(William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History)

The Durban Conference is a prime example of the adage “looks can be deceiving.”

On Sept. 22, 2021, the United Nations is holding a one-day conference in New York City to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its first “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.” The first conference, known as “Durban I,” was held Aug. 31–Sept. 8, 2001, in Durban, South Africa. 

Mike Smith
Mike Smith
Alene and Graham Landau Archivist Chair

On the surface, a World Conference Against Racism would seem to be worthy of a celebration. The 219 sections of the Declaration published by Durban I delegates appear to exhaustively address all forms of racism and hate against any group of people, as well offer guidelines for states, businesses and many other civil groups to combat racism in their ranks. Clause 58 even states: “We recall that the Holocaust must never be forgotten.” 

However, the Durban Conference is a prime example of the adage “looks can be deceiving.” At Durban I, a slew of antisemitic and anti-Israel propaganda was distributed and promoted, including copies of the long-discredited “Protocols of Zion.” In short, the Conference devolved into a hate-fest. While fighting racism and xenophobia was the mission, antisemitism was promulgated and tolerated.

William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

Prominent South African journalist Michael Belling commented on Durban I: “In many years of reporting on events in South Africa and Israel, this was the first time I actually felt scared, wearing a big identity tag with Jewish Chronicle (London) in clear, big letters, particularly in a stadium with thousands of people chanting “Viva, Viva Palestina,” as Fidel Castro addressed them in very anti-Israeli terms [“… the dreadful genocide perpetrated, at this very moment, against our Palestinian brothers”]. Jew-hatred was rife and antisemitic material freely available at many NGO stalls that were part of the Conference — before the government representatives gathered — that distributed apartheid and racist Israel declarations and more.” 

The delegates at Durban I also attempted to include the infamous “Zionism is Racism” into the final Declaration, as well as labeling Israel an apartheid state. An early draft that included this language caused Israel and the U.S. to withdraw from the Conference. Although the effort ultimately failed, this Big Lie is still promoted by the BDS movement and other similar groups.

Subsequent “Conferences Against Racism” were no better. In 2009, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a keynote speech attacking Zionism at Durban II.

From 2011
William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History

To their credit, a few countries walked-out on him, but the irony of the notorious Iranian leader speaking about human rights and attacking Zionism at a conference against racism was apparently lost upon most delegates. 

Durban III would prove to be no better than its predecessors. A JN editorial (Oct. 16, 2011) concluded: “The Durban process legacy of hate, intolerance and double standards is worthy of denouncing — not celebrating.” Indeed, for these reasons, the U.S., Israel and other democratic nations boycotted Durban II and III.

Durban IV will celebrate the flawed U.N. process of allegedly combating all forms of racism and prejudice. Anticipating another round of antisemitism, Israel, the U.S., Canada, Australia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy. Hungary, Austria, Netherlands and the Czech Republic are boycotting the conference.

Reports and essays about the Durban Conferences are in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History. It is maddening reading, to say the least.  

Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at

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