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The detritus of Durban – 20 years later

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On 2 September at 20:00, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), in partnership with the SA Jewish Report, will be holding a webinar to mark the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations World Conference Against Racism (WCAR). That now notorious gathering, held in Durban in August-September 2001 turned out to be a watershed event in the ideological war against Israel, and by extension against its Jewish supporters in the diaspora.

The ostensible purpose of the conference was to provide a forum in which the international community could join in confronting the evils of racism wherever it manifested in the world. Instead, it was allowed to degenerate into an Israel-bashing kangaroo court. Durban 2001 has since come to be regarded as a defining moment in which the ideology and strategies of the global anti-apartheid movement were adopted as a means of demonising and delegitimising Israel on the world stage.

South African Jewry was well aware that Israel would come under heavy attack at the WCAR. What hadn’t been anticipated was how virulent and all-pervasive the onslaught would be, particularly during the preceding non-governmental organisation (NGO) conference. Even more unexpected was the extent to which radical anti-Israel sentiment would spill over into overt antisemitism. Vicious antisemitic tracts were openly sold in the streets and placards expressing admiration for Hitler combined with regret that he never “finished the job” brazenly displayed. Jewish participants at the NGO conference were subjected to continual harassment, vilification, and abuse. The few challenges they were able to mount against the tide of invective confronting them were consistently sabotaged, such as when a press conference and the antisemitism commission had to be cut short after being disrupted, and a workshop on Holocaust denial was cancelled because of a planned march on the venue by 10 000 demonstrators.

It was probably the most in-your-face series of attacks against the Jewish community in more than half a century. Just a few years previously, South Africans had negotiated an end to white minority rule and embarked on a hopeful new future based on the fundamental democratic values of equality, inclusiveness, and freedom of expression, belief, and association. It therefore came as a particular shock to local Jewish participants at Durban to find themselves in an environment where those values were so palpably and unashamedly flouted.

The upcoming webinar will look back on what happened at the WCAR together with the long-term impact of those events and how world Jewry has responded. We have put together an impressive panel of local and international experts for the occasion, several of whom were present at the original conference. They include former Canadian minister of justice and Canada’s envoy on antisemitism, Professor Irwin Cotler; Ambassador Tova Herzl (Israel’s ambassador to South Africa at the time); UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed; Felice Gaer, the director of the Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights; and David Harris, the chief executive of the American Jewish Committee. Local speakers include SAJBD President Mary Kluk, National Vice-Chairperson Marc Pozniak, and Tamar Lazarus, all three of whom are Durban veterans.

I invite you all to join us for what should be a very stimulating (if rather sobering) event. To register, go to

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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