Fighting Back Against Durban’s Hate With the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

Protesters outside the 2001 Durban Conference. Photo: Getty Images.

August 4, 2021

With the 20th anniversary of the infamous World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, coming up next month, this analysis by  Thomas Getman looks at the conference’s antisemitic history, its lasting harmful consequences, and how the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism can be used as an effective tool to fight the hate it fueled.

History of Durban’s Antisemitism

In 2001, the United Nations convened the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR), in Durban, South Africa — a symbolic location meant to represent the struggle against South Africa’s former apartheid regime. The event, better known as the Durban Conference, was intended to be a “landmark in the struggle to eradicate all forms of racism.”

From as early as the preparatory meetings leading up to the Durban Conference, an ulterior motive to the ostensible purpose was evident. Jewish voices, such as representatives of the State of Israel and global Jewish NGOs, were barred from the planning conference. Participants accused Israel of committing “Holocausts” and stoking antisemitism, and did not allow these claims to be challenged.

At the NGO Forum associated with the conference, NGOs distributed rabidly anti-Jewish and anti-Israel material that accused Israel of genocide and questioned whether “Hitler was right.” Other NGOs sold copies of the infamous antisemitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, at the event.

At the actual conference, the concluding document that was adopted, known as the “Durban Declaration,” largely ignored the issues for which the conference was originally called and instead focused on branding Israel’s anti-terror policies during the height of the Second Intifada as “war crimes” and “violations of international law.” This condemnation occurred without mention of the Palestinian terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, targeting Israel’s civilian population. In essence, the document justified Palestinian terrorism and branded Israel an apartheid state for the first time. The declaration went further in sanitizing terror against Israelis as “justified resistance to occupation.”

After attending the conference as a member of the U.S. delegation, the late Congressman Tom Lantos (D-CA) — the only Holocaust survivor to have ever served in Congress — stated, “Having experienced the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand, this was the most sickening and unabashed display of hate for Jews I had seen since the Nazi period.”

Demonstrators carry anti-Israel signs outside the opening session of the Durban Conference, Aug. 31, 2001. Photo: Reuters.

Continuity of Historical Antisemitism and a Transition Into “New Antisemitism”

The Durban Conference and its associated strategy are a recodification of the infamous UN General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 3379, which declared, “Zionism is racism,” despite its revocation in 1991. Resolution 3379 originated from Cold War-era Soviet and Arab League antisemitic propaganda.

The international rejection of a Jewish and democratic state is a de facto continuation of the UN’s libelous 1975 Resolution 3379 affirming Zionism as racism, passed in the aftermath of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat’s infamous November 1974 UNGA speech. That speech was effectively a modern political blood libel in which Arafat stated, “Zionism is imperialist, colonialist, and racist,” arguably marking the beginning of the mainstreaming of the anti-Zionist form of contemporary antisemitism.

The Durban Conference in 2001 reinstated this libel by perverting international human rights laws and engaging in severe historical revisionism. The “Durban Strategy” launders the delegitimization and demonization of Israel as a Jewish state and perpetuates contemporary antisemitism under the guise of universal human rights values and the protective cover of the United Nations. This faux cover follows the pattern of all major antisemitic movements throughout history — whether during the Third Reich or in medieval Christendom — persecuting the Jewish people in the name of universal values and to counter a nefarious collective plot orchestrated by Jewry against non-Jews.

To argue that Israel is an imperialist and colonialist state requires both denying Jewish indigeneity to the Land of Israel and the supplantation of that indigeneity with Palestinian Arabs alone. The rejection of Jewish indigeneity to the land requires the employment of fallacious history and antisemitic reversion — by linking the anti-colonial movement for Jewish liberation with historical European settler colonialism.

Since imperialism is the extension of a group’s power and control abroad, the claim that “Jewish migration to Mandatory Palestine is imperialist,” rests on the antisemitic trope that Jews are participating in a world Jewish conspiracy, by attempting to expand their “pre-existing power” through colonization and exploitation, when in reality Jews were treated as second-class citizens in nearly every European, North African, and Middle Eastern country.

