‘“Durban” entered the lexicon, aligned with “Munich” and “Evian”.’

So said David Harris, the highly respected CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), a global Jewish advocacy organisation to influence policy and opinion on the most important issues facing the Jewish people.

“Munich” refers to the murder of Jewish athletes at the Olympic Games in that city in 1972 by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September.

“Evian” refers to the conference convened in July 1938 at Évian-les-Bains, France, to address the problem of German and Austrian Jews desperate to flee persecution by Nazi Germany. Although Franklin Roosevelt sought to obtain commitments to accept more refugees, he avoided stating that objective expressly. Thirty-two countries and 24 voluntary organisations attended, but other than agreement by the Dominican Republic, the participants failed to agree.

Durban, 2001

By “Durban” Harris was referring to the hate-fest that was the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Discrimination, Xenophobia and Intolerance, held in Durban in 2001. The current significance is that today, 22 September 2021, the United Nations (UN) will be “celebrating” the 4th “anniversary” of the Durban conference in New York (Durban 4).

One week before 9/11, the UN hosted the Durban conference, which became the worst international manifestation of antisemitism since World War II.

The ostensible purpose of Durban was for the international community, through the UN, to confront the evils of racism wherever it manifested globally. According to Shaun Zagnoev, of the SA Jewish Report (SAJR): ‘Instead, it was allowed to degenerate into an Israel-bashing kangaroo court. Durban has since come to be regarded as a defining moment in which the ideology and strategies of the global anti-apartheid movement were adopted as a means of demonising and delegitimising Israel on the world stage’,

Harris’s remark was made on a webinar hosted by the SAJR on 2 September 2021. The other guests were former Canadian minister of justice, and Canada’s envoy on antisemitism and distinguished jurist, Irwin Cotler.; Ambassador Tova Herzl (Israel’s ambassador to South Africa at the time); UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed; and Felice Gaer, the director of the Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights. Local speakers were SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) President Mary Kluk, National Vice-Chairperson of the SAJBD Marc Pozniak, and Tamar Lazarus, all three of whom are Durban “veterans”.

‘It was probably the most in-your-face series of attacks against the Jewish community in more than half a century’.

‘Such attacks could only take place at a UN event’, said one of the panelists.

According to Gaer, the idea of the conference was first mooted in 1997 on the back of the massacres in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda.

After apartheid, the Cold War, Bosnia, and Rwanda there was an expectation that countries, at regional conferences, would interrogate their own records on human rights, not just those of other countries.

Cotler described Durban as the most traumatic experience he’d had. On his return home his wife commented that he looked ‘5 years older’.

Israel to come under attack

South African Jewry was aware that Israel would come under heavy attack at Durban. What hadn’t been anticipated was how ‘virulent and all-pervasive the onslaught would be, particularly during the preceding non-governmental organisation (NGO) conference. Even more unexpected was the extent to which radical anti-Israel sentiment would spill over into overt antisemitism’.

The United States government, however, had grave concerns about the Durban conference due to the way in which Mary Robinson, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, negotiated with the Asian regional conference (The Durban Debacle: An Insider’s View of the UN World Conference Against Racism – the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs Vol.26: ‘I’ Winter/Spring 2002 by Tom Lantos )which was hosted by Iran. As a result of these concerns Secretary of State, Colin Powell, downgraded the US delegation.

The problem was not so much the Intergovernmental Conference, but the UN-sponsored parallel NGO Forum. The Forum was overseen by the South African National NGO Coalition (Sangoco) led by Mercia Andrews. Panelists noted that Andrews was a very visible promoter of what was happening and Gaer accused Andrews of harassing people.

Also, despite the Forum being fully sponsored by the UN, Sangoco insisted on a $100 registration fee from each participant. The money has never been accounted for.

The NGO Forum included the main Forum, 19 groups, and 36 caucuses. It was almost festive, except the festivities comprised inflammatory, hate-filled speeches against Israel. They took place in the main forum and the caucuses. Groups shouted the most obscene anti-Semitic slurs.

Protocols of the Elders of Zion

There were book stalls selling the notorious, fake anti-Semitic tract, the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, which had been produced by the Tsar’s secret service in 1905 to blame the Jews, inter alia, for the 1905 Revolution. The Protocols has dogged Jews and delighted antisemites worldwide ever since.  Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf was also on sale.

One of the panelists commented that only threats and intimidation against Jews and Israel could have taken place so openly at a UN forum.

During a march led by Palestinian supporters, local and international, with thousands of participants, one placard read ‘Hitler Should Have Finished the Job’.

Flyers were distributed of Hitler saying “What if I had won? The good things: There would be NO Israel and NO Palestinian’s blood shed – the rest is your guess.”

Jewish human rights activists faced mobs screaming at them: “You don’t belong to the human race!”

At the NGO Forum, the Arab Lawyers Union, a supporter of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, distributed caricatures of Jews with hooked noses, fangs dripping with blood, clutching money.

Antisemitic pamphlets were printed by Yousuf Seedat of the Islamic Propagation Centre International in Durban, which Gaer said was funded by the Bin Laden family. Seedat was murdered in 2020 when he was shot outside the Verulam Family Court.


Local Jewish leaders and students at the Durban conference left Durban traumatised.

