Nineteen years ago this week, thousands of seemingly well-meaning people from around the world traveled to what appeared to be the end of the earth—Durban, South Africa—to participate in the World Conference on Racism, with the idea of stamping out the timeless evil of discrimination and racism. As the world was turning the page on a new millennium, ending racism failed to happen in Durban. Quite to the contrary, the gathering built a foundation for taking racism and anti-Semitism into a new global orbit, one built on weaponizing hate against Israel, one of the smallest countries in the world, but home to 42 percent of the world’s 15 million Jews.
We went to Durban with high hopes that on the grounds of the U.N. NGO (nongovernmental organization) Forum, and at the U.N. World Conference itself, we would work with people from all walks of life to seek a better day, a more honest day, a less maligning day, for all people committed to stamping out racism, anti-Semitism, hatred and intolerance.
However, in Durban in 2001, a Jewish leadership delegation led by B’nai B’rith International, encountered not a world conference committed to ending racism and discrimination, but an ugly “hate-fest.”
Its legacy continues. How did this happen and why? And what did this conference teach about the world’s proclaimed desire to end racism and discrimination?
Those who hate Israel, Zionism and Jews continue to taint the view that Zionism is the legitimate movement of the Jewish people to reestablish themselves in their ancient homeland. If other people sought to do so, they would be praised. But because it is the Jewish people, we and Israel are maligned and accused of being an apartheid, racist, criminal state.
One way to eliminate hate is to confront it, and two decades after the Durban Conference, B’nai B’rith International, a global organization founded in 1843, and one of the first NGOs at the United Nations in 1947, is planning a year-long series of programs under the banner “Durban20: Hate Revisited” in the 20th year since the Jewish delegation walked out of the Conference.
“Durban20: Hate Revisited” events will occur in world capitals, at the United Nations, in Washington and with an outreach to select colleges and universities throughout the world to deliver clarity and context to people about the ills of hate, intolerance, discrimination, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and, in general, anti-Israel attitudes.
We will examine the Durban Conference with live events, through an array of teleconferencing, traditional and digital media. Petitions are being readied for global circulation. The lessons of discrimination and racism, the lessons that Durban failed to teach, never end by advancing or manufacturing further hate. The year-long campaign will teach how equating Zionism to racism was historically inaccurate, politically ill-conceived and morally wrong.
What Durban failed to articulate were true and well-established causes for hate. Zionism, the right for a Jewish nation to live in its ancestral homeland, does nothing to fuel racism. Israel, since gaining recognition by the United Nations in 1947 and modern statehood in 1948, has more friends in the world today than enemies, though you would never know it from the repetitious votes singling out Israel in the United Nations General Assembly, the U.N. Human Rights Council or at UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). The 193 nations in the UNGA don’t seem to put much credence in the U.N.’s Global Innovation Index, which ranks Israel in its Top 10.
For 72 years, the modern State of Israel has thrived, unlike countries that wish to destroy it, as a diverse, multicultural and pluralistic nation. The frustrated designs of its detractors have failed so much that relations with the Jewish homeland represent a greater hope for social and economic stability than its destruction would create.
The “hate-fest” in Durban, which occurred during the Second Intifada, when terrorist bombers wearing suicide vests attacked buses, restaurants, shopping malls and family gatherings, sought to change the world by demeaning Israel and Jews in a war of explosive, inflammatory and weaponized words and acts. Look at the world today. In the face of animus toward Israel, in spite of the hateful rhetoric, many countries have decided they have less reason to hate and more to gain by building bridges with Israel than to violate its borders. The United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states recognize this reality, as do countries in the eastern Mediterranean and most Western countries, above all the United States.
A complicated, dangerous world is better off when nations in the Middle East envision a time of cooperation, even normalization, with Israel. They understand the value of collaborating with Israel, a country recognized for technological advancements that improve life for all.
The Durban Conference became an extension of events from 1975, when Israel’s ancient enemies gave rise to the catchy phrase of “isms” as a means to demean and destroy the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Despite the repeal of the Zionism=Racism measure in 1991, the wave of hate in Durban attempted to smoke Israel’s supporters out with words, much like Gazans are attempting to do with their ongoing launching of incendiary terror devices, targeting not only Jewish communities inside Israel, but also the trees, forests, recreational areas and natural habitats for wildlife that Israel nurtures and preserves.
At Durban, the roadmap was paved for launching and promoting the terrorist organizations’-backed Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement. It is a notion that fails and actually has only served to hurt the economic interests of the Palestinians. Israel remains committed to achieving long-term security and peace with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors. To accomplish such a reality, however, requires a commitment to stamping out hate, intolerance, discrimination, racism and anti-Semitism.
Fighting hate and discrimination cannot be done by fomenting further hate and discrimination. It is time for clarity and truth, not lies and false narratives. It is time for a commitment by all people to strive for a better day for all people, built on respect for differences and the dignity of all men, women and children on earth. “Durban20: Hate Revisited” begins today.
Richard D. Heideman served as President of B’nai B’rith International from 1998-2002 and led the delegation of B’nai B’rith and other Jewish leaders at Durban Conference in 2001. Charles O. Kaufman is the current President of B’nai B’rith International. Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B’nai B’rith International.