Durban’s Orwellian legacy of antisemitism lives on: Canadian experts Irwin Cotler and Karen Mock

October 15, 2021 by Features Desk
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Canadian law professor and former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General Irwin Cotler and fellow distinguished Canadian human rights advocate Dr Karen Mock have featured in an  Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) webinar.

Irwin Cotler

The topic was “The infamous 2001 Durban World Conference against Racism and the Ongoing Challenge of Antisemitism”.

Dr Mock addressed the webinar saying Durban changed the nature of how antisemitism impacts the international Jewish community. She noted she had been the Chair of the Canadian advisory committee in the lead up to Durban and had been optimistic about it. However, during the preparatory regional meeting in Teheran, she became aware of plans to renew the labelling of Zionism as racist, and some Jewish delegates couldn’t even get visas

Then, at the NGO conference in Geneva, when drafting of positions started, she realised that “antisemitism would be alive and well” at Durban. The Geneva conference was civil, she said, but at Durban itself, Jewish delegates were subjected to vitriol and attacks.

Antisemitic propaganda was distributed at the registration table of the youth forum, she added, and the NGO forum saw the circulation of an Arab publication with Nazi-style antisemitism. The head of the Co-ordinating  Committee wore a keffiyeh at the opening forum and huge anti-Israel posters were everywhere. Jews were forced to hide their identities, she said.

Organisers refused to delay forums for Shabbat, but then did so because a Spanish translation wasn’t ready, she noted. There was a Palestinian protest featuring posters expressing the wish that Hitler had won.

The drafting committee visited Palestinian refugee camps, she said, but not Israel, and the Antisemitism Commission was the only one which had a section of its declaration rejected. Earlier, it was stormed by anti-Israel activists.

In the end, she said, Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, refused to accept the NGO declaration because of the vitriol against Israel and because of a technicality over its use of the term “genocide”. Israel was also the only country named in the government document.

She concluded by saying, “For me, the saddest part is what this did and the divisiveness in the anti-racism and human rights world, where Jews no longer felt safe and equal, and in partnership with our colleagues.”

Professor Cotler, who revealed he had been arrested in Durban in 1981 for speaking out against Apartheid, described what happened at the Conference as “truly Orwellian –  a world conference against racism and hate turned into a conference of racism and hate against Israel and the Jewish people; a conference intended to promote and protect international human rights turned into a conference singling out one state and one people for selective opprobrium and indictment…”

Karen Mock

He added that it had indelibly imprinted itself on his identity and being. He noted that a friend had said that while 9/11 was “the Kristallnacht of terror, Durban was the Mein Kampf… there in the trenches metastasising in its antisemitism.” He saw Jews there being physically attacked and told they don’t belong to the human race and distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

He added that Durban “emerged as the tipping point for the new antisemitism… masquerading as anti-racism and proceeding under the protective cover of human rights.”

Examples he gave included Jews being blamed for the 9/11 attacks, a global campaign against Israel as a racist, ethnic-cleansing, criminal and Apartheid state, the UN Commission for Human Rights singling out Israel and, two months after Durban, an anti-Israel motion being passed at the University of Michigan which led to the launching of the BDS movement. Then, in 2009, the contracting parties to the Geneva Conventions met for the first time in 52 years, and the only state they put in the docket of the accused was Israel, not those responsible for genocide or ethnic cleansing. It has also happened twice since, he noted.

He added, “20 years later, that Durban legacy of hate finds expression, not only in the new global, virulent, sophisticated, and even lethal antisemitism, but we have seen a metastasizing as a result of the Hamas war on Israel.”

He described this as a second tipping point, saying there has been a growth of demonological antisemitism underpinned by five dynamics – mainstreaming of antisemitism in political culture, globalisation of antisemitism, marginalisation of antisemitism in the fight against racism, the laundering of antisemitism under the cover of anti-racism, and the revival of classic poison-the-well-style antisemitic tropes in relation to COVID.

Israel and Jews, he said, are not above the law, but the human rights standards Israel is attacked over should be applied everywhere else.

Cotler outlined a ten-point plan he has been promoting to combat antisemitism, including the imperative of Holocaust education; combatting Holocaust denial and distortion; unmasking Durban; enhancing the adoption and implementation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism; combatting the alarming rise in antisemitic hate crimes; combatting the rise of hate on social media, including through law enforcement; protecting Jewish institutions; zero tolerance for antisemitism in political parties; and an international constituency of conscience of political leaders, diplomats and scholars.

In the discussion, Cotler condemned the standing incitement by the Iranian leadership to hate and genocide against Israel, bemoaning that no state party to the Genocide Convention had called Iran to account for this, despite the Convention barring such incitement.

Mock noted that a Pakistani colleague of hers said when he grew up, you were raised to hate Jews. Now in the West, she said, the far-right and far-left are undermining efforts for communities to come together to fight racism.

Cotler spoke of the intersection between Durban and the Stockholm process, which produced a draft in 2002 that led to the IHRA definition, after work from the European Council on Combatting Racism and Xenophobia. The IHRA definition wasn’t adopted till 2016, so, he said, it is “not only the most authoritative but representative definition that we have” and is “anchored in human rights law, anchored in inequality rights law.”

He added that, in contrast to Durban, it is “a blueprint for protecting human rights, for protecting equality rights, for protecting freedom of speech.” For those who say it silences free speech, he says it’s the other way around because it protects the speech of those marginalised and bullied, and also of those who want to be critical of Israel – it “expressly says that criticism of Israel is not antisemitism and pro-Palestinian advocacy can be continued. The only thing is it sets forth red lines. When you do speak of Jews and Israelis as Nazis, that’s crossing the red line.”

Mock agreed that the IHRA definition should be adopted as a tool to be used in defining antisemitism. She noted that its opponents are now using the propaganda technique of repeated lies to undermine it.

They were both encouraged that so many countries chose not to attend Durban 4 because they objected to the language of the Durban declarations, although Cotler was disappointed so many major human rights NGOs were still involved, saying combatting racism by the UN needs to be done under a separate framework.

On claims allegations of antisemitism are used to shut down legitimate criticism of Israel, Cotler said that demonological antisemitism should be called out using the IHRA definition, noting that every targeted community can define the racism used against it for itself except Jews. He added that we have an inter-governmental organisation  – IHRA – defining antisemitism, and saying tough criticism of Israel is not included, but there are points where the line is crossed.

People claiming that setting such lines breeds antisemitism, he said, are “turning law, morality and fact on its head… Basically, it’s an attempt to launder antisemitism under the cover of anti-racism, under the cover of human rights, and even under the protective cover of freedom of speech. Let there be no mistake about it, under our own international human rights treaty obligations, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, we are obliged…  to prohibit incitement to hostility, discrimination, and violence…and that is not within the ambit of protected speech, and that is what IHRA is also singling out…”

AIJAC

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