(September 20, 2021 / JNS) The United Nations will hold a major international convening on Sept. 22 to mark the 20th anniversary of its World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa in 2001. In many ways, that conference has marked us more than we mark it. For supporters, it was an epoch-making event: an awakening about racism for a world then not yet “woke.” At the same time, it was what we might now call a super-spreader event, causing a new anti-Zionist variant of the world’s oldest hatred to go viral. This month, as we observe this anniversary of the worst post-Holocaust international manifestation of anti-Semitism, we must pledge an end not only to Durban but to the hate-filled worldview that it represents.
This year, the United States and some 15 of its allies will boycott this month’s high-level commemorative meeting, known as Durban IV, because of the anti-Semitism associated with the initial conference. Durban provided a platform for inflammatory speeches such as PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s accusations of the “ugliness” of “Israeli racist policies and practices against the Palestinian people.” At a parallel, U.N.-sponsored forum for non-governmental organizations, one placard read “Hitler Should Have Finished the Job.” Nearby, copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a classic anti-Semitic hoax, were available for sale. Activists distributed flyers with caricatures of Jews with hooked noses and fangs dripping with blood, clutching money.
In light of this history, it is not enough to praise the countries that will boycott Durban IV nor to oppose the many more that apparently still plan to participate. Beyond that, we must face the reality that the United Nations has found it necessary to stage yet another major international event to commemorate this grand global travesty. To do that, we must understand why so many still support Durban despite its ugly legacy.
For those who celebrate Durban, that conference laid the foundation for the world to accept—and to believe—that systemic racism lies at the core of our global system. Over the last two decades, this worldview has taken hold internationally, nowhere more than in the United States. For many, Durban represents the war on a global system of white supremacy. It also reflects the growing worldview that capitalism is unsustainable, as is the global influence of the United States. These understandings are reflected in Critical Race Theory, the Black Lives Matter movement, and a host of government, corporate and educational programs.
Too often, these programs adopt not only Durban’s commendable opposition to racism but also its tragic descent into bigotry. This can be seen, for example, in cases where university training sessions have separated employees by race, treating Jews and whites as privileged oppressors and teaching other groups to view them in stereotypical terms. In California, supporters of a first-draft Ethnic Studies Curriculum would promote the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel and omit lesson plans about anti-Semitism.
For those who are committed to ending racism, this new anti-racism is a diversion from the real, hard work of civil-rights enforcement. Instead of identifying actual instances of discrimination—where people are treated worse because of their race or other group identity—the Durbanist approach is to overhaul our social order, dividing people by their perceived status as oppressor or oppressed. This feeds into racial stereotypes, with Jews viewed in anti-Semitic terms as privileged, powerful, conspiratorial and controlling.
There is good news. The 16 countries that will boycott this month’s Durban IV commemoration reflect an increase over the 14 that skipped Durban III, or the 10 that pulled out of Durban II. But we must do more than pull out of Durban. We must pull out of Durbanism. That is to say, we must extirpate the hate that Durban has spread—not only in our international institutions, but also in our schools, our campuses and our workplaces.
Fortunately, the pullout from Durban reflects a growing global awareness of the need to respond forcefully to the spreading hate of global anti-Semitism. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism has now been adopted by 30 nations, many within the last couple of years. There is no more important step that institutions can take than to adopt this important definition, which strikes a blow against global anti-Semitism.
Beyond that, we must seek out and eliminate Durbanism wherever it arises, replacing it with a genuine commitment to equal opportunity. Instead of dividing people by race, we must unite. Instead of using racism as a pretext to pursue extreme ideological agendas, we must return to the hard work of fighting discrimination wherever it arises, including in “anti-racist” programs that are purportedly designed to prevent it. While pulling out of Durban, we must pull into the fight against racism.
Kenneth L. Marcus is founder and chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. He served previously as U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights (2018-2020), and he is the author of “The Definition of Anti-Semitism.”
This article presents an abridged form of remarks delivered at the Touro College Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust’s conference on Durban IV.
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