Durban Derailed into a Conference of Hate

August 31, 2001

By Wayne Firestone
Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Israel Office
This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on August 31, 2001.

Delegates arriving this week for the official UN-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, commencing today in Durban, South Africa and the NGO Forum that proceeded it were greeted by an ugly, in-your-face display of anti- Jewish, anti-Israel and anti-U.S. rhetoric. Tragically, a conference intended to examine effective mechanisms to combat racism and promote understanding and awareness of this important global problem, instead became a conference of hate and exclusion.

It is more sad than ironic that the Anti-Defamation League was forced to decide not to participate in the conference. ADL's, whose founding mandate set over 88 years ago to "fight the defamation of the Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment for all citizens alike," had been engaged for over two years in the preparatory process for the Conference. We, along with many other world Jewish organizations welcomed the opportunity to share our experience with international civil rights and religious groups, government representatives and people of good will, and in turn learn from them.

Given the history of anti-Israel proclamations from the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, and the hate-filled anti-Israel environment of the previous U.N. Conferences, we did not ready ourselves to go to Durban with our eyes closed. While we continued to participate in White House-sponsored town meetings across the U.S., presenting ADL programs as "best practices" for implementation in other countries, it became clear from the draft declaration that Durban would not begin a new chapter in the fight against racism, but retread old anti-Israel canards. One again charges of "Zionism equals racism," accusations of Israel of being an apartheid state and of practicing "ethnic cleansing" would be the mantra. The Palestinian experience is equated with the Holocaust even as the draft declaration diminishes the Holocaust. UN Human Rights Commissioner and conference organizer Mary Robinson claimed that this would be a "forward looking" gathering. In practice, this theatrical showcase for haters of Israel sets the fight against racism and discrimination backwards.

The reports from ADL representatives monitoring the proceedings in Durban confirmed our worst fears. Participants in this week's NGO Forum and Youth Summit were bombarded with unbridled statements and demonstrations of hate aimed at Jews, Israel, Zionism, and the U.S. With support from conference organizers and panel moderators, NGO speakers ignored their own agendas to digress into familiar Israel bashing and baiting. Jewish students distributing flowers while singing "all we are saying is give peace a chance" were drowned out by a large crowd holding Palestinian flags and banners, denouncing "Israeli apartheid" and calling for a continuation of the Intifada. Even a modest attempt by the Jewish organizations in Durban from around the world to present their concerns in a press conference were interrupted by protesters shouting anti- Israel epithets.

It is clear that a could-have-been valuable international gathering has become an international circus. Barring a miracle, the integrity of Durban conference has been utterly tainted by those who have sought to put their own highly-politicized agenda above the worthy fight against racism. The courageous U.S. decision not to have Secretary of State Colin Powell attend, but to send only low-level representation, sends a strong message that the U.S. will not legitimize hate and exclusion. It is to be hoped that other members of the international community will follow suit.

While politicization has derailed the Durban Conference, we cannot permit the international spotlight to turn away from meaningful discussions on human rights and discrimination. The challenge following Durban is for responsible governmental and non-governmental leaders to unite and forge a global movement to eradicate racism and intolerance of all kinds.