A panel at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8, 2001.
A panel at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8, 2001. (U.N./Ron da Silva)

For a firsthand account of the Conference, a few questions were posed to Michael Belling, a Jewish journalist from South Africa, who attended Durban I.

On Sept. 22, 2021, the United Nations is holding a one-day event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its first World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. This is a dubious commemoration. The first Conference, Durban I, infamously devolved into an antisemitic, anti-Israel hate fest. This is well-documented. 

For a firsthand account of the Conference, a few questions were posed to Michael Belling, a Jewish journalist from South Africa, who attended Durban I.

Belling was a foreign correspondent in Israel for a major South African newspaper group for several years. After his return to South Africa, he was the local correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (New York) and the Jewish Chronicle (London). Belling has written extensively on Middle Eastern and financial issues. He has appeared on TV and radio, and he has translated several books from Hebrew into English. Belling is also a novelist in his spare time. He lives in Pretoria.

Q: Why were you reporting from Durban I in 2001?  

MB: I covered the “anti-racism” conference in Durban for the Jewish Chronicle (London).

Q: What were your expectations of the Conference before you arrived there? 

MB: Not high at all. The preparatory conferences in several countries, including Iran, made it clear that, as is common in many organs of the United Nations, Israel was going to be singled out disproportionately for opprobrium, but nothing prepared any of the Jewish delegates to the NGO conference or the governmental conference, or me, for that matter, for what occurred. The floodgates of overt and blatant Jew-hatred on the streets of Durban were opened in ways not encountered since the 1930s. Since 2001, antisemitism has been the only acceptable racism in large parts of the world, including the USA, France and Britain. 

Michael Belling
Michael Belling

The impact of Durban I did not end in that city. The BDS movement is a direct consequence, as is the widely held view that Zionism is, in fact, a dirty word. 

I am not going into any detail here, but ironically, all the activities at the Durban I conference gave the Soviet KGB a posthumous victory — it was the brains behind earlier disinformation campaigns, using the same techniques, that led directly to the notorious “Zionism is Racism” resolution passed by the U.N. in 1975 (repealed after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991).

Q: The Conference is now known for its vehement promotion of antisemitic and anti-Israel sentiments. What was your personal experience at the Conference? 

MB: The venue was the Durban Conference Centre, within easy walking distance of a major sports stadium and the site of the NGO stalls. Interestingly, the main Jewish venue in Durban, the Jewish Club, is also within walking distance, and it had to endure a few protests. The Club served as the center for meetings, discussions, consultations and strategizing for all the Jewish groups there — not to mention an endless source of food, snacks, tea and coffee! All of this created a strong sense of camaraderie among all of us.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was freely available at the NGO conference, as were several flyers lauding Hitler and indicating that the outcomes would have been favorable had he won — including no Israel. Neturei Karta — opponents of Zionism — stood in the streets showing their own placards declaring that Zionism was not Judaism and the like, sharing the demonstrations with real Jew-haters.

The atmosphere in the huge and impressive media center was, fortunately, very different. There was a direct feed of all the public proceedings, as only a few journalists could be accommodated in the conference hall.

I personally did not encounter any direct violence, although there was some around the NGO conference. But the atmosphere at the Jewish Club was at times tense, with a police presence outside, as rumors circulated of possible violence against it (which never materialized).

Q: How would you summarize or characterize the Durban Conference and its proceedings? 

MB: I would offer three main points: 

The Conference opened the way to public Jew-hatred after more than 50 years of such hatred skulking largely underground in the West: Open antisemitism was just not polite, as opposed to the usual camouflage of anti-Zionism. Clear examples of this change can be seen in the Jews targeted physically last May during the Gaza war and, more disturbingly, the tolerance of the blatant antisemitism of the “Squad” in U.S. Congress.

It resulted in wide acceptance of the old antisemitic view that the Jews (sorry, Zionists) were the source of all evil in the world. It became almost conventional wisdom in all too many public and private circles.

It demonstrated the extent to which uncritical Palestinianism has become the leitmotif of the international left. As a result, all other human rights issues since have been pushed aside, including the Uyghur genocide in China. Unfortunately, this still holds, and Durban IV will simply replay the old themes.

Q: Did you attend Durban II or III?  If so, what was your experience?  

MB: No, I did not, as they were held in other countries.

Interestingly, though, I covered the U.N. Sustainable Development Conference in 2002 in Johannesburg for JTA. Both the conference organizers and the South African authorities appeared to have learned something from the previous year’s fiasco. An attempt was made by the Palestinians and their supporters to hijack this conference as well, but their attempts failed, although the issue still formed a significant part of the proceedings. 

Q: In your opinion, what is the legacy of Durban I?

MB: To put it crudely, I don’t believe the Durban legacy was unique or special — it merely lanced the boil that had come to a head, letting all the poison out. The U.N. legacy, however, for moer than 50 years, has been one of overt racism against the Jews and Israel. 

Q: What are your expectations for the upcoming 20th anniversary celebration of Durban I?

MB:  Same old, with possibly some new wrinkles, if the bearers of the burden of hate have enough imagination. If not, more of the same. 

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