Holocaust was equivalent to the
pain suffered by the Palestinians in the Middle East,” Lantos, the
Holocaust survivor, recalled, saying she legitimized that link.
Robinson’s remarks compared “the historical wounds of antisemitism and
the Holocaust on the one hand and... the accumulated wounds of
displacement and military occupation on the other.”
August 24, 2001, days before the Durban conference, then-US president
George W. Bush said: “We will not have a representative there as long as
they pick on Israel. We will not participate in a conference that tries
to isolate Israel and denigrates Israel.”
HARD LESSON: Anne Bayefsky, director, Touro College Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust. (credit: FACEBOOK)
Bayefsky, who directs the Touro College Institute on Human Rights and
the Holocaust, had represented Canada at the UN Human Rights Commission
and in human rights groups at the Fourth World Conference on Women. She
arrived in Durban for the August 31 conference’s NGO forum, still hoping
to have productive interactions with her colleagues in the world of
Bayefsky learned “a hard lesson” about “the ultimate betrayal of Jewish
activists and genuine fighters for human rights by international human
was Bayefsky’s first UN conference as a representative of the
International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, and she walked
around with her mandatory lanyard on, which labeled her as Jewish
wherever she went. She could feel the chill that came after many read
her name tag.
The NGO forum was a hotbed of antisemitism.
me, having experienced the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand, this was
the most sickening and unabashed display of hate for Jews I had seen
since the Nazi period,” Lantos recounted.
Protocols of the Elders of Zion was distributed, along with a flyer
with a photo of Adolf Hitler and the message “What if I had won? There
would be no Israel.” The Arab Lawyers Union distributed a book of
antisemitic caricatures “frighteningly like those seen in the Nazi hate
literature in the 1930s,” Lantos wrote.
said that “20 years later, I can still hear the chants and see the
images. Durban indelibly imprinted itself on my memory, on my being...
For those of us there, it was a transformative event.”
RABBI ABRAHAM COOPER, pictured in his office at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. (credit: MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)
said it was the worst antisemitism he had seen since the Simon
Wiesenthal Center was founded in 1977, “basically an ambush of Israel,
Zionists, Jews and Judaism.”
representatives would gather at Durban’s Jewish community center for
kosher dinner most days and would swap war stories. Cooper said he saw
grown men cry.
police chief told Cooper that the Jewish delegates should not try to
walk to the community center on Shabbat. When Cooper asked why, the
officer brought the rabbi to the top tier of the stadium in which the
conference took place, where he saw 20,000 anti-Israel protesters. Some
were holding a banner that said “Hitler was right,” he recalled.
message was that the struggle against apartheid in the 20th century was
to dismantle South Africa, and in the 21st it was to dismantle Israel,
Bayefsky felt betrayed by her encounters with colleagues in the human rights world and their responses to the antisemitism.
people deeply involved in the international human rights movement and
who care about and understood the value in multilateral engagement in
the world of human rights… [learned] how little the world’s major
international human rights organizations like Amnesty International,
Human Rights Watch… cared about what happened to Jews,” she recounted.
example, when there was to be a vote on the draft of the NGO’s
declaration, which included a statement that Zionism is racism, and
Israel is an apartheid state, implying that Israel must be eliminated,
Bayefsky approached the tent for the meeting. She recalled that a
representative from Human Rights Watch who she had known for 20 years
told her she could not enter, being “a member of a Jewish organization
[who] can’t be trusted to be objective.” She turned to someone else from
Human Rights First who she’d known for many years, and he refused to
stand up for her. Yet a Palestinian NGO representative was allowed in.
that I had worked with, broken bread with and had been friends with for
a long, long time, sometimes as long as decades, really were prepared
at the turn of a dime, when it was hard to stand against the tide, to
throw us overboard. That’s exactly what they did,” Bayefsky said.
said international NGOs claimed that the Bush administration was using
Israel to dodge negotiations on slavery reparations.