The few challenges against the tide of invective confronting them were consistently sabotaged, such as when a press conference and the antisemitism commission had to be cut short after being disrupted, and a workshop on Holocaust denial was cancelled because of a planned march on the venue by 10 000 demonstrators.

Mary Kluk describes Durban as leaving a “legacy of hate” and unashamed hatred.

The Forum formally declared Israel a “racist apartheid state” guilty of “genocide.”

Two days before the Forum a student summit was held in a local hotel. In a break-away session, about 70% of the participants started wearing T-shirts proclaiming Israeli ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism”.

According to Mark Pozniak, then a student, these groups turned the hotel foyer into a ‘“shuk” (market) of hatred’, shouting and screaming. He recalls talking to a female student when a third party interrupted them saying “Do you know he’s [Mark] Jewish?” Her reply? “Oh, no. Sorry” and she walked off.

Tamar Lazarus, formerly of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation, described it as a “stadium of hate”. Every session was hijacked and every planned session had to be abandoned. She was also attacked by a senior conference official.

In the Plenary, which was actually charged with drafting the Declaration, antisemitism also came to the fore.

Palestinian Liberation Organisation chairman Yasser Arafat told conference delegates of the ‘ugliness of Israeli racist policies and practices against the Palestinian people.’

Fidel Castro spoke (for over 2 hours) of ‘the dreadful genocide perpetrated, at this very moment, against our Palestinian brothers.’

The Asian regional group’s proposal was a text demonising Israel and accusing it of committing ‘a new kind of apartheid,’ ‘a crime against humanity,’ and ‘a form of genocide.’ 

In light of the direction the Plenary was taking, the USA and Israel walked out.

This language was excised at the last minute from the Declaration under pressure from members of the European Union, who threatened to follow the USA and Israel, and pull out of the conference. Nevertheless, the final text still targeted Israel as an alleged perpetrator of racism by singling out “the plight of Palestinians under foreign occupation.” No other country guilty of allegations of racism was cited.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, director of Global Social Action Agenda for the Simon Wiesenthal Center said that ‘The “big boys on the [NGO] block” — Amnesty [International] & Human Rights Watch (HRW) —failed to challenge antisemitism at the UN’s Durban racism conference’.

Distressing silence

‘Their silence was quite distressing,’ said Gaer. Amnesty and HRW maintain an anti-Israel bias to this day.

The Declaration comprises 219 paragraphs urging (not obliging) countries to act against racism, slavery, colonialism, sexism, poor health, racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, gender discrimination, and more.

Three paragraphs referred to the Palestinians and Israel. But it isn’t the wording that is as poisonous as the “celebrations” of the Durban process.

Durban 2

The first commemoration of Durban (Durban 2) took place in 2009 in Switzerland. The planning committee was chaired by Muammar Gaddafi. Iran took the position of vice-chair.

The opening speaker was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a notorious Holocaust-denier, who said ‘World Zionism personifies racism’. It ‘falsely resorts to religion and abuses religious sentiments to hide its hatred and ugly face.’ ‘After World War II a totally racist government in occupied Palestine’ was established, ‘under the pretext of Jewish suffering’. 

Ten countries pulled out ahead of the conference and the remaining European diplomats walked out in protest over Ahmadinejad’s remarks.

Durban 3

In 2011 (Durban 3 in New York) Iran condemned the ‘racist Zionist Regime’ and attacked Western democracies boycotting Durban 3 as ‘phony claimants of human rights’ acting out of  ‘self- interest, double-standard (sic) and selective policies.’

Syria railed against ‘the criminal record and violations of human rights’ as well as ‘the Fascist racism’ of the ‘Israeli system of apartheid, which was committing ‘mass racist violations’ in ‘the occupied Syrian Golan against Syrian people.’ These comments were made six months into the war that has torn Syria apart.

Tunisia spoke of ‘feelings of injustice between peoples’ and ‘liberation of peoples still under occupation’ and he cited ‘first and foremost, the Palestinian people,’ complaining of international ‘double standards.’

Saudi Arabia claimed ‘the clearest illustration of comprehensive racial discrimination [is] against the Palestinian people today,’ who are ‘subjected to all forms of racial, political, socio-economic, and religious discrimination,’ including a ‘racial separation wall.’

Cuba singled out ‘Europe and North America’ for ‘violent acts of racism,’ ‘theories promoting race and culture superiority’ and ‘neo-Fascism’ which is ‘institutionalized,’ and said that ‘Palestine remains subjugated to a cruel and illegal occupation.’

Fourteen countries withdrew in advance of Durban 3.

Durban 4

Durban 4 in New York will call for plans to adopt a ‘political declaration’ calling for the ‘full and effective implementation’ of the Durban Declaration.

Cotler and the other panelists urged countries not to attend Durban 4. The resolutions have not expired; they remain in force. Cotler urged the UN to put a stop to this event; there is nothing to justify celebration.

Twenty countries have so far withdrawn from Durban 4. The gathering is purely symbolic. There’s no requirement that the Declaration be re-approved on a regular basis.

Both Harris and Cotler said that Durban was an ‘inflection point’ at which the old antisemitism was replaced by the new antisemitism of the Left and Muslim world. It is what gave impetus to the antisemitism, including anti-Israel hatred and anti-Zionism, that has become an epidemic currently.

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