Furthermore, in the paper “Zionism, Imperialism, and Indigeneity in Israel/Palestine: A Critical Analysis,” B’nai Brith Canada Director Ran Ukashi states the argument that “Britain’s Imperial interest motivated Zionism” was a “myth.” Economically, “Palestine was a poor country, lacking growth potential. Apart from a limited reserve of minerals in the Dead Sea, it had no known natural resources, no significant agricultural potential or local consumers’ market, and no obvious outlet for British investment…Thanks to Zionists, it came into a unique windfall – significant imports of Jewish capital, donations to the Jewish National Home. During the entire period of the Mandate, the Palestine administration’s entire budget never reached the level of Jewish capital imports… in other words, Zionist investment could… provide the necessary capital to develop Palestine as a whole (not just for the benefit of the Zionists), which had been left underdeveloped (and subsequently under- populated) following centuries of Ottoman imperial dominion.”

In other words, not only was Britain’s interest in Israel based on the self-determination of the Zionists, but the Zionist interest and investment is what brought the region out of the desolation caused by Ottoman imperialism, making the movement effectively anti-imperialist. As Ukashi concludes, linking Zionism as the indigenous self-determination of the Jewish people with historical settler colonialism is only “achieved through the reductive ascription of complex social ills to the legacies of imperialism and colonialism, working retroactively to illustrate a predetermined causal linkage.”

This level of historical revisionism is only possible by embracing the most classical and Marxist antisemitic tropes — the Jews are operating greedily behind closed doors to gain operating power as a means of control over production and other peoples. Antisemitism through this lens links Nazi antisemitism to Marxist/Soviet antisemitism — repackaged in the language of modern Zionism until the Durban Conference codified this age-old hatred into the “new antisemitism.”

In his essay “Why We Remain Jews,” Leo Strauss wrote, “The lesson that Hitler gave Stalin in very simple words… the fact that antisemitism is the socialism of fools is an argument not against, but for, antisemitism given the fact that there is such an abundance of fools, why should one not steal that very profitable thunder.”

Canada’s former Justice Minister and current Antisemitism Special Envoy, the Honorable Irwin Cotler, describes the transition from old to new antisemitism as an almost semantic one. The former is the discrimination against, denial of, assault upon, the rights of Jews to live as equal members in the societies they inhabit. The latter is discrimination against the rights of Israel and the Jewish people to live as equal members in the family of nations.

The targeted group has merely shifted from individual Jews or communities of Jews living in other nations to the Jewish people as a collective in their nation, Israel, under the faux protection of political criticism. Permanent agenda item number seven in the UN Human Rights Council, singling out of Israel as the only permanent agenda item focusing on a single country, demonstrates the disproportionate and obsessive focus on Israel — the double standard.

Labour MP Denis MacShane, Chair of the 2006 U.K. All- Party Parliamentary Inquiry Into Antisemitism, said, “The most worrying discovery of this inquiry [the Durban Conference] is that anti-Jewish sentiment is entering the mainstream, appearing in everyday conversations of people who consider themselves neither racist nor prejudiced.”

The BDS movement was born at the 2001 Durban Conference. Photo: Getty Images / Erik McGregor.

IHRA as the Solution, and Durban Checked Against IHRA

There is a universal interest in fighting antisemitism. In its report “Religious Freedom, Anti-Semitism, and Rule of Law in Europe and Eurasia,” the Organization for  Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)“outlined the connection that antisemitism has to other human rights violations and routes localities can take in fighting antisemitism.” All OSCE participating states agree on the principle that antisemitism is an alarm bell signal for the degradation of human rights overall.

After Durban, it became clear that there was no mechanism to limit incitement and violence because there was no definition that fully encapsulated all manifestations of contemporary antisemitism. In fact, most well-intentioned educated individuals in the West today have a difficult time identifying antisemitism that is not dressed up in the language of neo-Nazism. Never mind the omnipresent existence of antisemitism for more than 2,000 years preceding the Holocaust.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism is the most widely accepted and representative definition of antisemitism existing today, having been adopted via a democratic process over 15 years by various intergovernmental bodies. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) has said that the definition is particularly useful because “the examples provided in the definition … are intended to explain where and how anti-Israel animus can become a form of antisemitism, separate and apart from criticism of Israel.”

Cotler also emphasizes the importance of the IHRA definition after the Durban Conference. According to Cotler, the IHRA definition is “legitimately rooted in human rights law and was written and anchored directly against the false human rights [espoused at the] Durban Conference.”

The conference shaped a new antisemitic discourse about Israel and the Jewish people. The definition “reminds the audience that Israel and the Jewish people are not above the law or deserving of special treatment because of the Holocaust; rather history demands that the standards for international human rights and humanitarian law are applied equally to all countries, including Israel,” Cotler noted.