a leading human rights figure, said: “For human rights NGOs to be
witness and remain silent while demonological antisemitism was
manifesting itself, for them to have participated in that, either by
their silence or their complicity, is something those of us who were
there were not able to forget. They couldn’t say they didn’t know it was
happening. This was a festival of hate.”
does not buy later claims by NGO representatives that they didn’t know
about the antisemitism, because they were “in an environment [in which]
all around you are posters and signs and people handing out flyers that
are overtly antisemitic, all around... It was everywhere, in your face.”
international human rights NGO representatives were present when the
Jewish caucus was banned from speaking before the final draft vote.
victims groups were supposed to speak in their own voices, but the
Jewish caucus were the only ones that were excluded on the issue of what
constituted antisemitism,” Bayefsky said.
fact, an Israeli-Arab woman from Nazareth representing the World
Council of Churches brought up a motion to remove language condemning
attacks on synagogues in Paris earlier that year, saying it had nothing
to do with racism. The motion was approved by a voice vote, Cooper said.
was the point at which Jewish delegates decided to walk out, “to the
whistles and catcalls of the gatekeepers of civil society,” Cooper
Cooper, Bayefsky, Samuels and others tried to hold a press conference
about their concerns, “a phalanx of black-clad Iranian women pushed in
to stop it,” Cooper said.
final NGO Forum Declaration called Israel a “racist apartheid state”
guilty of “genocide” and was so rife with antisemitic, anti-Israel
content that Robinson refused to accept it.
official NGO document they produced debases terms like genocide, ethnic
cleansing and crimes against humanity by using them to describe Israeli
settlement policies,” Lantos wrote. “The leaders of great Western human
rights NGOs like Human Rights Watch, the Lawyers Committee for Human
Rights and Amnesty International... offered no support to the principled
position that the Bush administration took against the singling out of
Israel and Jews for attack and criticism at the conference.”
said he encountered minority groups from India and indigenous people
from South America who “spent their last penny to get to Durban with the
false hope that their cause would be heard, and they were treated like
roadkill.” Lantos said delegations from African states were disappointed
that Israel was overshadowing anti-black racism because of the OIC
negotiations on the governmental declaration continued. Cotler had
contacts from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority from
time he had spent working in the Middle East, and tried to discuss the
matter with some of them, but encountered anti-Israel “groupthink.”
found American politician and activist Jesse Jackson in Durban. Jackson
said he was negotiating with PA president Yasser Arafat to drop the
Zionism is racism language from the declaration, but those talks ended
after Arafat gave a speech in which he said Israel’s government wanted
to “continue her occupation, settlements and racist practices so as to
liquidate our people.”
US and Israel pulled out of the conference soon after that, realizing
the OIC would not compromise. The EU remained, in hopes it could
moderate the document. Cotler said he had been in touch with Israel’s
deputy foreign minister at the time, Rabbi Michael Melchior, who
encouraged the Canadian delegation to remain and speak for the record to
condemn the proceedings, which it did.
The end result recognized the “plight of the Palestinian people under occupation.”
only does the final document single out one regional conflict for
discussion, it does so in a biased way: the suffering of the Palestinian
people is highlighted, but there is no discussion of the Palestinian
terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens,” Lantos wrote months later.
A legacy of hate
The 9/11 attacks took place three days after the Durban conference ended.
of my colleagues who had been at the Durban conference said something I
never forgot,” Cotler said. “If 9/11 was the Kristallnacht of terror,
Durban was the Mein Kampf. Twenty years later, that legacy of Durban is
regrettably still with us.”
Lantos wrote: “The terrorist attacks on Sept.11 demonstrated the evil
such hate can spawn. If we are to prevail in our war against terrorism,
we must take to hear the lessons of Durban.”
combined old and new antisemitism, Cotler said, bringing “demonological
antisemitism” to the fore, by which “the Jewish people and their state
are the enemy of all that is good and the embodiment of all that is
hear today, the indictment of Israel as an imperialist, racist,
colonialist, settler, ethnic cleansing, child-murdering, Nazi state was
already there in Durban. It’s metastasized since then. What was at the
time seen to be horrific and exceptional was now mainstreamed,
normalized and legitimated,” he said.
