July 23, 2021 — Paris, France
This piece originally appeared in New Europe.
Countries are lining up to declare they will not attend the 20th anniversary of the UN’s notorious 2001 World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa. The gathering is set to take place on September 22, during the opening days of the UN General Assembly.
Why is a summit supposed to bring the world together against the important, noble cause of fighting racism being skipped by a growing list of countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Austria, the Netherlands, Hungary, Israel, the Czech Republic, and others?
The reason was dramatically expressed by Canadian Professor and former Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler at the time of the original conference in 2001: “If 9/11 was the Kristallnacht of terror, then Durban was the Mein Kampf,” he wrote.
The 2001 Durban conference, which took place a few days before the terrorist attacks of September 11, was a terrible setback for the universalist fight against racism. Instead, it was perverted and instrumentalized against Zionism, Israel, and Jews.
The conference became a platform to attack Israel and invoke the infamous allegation that Zionism is a form of racism. Even worse than the official conference was the NGO Forum, where many participants openly expressed hatred toward Israel and threatened representatives of Jewish NGOs participating in the event. “We don’t even go to the bar or the bathroom alone anymore,” Jewish student leader Joelle Fiss wrote in her “Durban Diaries,” published by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) at the time. “Certain members of the group are no longer wearing their badges. Others have changed their kippah for a cap.” Jewish human rights activists at Durban were physically menaced, with mobs screaming “You don’t belong to the human race!”
In the Palestinian-led march with thousands of participants, one placard read “Hitler Should Have Finished the Job.” Nearby, some were selling The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
“For me, having experienced the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand, this was the most sickening hate for Jews I had seen since the Nazi period,” declared the leader of the U.S. delegation, the late Rep. Tom Lantos, after the conference. Over the past 20 years, UN attempts to follow up on the 2001 conference failed as the organizers held firm to the same approach. The most significant Western countries did not attend the 2009 Durban Review Conference in Geneva as well as Durban III in 2011.
The reality is Durban was a turning point in how contemporary antisemitism is expressed. Anything that follows this pattern cannot pretend to expect a different result. Jews are no longer hated in the name of racism but in the name of anti-racism.
To this day the consequences of Durban 2001 are being felt. During the latest Israel-Hamas battle, numerous voices on both sides of the Atlantic condemned Israel in the name of “racial inequality,” slanderously alleged Israel was committing “genocide” or “apartheid.”
Antisemitism has always constructed its own fictional image of ‘the Jews.’ It puts ‘the Jews’ at the center of all that is bad in the world. Today’s obsessive hatred of Zionism and Israel continues to construct ‘Israel,’ the collective Jew, as being central to, or symbolic of, the key evils on the planet.
What is so disturbing about this antisemitism is not simply the defamatory and delegitimating indictments calling for the dismantling of the Jewish State, but in particular the masking of this ideological antisemitism as if it were part of the struggle against racism, apartheid or even Nazism, thereby transforming an antisemitic indictment into a moral imperative.
To condemn the State of Israel as a “racist state,” equating it with the South African apartheid regime, is to ostracize it or to even condemn it to destruction. You do not argue with the absolute enemy; you eliminate it.
No wonder that over the past twenty years Jews have been attacked and even killed in the name of the “defense of Palestinians.” That was Mohamed Merah’s justification for murdering Jewish pupils in Toulouse in 2012. It was the leitmotif of those who marched in the streets of several cities in France two years later calling to kill Jews.
Over the past 20 years, the question of the very existence of Israel has been used as one of the ideological backbones of both Islamist and left-wing extremists. As a result, antisemitism has been on the rise in much of Europe and most of the West, and studies released by my organization, AJC, and others over the years have consistently shown that Jews are not only more and more afraid, but that many of them have experienced antisemitism firsthand.
The most recent American Jewish Committee-Fondapol study on Jewish perceptions in France, published in 2020, revealed that 70% of French Jews had experienced an antisemitic incident in their lives, and that number is even higher amongst the youngest.
On numerous occasions, European leaders over the past two decades have committed themselves not only to fighting antisemitism in general, but also have acknowledged and specifically addressed the nature of Israel-related antisemitism.
When France adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism, President Emmanuel Macron went one step further by making it clear that “anti-Zionism is one of the modern forms of antisemitism,” and German Chancellor Merkel qualified anti-Zionism as “illegitimate.”
If European leaders are really serious about both acknowledging Israel-related antisemitism and fighting it, they must skip Durban 20.
Simone Rodan-Benzaquen is Managing Director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Europe.