The Day the World Changed for International Jewry
20 September 2021
For most, 9/11, was the day the world changed forever. But for me, and a small band of Jewish activists, the implosion had already taken place one week earlier at the United Nations World Conference against Racism. The traditionally laid-back city of Durban became the epicentre of an organised international anti-Jewish hate campaign. How could this happen at a major anti-racism conference held under the auspices of the most powerful human rights organisation in the world and hosted in a country, which was supposed to be the paragon of non-racism?
Democracy, human rights, and freer markets looked to be on an unstoppable march in the 1990s, and in their wake, peace and prosperity were being created for people all over the world. As part of this movement, even the oldest hatred, antisemitism, seemed to have been relegated to the dustbin of history. The Oslo Peace accords, whilst imperfect, seemed to ensure that a new Middle East was in the slow but inevitable process of being born.
As for South African Jewry, after decades of dwindling numbers, economic and cultural isolation, and alienation under Apartheid, the new South Africa offered hope of revival. Despite concerns about the historic alliance between the ruling ANC and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), Jews were making unprecedented contributions to building the ‘Rainbow Nation’ and strong bonds to the local Jewish community were formed. After an official visit to Israel, former President Mandela had even publicly defended the Jewish state's right to live within secure borders.
In early 2000, when I first joined the South Africa Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS), which had historically been a highly activist organisation at the forefront of the official Jewish opposition to Apartheid, there was no longer even a need for a political officer. Organising parties and weekends away had become its major focus. Durban changed all that.
A handful of us who were more ‘politically inclined’ were asked to join the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) delegation to the racism conference. We would form part of a larger caucus with leading Jewish human rights academics, activists, and leaders from around the world. The Jewish caucus’ main purpose in attending the conference was to celebrate the strides we had made in the fight against antisemitism.
There had been some initial red flags that Israel might be on the receiving end of heavy criticism over its handling of the then recently launched Palestinian Intifada. The final preparatory conference was held in Tehran, from which all Israeli and Jewish caucus delegates had been barred by the Islamic Republic. The initial draft declaration was filled with inflammatory language against Israel and the West. But it was felt that American and South African pressure for a successful inclusive conference would moderate this. We were totally unprepared for what was to come.
We arrived in Durban to a well organised and funded festival of hate targeting Jews and the Jewish state. Thousands from around the world were wearing T-shirts branding Israel as the last bastion of Apartheid. Leaflets unashamedly declared that the world would be a better place if Hitler had won the war and solved the Jewish question. The notorious antisemitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was openly on sale and posters showing hooked nosed Jews controlling the world stared down on us. Jewish delegates were harassed and even the official conference panel on antisemitism was disrupted by anti-Jewish protestors claiming we were the real antisemites and shouldn’t be given a forum to express our “racist” views. So disgusted was UN conference secretary-general, Mary Robinson, with what was taking place that she declared, “When I see something like this, I am a Jew”.
Faced with this avalanche of hate, the Jewish student delegation made the decision not to follow the governments of Israel and the United States of America and withdraw from the conference, but rather to fight back. We realised with most of the world's media present, this could be an opportunity to debunk the big lie that the conference had sought to perpetuate about Jews and expose the true face of our detractors. So, with the help of the resourceful Durban Jewish community, we printed and distributed thousands of T-shirts with a prominent blue Magen David calling on people to “Fight racism not Jews”. We worked through the night putting together pamphlets and posters to hand out (the Israeli Foreign Ministry produced no hasbara material at that time).
The climax of our campaign was a peace rally wherein a gesture of reconciliation we even attempted to hand out flowers to our opponents. Again, we were met with the most vile antisemitic abuse in full view of the press. So aggressive, that the police had to be called in to prevent us from being lynched. That image of a handful of Jewish students, singing peace songs, being attacked by a large angry Keffiyeh-wearing mob at an anti-racism conference was broadcast on every major TV news channel and in hundreds of newspapers around the globe (the equivalent of going viral in a pre-social media world).
The hatred we had seen there was the tip of a very large iceberg, Durban was the harbinger of what was to come. Using international forums like Durban to promote Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel would become routine. Locally, the new South Africa would be an increasingly hostile political environment for Zionism with many leading members of the ruling tripartite alliance in subsequent years embracing the anti-Israel vitriol of the Durban conference.
There was no doubt this hatred would breed violence and only a week later, those fears were realised with the attack on the Twin Towers and the beginning of the still ongoing War on Terror. The Oslo peace process would remain defunct, buried by ongoing cycles of bloodshed and resentment.
However, not all the fallout from Durban has been negative. For the Jewish world, it was a much needed early wake-up call. It spurred widespread Jewish activism in support of Israel and investment in educating a new generation of leaders, who could publicly promote Jewish interests in a more hostile world. Moreover, it necessitated the building of new alliances and reengaging with neglected friends.
Today, Israel has very strong relations with emerging powers like India; it was recently granted observer status at the African Union, and the Abraham Accords have become a game-changing diplomatic achievement with the Arab world. So, despite the best efforts of those at Durban to demonise, isolate and ultimately eradicate the Jewish state, 20 years on Israel remains, stronger than ever.