Labeling the Durban Conference as antisemitic and distinct from legitimate criticism of Israel is integral to dismantling the Durban Strategy. Doing so removes the protective cover that the myriad of NGOs with their halo effects (which is the tendency for a positive impression — such as the phrase “human rights” being included in a group’s name — to influence opinions in other areas) and the use of the UN’s human rights apparatus lend to the cause.

The IHRA definition represents the Jewish, and international community’s, collective dismantling of the “Zionism is racism” critique of Israel by preserving and promoting legitimate and equal criticism. The Jew-hatred espoused at Durban, especially the bigotry dressed as criticism of the Jewish state, is the nexus point of “new antisemitism.” The particular hatred of Judaism, Jewish people, and Jewish national self-determination that developed as outgrowths of the Durban philosophy and perpetuated by the Durban Strategy, fall squarely within the IHRA definition.

In 2001, the planning conferences and events sought to exclude Jewish voices and Jewish history. During the final preparatory conference held in Tehran, Iran, the Jewish caucuses were denied entry. Concurrently, the Tehran Times (a mouthpiece of the Iranian regime) ran a written series titled “The Auschwitz Conspiracy,” consistently engaging in the denial of “the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust)” – one of the eleven examples of contemporary antisemitism under the IHRA definition – and “accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust” – another IHRA example. The distribution and sale of posters stating “Hitler was right,” and the infamous forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” by NGOs at Durban, perpetuated the stereotypical antisemitic allegation of a world Jewish conspiracy, or Jewish control of the media, economy, government, and other societal institutions – yet another example that falls under the IHRA definition.

Finally, the Durban Declaration itself explicitly and exclusively singles out Israel as the only country named in the global “anti-racism” manifesto and describes the Palestinians as victims of Israeli racism, reviving the “Zionism is racism” libel. The declaration effectively both “denies the Jewish people their right to self-determination by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” and “applies double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” – two more examples of contemporary antisemitism under the IHRA definition. The conference assembled retrograde antisemitic canards and repackaged them under the guise of criticism  of Israel. By recognizing  the specific difference between the two through the IHRA definition of antisemitism, the international community can protect free speech, while upholding universal human rights – including those of the Jewish people.

In 2009, the second Durban conference emboldened then-Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who gave a speech denying the reality of the Holocaust. This is by no means an exception to the Durban Strategy, but rather an example of its façade to combat racism. Without pushing a strong and dynamic working definition of antisemitism, any statement can be disseminated as criticism of Israel. Even the most egregious denials of the fact and scope of the Holocaust, and accusations of exaggeration of the Holocaust by Jews, would otherwise be considered kosher on the international stage, as at past Durban conferences.

Given its history of extremist Jew-hatred, one must assume that the 20th anniversary of the Durban Conference and the celebration of the Durban Declaration’s adoption will not yield an environment fair and equal for the Jewish people and State of Israel. History has proven that the Durban Strategy’s human rights framework will allow for a continuity of antisemitic incitement to remain prevalent at the highest level of international relations as long as the clear line between legitimate criticism of the nation-state of the Jewish people, and antisemitic rhetoric remains blurred.

The IHRA working definition of antisemitism is a powerful tool in clarifying this debate, and was something unavailable during prior Durban conferences, and indeed, created partly as a result. The definition is a guidepost to measure antisemitic expressions. Countries who have adopted or endorsed the IHRA definition of antsemitism should uphold their commitments to their Jewish communities by utilizing the definition for a just determination on whether to boycott  the upcoming conference. Interpreting and applying the definition is the first step toward dismantling the pernicious Durban Strategy.

New Israeli President Isaac Herzog, in one of his first public addresses last month, called for more foreign countries to adopt the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, stating, “We must operate throughout the world in unanimity, strength, self-confidence, and effectiveness to undermine the next Durban conference, because that conference is a conference of hate and diatribe of the worst kind, ridden with antisemitism in the worst sense of the word which brainwashes about who Jews are and what Israel is all about… Fear and hate loom over antisemitism. Fear and hate are spread by huge organizations, operations and systems and tilt the balance against Jews, and the right of Jews for self-determination with their own nation state.”

All countries that have adopted the IHRA working definition of antisemitism must fulfill their obligation to protect their Jewish communities by withdrawing from and condemning this “festival of hate.”

Thomas Getman.

Thomas Getman is a Fellow at the Tikvah Fund and Intern at the Combat Antisemitism Movement. He is earning a Bachelor’s Degree from Emory University studying Business and Philosophy.