(JTA) – When the original U.N. anti-racism conference, held in Durban, South Africa in 2001, devolved into an anti-Israel hate fest, Jewish groups around the world were caught unawares.
So when the Durban Review Conference was called for Geneva in 2009, Jewish activists started their fight early, convincing numerous countries to boycott the conference, dubbed Durban II, effectively blocking it from becoming a repeat of Durban I.
Now, with last week’s U.N. vote to authorize Durban III – a U.N. General Assembly session planned for September 2011 to commemorate the original Durban conference – the battle lines again are being drawn.
“The vote of the U.N. General Assembly, while not unexpected, sets the stage for a celebration of the outrageous events that took place during Durban I, which were permeated by manifestations of bigotry and hatred," said a statement from the leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “The event is scheduled to be held shortly after the 10th anniversary commemoration of September 11th. It is hard to imagine a more insensitive action, recalling that the attack on the World Trade Center that killed thousands was carried out by those influenced by the same hateful ideologies that Durban I came to represent.”
The first plans to boycott Durban III already are taking shape. Canada announced in November that it would boycott the September 2011 session on “Combating racism and follow-up of the Durban Program of Action."
"Canada will not participate in this charade," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said at a Nov. 25 news conference. "Canada is clearly committed to the fight against racism, but the Durban process commemorates an agenda that actually promotes racism rather than combats it."
Both the United States and Israel have warned about Durban III turning into another occasion for gratuitous Israel-bashing.
When the matter came to a vote last Friday, the vote was 104-22 in favor of the special General Assembly session; 33 countries abstained.
“We voted ‘no’ because the Durban Declaration process has included ugly displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and we do not want to see that commemorated,” said a statement by the American ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice. “The United States is fully committed to upholding the human rights of all individuals and to combating racial discrimination, intolerance and bigotry. We stand ready to work with all partners to uphold human rights and fight racism around the world.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement announcing its intention to skip the session.
“Under the present circumstances, as long as the meeting is defined as part of the infamous ‘Durban process,’ Israel will not participate in the meeting,” the statement said. “Israel expects the participants to deal appropriately with the serious manifestations of racism throughout the world, and to reject attempts to once again divert world attention from this dangerous phenomenon by means of cheap politicization."
Condemnation of the U.N. vote by Jewish groups was fast and furious.
“The original Durban conference attempted to validate the perverse theory that Zionism is racism,” the B’nai B’rith International executive vice president, Daniel Mariaschin, said. “Durban’s legacy of hate, intolerance and double standards should never be forgotten, and should certainly never be celebrated.”
The Anti-Defamation League called for a boycott of Durban III.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said the anti-racism agenda has been misappropriated. “The global campaign against racism has been hijacked by countries that have little regard for human rights and whose primary goal is to advance highly political agendas,” Harris said. “To bring this traveling show of hatred to New York is scandalous and will not advance the noble U.N. mission of defending and protecting human rights.”
At the original U.N. conference against racism in Durban, the United States and Israel walked out when it became clear that it had devolved into little more than an opportunity for vitriolic Israel-bashing that many said bordered on anti-Semitism. The conference’s final document singled out Israel for special condemnation.
In Geneva in 2009, several European and North American countries announced ahead of time that they would not attend the conference out of concern that its special focus on Israel would make a mockery of the issue of fighting racism, and several more walked out of the conference when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the occasion to bash Israel.
The countries that voted last week against the Durban III session were Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, the Netherlands, Palau, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Among the countries abstaining were Austria, Belgium, France, Greece, Hungary and Spain.