Durban NGO Forum is considered the inception point of the “Israel
apartheid” campaign, which eventually inspired the anti-Israel boycott,
divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, modeled after the one targeting
apartheid South Africa.
Diker, Director of the Program to Counter Political Warfare and BDS at
the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told the Jerusalem Post podcast
that the Durban NGO forum “provided the seed and the poisonous root of
what would become known as the BDS movement, which is an overtly
was also the start of the racialization of the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict that is so common in anti-Israel activism today, Diker noted.
other words,” he said, “what Durban did was to regularize Israel as an
incorrigible evil that was based on systemic racism modeled after the
apartheid regime in South Africa... essentially denying Israel any sort
of sovereign rights.”
Durban declaration called Israel “a new kind of apartheid,” meaning
they twisted its definition to represent all evil, Diker posited.
slander stuck to Israel and became mainstreamed in the international
discussion about Israel, and we see today, 20 years later, you go onto
any university campus in North America and Israel apartheid is as basic
as the core curriculum.”
racist state is morally repugnant and doesn’t have the right to exist,
Diker explained, and as such, the Durban NGO forum wanted to eliminate
Israel, not call for a solution – two states or other – between Israel
and the Palestinians.
Durban conference was “a black eye to what the UN stood for,” Cooper
said. “Civil society as a bulwark, a redline against antisemitism and
that kind of hatred – those things were over. They were not part of the
solution; they were another front. And we continue to see that grow on
the lessons Lantos learned is “NGOs can’t always be counted on to
promote liberal values. The official NGO forum... was stacked with
anti-American, antisemitic and anti-Israel activists. These activists
sought to use an important UN human rights mechanism to advance their
Bayefsky said Durban had “both an NGO problem and a governmental
problem. One led into the other and created an environment that was
obvious before we started.”
also sees the new permanent UN Human Rights Council inquiry into
supposed Israeli war crimes – the only panel of its kind – as part of
the aftermath of Durban.
legacy of hate has become institutionalized in a way that must be
combated,” he said. “The unprecedented resolution not only singles out
Israel as others have done, but establishes a permanent investigative
inquiry not only into Israeli actions in the occupied territories but
into Israel itself, and has appointed three people to head up the
commission who have themselves been on record with regard to
participating in singling out Israel for selective opprobrium and
indictment... It was adopted in the wake of the [May 2021] war between
Hamas and Israel, but has no mention of Hamas.”
“We have no intention of lying down”
2009 and 2011, the UN held Durban review conferences. In 2009, Iranian
president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the opportunity to deny the
Holocaust, calling it an “ambiguous and dubious question” and a
“pretext” for Israeli racism against Palestinians. Then, he was invited
back to speak two years later. The conferences reaffirmed the 2001
week, after press time, the UN was set to hold its third Durban review
conference, known as Durban IV, marking the 20th anniversary of the
World Conference Against Racism in the South African city.
officials and Jewish groups began working to bring allies to speak out
against and boycott the conference since it was announced.
March, US diplomats in Geneva mentioned the Durban Declaration in a
positive light, as part of its commitment to fighting racism, which
raised alarm bells.
GILAD ERDAN, ambassador to the UN and the US, is the grandson of Auschwitz survivors. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Ambassador to the UN and the US Gilad Erdan said he raised his concerns to the Biden administration.
first, the State Department said it’s not a precedent, but we showed
them that it is, so they decided to go back to their previous position,”
Erdan said, adding that it was important that the Biden administration,
which has emphasized fighting racism, show the Durban format is not the
way to do it.
College Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust, CAMERA and Human
Rights Voices held a virtual counter-event on Sunday, at which Erdan,
former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and others spoke.
the grandson of survivors of Auschwitz, compared Durban to Nazi
propagandist Joseph Goebbels’ exhibit “The Eternal Jew,” which
legitimized and spread antisemitism in Germany.
many [countries] continued to play along with the farce of Durban, even
as its follow-up events featured Iranian president Ahmadinejad’s
Holocaust denial,” he said. “In failing to stand up and speak out, these
countries and organizations not only encouraged the delegitimization of
Israel, but legitimized violence against Jewish communities everywhere,
under the banner of the crusade against Israel’s so-called ‘racist
regime.’ A direct line connects Durban and the wave of antisemitic
incidents we have seen over the past several years.”
the same time, Erdan said Israel “must continue to work tirelessly to
eliminate all manifestations of racism in its society and be a clear
moral voice in the international arena against all forms of racial
hate.” He also commended the US Jewish community for its part in the
civil rights movement.
diplomatic source in Jerusalem also emphasized that Israel and the
Jewish people’s commitment to fighting racism should not be in question,
pointing to MASHAV, Israel’s development agency, projects in Africa.
speakers at the counter-conference were black, including Likud MK Gadi
Yevarkan, South African lawmaker Rev. Kenneth Meshoe and American
historian Shelby Steele, pushing back against the anti-Israel message at
Durban, which is meant to be a conference against racism with a special
focus on people of African descent.
said he was speaking “truth to propaganda... Durban was not and is not a
conference for human rights. It is a crucifixion of Jewish human
rights. And Durban is a moral embarrassment for the UN itself... Durban
has used and abused the suffering of millions of black South African
victims of apartheid by racializing Israel.”
Durban IV draft circulating days before the conference focused on
combating “racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related
notes an increase in “racist violence, threats to violence,
discrimination and stigmatization” against Asians in light of the
COVID-19 pandemic, but does not mention the increase in pandemic-related
antisemitism and distortion of the Holocaust.
includes antisemitism among its examples of “prejudices against persons
based on their religions or beliefs,” in a paragraph “acknowledg[ing]
with deep concern the rise in discrimination, hate speech” and more.
However, it reaffirms the 2001 Durban Declaration, with its singling out of Israel.
press time, a diplomatic source estimated 25 countries would boycott
Durban IV. Twenty of them had already gone public: Australia, Austria,
Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, France, Germany,
Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania,
Slovakia, Slovenia, the UK and the US.
In 2011, 14 countries boycotted, and in 2009 there were 10, as opposed to in 2001, when only Israel and the US walked out.
considered the growing number of countries boycotting Durban, as well
as the fact that not one Western country sent a high-level
representative to Durban IV or volunteered to lead a roundtable, as a
success for Israel “in labeling it antisemitic and anti-Israel.”
however, said Israel should have reached out to Abraham Accords
countries, as well as states in Africa, South America and elsewhere, “to
gently, politely say, look, great things are happening bilaterally,”
but they need to speak up against antisemitism as well.
saw these announcements as a “silver lining” in Durban IV, together
with an even larger number of countries accepting the International
Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, by which the
Durban Declaration arguably and the NGO declaration certainly would be
is up to the countries that adopted IHRA “to enforce that moral mandate
and not allow international organizations such as the UN to upend and
uproot and dismantle their own founding charter, which calls for
righting against racism of any kind,” Diker added.
sees the boycotts by major democratic countries as an important
milestone: “All the democratic members of the UN Security Council are
with Israel on this. They have said no to Durban. That’s a big deal.
They don’t agree on everything... Israel’s other solid friends and
allies stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel on this abomination...
saying this demonization of Israel is antisemitism. That message is
getting through whether the other side likes it or not. They cannot make
the case that calling for the dismantlement of the Jewish state is
somehow unrelated to antisemitism.”
Bayefsky also said that the Jewish delegates who pushed back against antisemitism in 2001 are still involved today.
have been able to get the team back together, with some of us who were
there and others of a younger generation who were not there and
understand the danger to the State of Israel and the Jewish people and
aren’t prepared to let it go,” she stated.
“We have no intention of lying down and letting the so-called human rights world walk all over us.”