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September 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of a tragic event that permanently altered the international landscape of antisemitism. 

I’m writing, of course, about the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. The 2021 iteration of the Durban Conference was held Wednesday, Sept. 22 at the UN headquarters in New York. 

A group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) hijacked the 2001 Durban conference and turned it into an anti-Israel hate fest, causing Israel and the United States to walk out in protest. Durban I, as this conference is also called, gave birth to the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement and marked the beginning of baseless comparisons of Israel to apartheid South Africa. Event organizers even passed out copies of the fabricated antisemitic pamphlet “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” 

Aside from the United Nations’ anti-Israel bias hardly being newsworthy, the dawn of BDS was barely remembered because a second tragedy, al-Qaeda flying hijacked planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, occurred just days later, dominating the news cycle. This was an incredible stroke of luck for international anti-Israel forces; it allowed them the opportunity to operate under the radar for four years until what they claim was their beginning in 2005, following a call to boycott from Palestinian civil society organizations. The Middle East Research and Information Project states clearly that 2005 was only when the movement gained international prominence. 

The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution 1996/31 also invited representatives of NGOs to observe the conference. However, the parallel NGO forum overshadowed the official conference. Even though the resulting document from the convening of NGOs is unofficial, groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International—both notoriously anti-Israel—signed the “NGO Declaration.” 

The NGO Declaration contains several dozen baseless accusations of and misleading statements regarding Israel, including that Israel privileges Jewish citizens above non-Jewish citizens and other nonsense about colonization. While spewing antisemitic and anti-Israel propaganda, the NGO Declaration has the audacity to also encourage education on “the evil that necessarily results from Jew hatred,” and to mention that “Jewish people live in fear, frequently terrorized by extremist groups.” 

At some level, this group of NGO representatives had to know that their campaign against Israel was not “combating racism,” but actually much more sinister, even if it was a retroactive realization. Otherwise, they would take credit for the conception of the BDS movement and not pretend that BDS is a grassroots movement conceived by average Palestinian citizens.  

This makes the hijacking of Durban a double tragedy: it was the birth of a new type of antisemitism and its supporters intentionally misled the public about what happened. 

Fortunately, several countries took action against the pervasive neo-racism at the Durban conference. The United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and Austria, among several others, released statements announcing their intention to boycott the conference.

A total of 37 countries ended up boycotting: Albania, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Estonia, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Moldova, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States and Uruguay.

Perhaps Durban I was a harbinger of the neo-racism that has become so commonplace today, directed particularly at Jews, but also those who do not belong to a group that has claimed unquestionable victimhood. Surely, if representatives in the NGO Forum truly cared about antisemitism and all its avenues that the Declaration actually enumerated, they would not have targeted Israel—at least not solely—by creating the Pandora’s box that is the BDS movement. 

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About the Author

Naomi Grant
Naomi Grant is the Director of Communications and Office Manager. Grant graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, where she double majored in Government & Politics and Spanish. She was an editor at The Diamondback, UMD’s independent student newspaper, and interned as a reporter at the Jerusalem Post and at the Cleveland Jewish News.

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