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34 countries shun UN’s commemoration of controversial Durban Conference

Israel leads boycott of event marking 20 years since summit on racism, which Foreign Ministry calls the ‘worst international manifestation of antisemitism since WWII’

South Africa's President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa delivers a prerecorded address to a high-level meeting to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration during the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, on September 22, 2021.  (Justin Lane/Pool Photo via AP)
South Africa's President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa delivers a prerecorded address to a high-level meeting to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration during the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, on September 22, 2021. (Justin Lane/Pool Photo via AP)

Dozens of countries steered clear of a UN General Assembly session Wednesday that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the controversial UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, which was accused of veering into open antisemitism.

Israel and dozens of other nations boycotted the commemoration event amid worries it would also feature attacks on the Jewish state, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeting that 34 countries would not attend.

“Thank you to everyone who enlisted in a focused and successful diplomatic operation,” Lapid wrote of those who helped organize the boycott.

Lapid also retweeted a photo reportedly showing poor attendance as the conference started.

The United States, Canada, the UK, Australia and France are among some of the key nations skipping this year’s meeting.

The Foreign Ministry released a statement denouncing the conference as the commemoration began.

“The original Durban Conference, a UN-hosted event, became the worst international manifestation of antisemitism since WWII,” it said. “Inflammatory speeches, discriminatory texts and a pro-Hitler march that took place outside the halls were only part of the ugliness displayed in 2001.”

“The ‘World Conference on Racism’ actually ended up encouraging it, including through the parallel NGO forum, which displayed caricatures of Jews with hooked noses and fangs dripping with blood, clutching money.”

“Twenty years later, some of the same organizations have waged a BDS campaign against the only democracy in the Middle East, but they have FAILED,” the ministry added, referring to the Israel boycott movement.

The first Durban conference — held from August 31 to September 8, 2001, just days before the terror attacks of September 11 — was marked by deep divisions on the issues of antisemitism, colonialism and slavery. The US and Israel walked out of the conference in protest at the tone of the meeting, including over plans to include in the final text condemnations of Zionism as a form of racism — a provision that was eventually dropped.

Looking back on the two decades since the conference in Durban, South Africa, the assembly adopted a resolution that acknowledged some progress but deplored what it called a rise in discrimination, violence, and intolerance directed at people of African heritage and many other groups — from the Roma to refugees, the young to the old, people with disabilities to people who have been displaced.

Vowing “to accelerate momentum to make the fight against racism … a high priority for our countries,” the measure pointed to the effects of slavery, colonialism and genocide and called for ensuring that people of African descent can seek “adequate reparation or satisfaction” through national institutions. It also noted ills caused by religious prejudices, specifically including anti-Muslim, antisemitic and anti-Christian bias.

Members of a delegation’s entourage wait outside a security checkpoint on the sidewalk in front of the United Nations headquarters, September 21, 2021, during the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York. (AP/John Minchillo, Pool)

Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan on Friday noted the number of nations planning to boycott the ceremony was over twice the number of countries that had skipped the event in the past.

Following the commemoration, heads of state continued delivering their annual addresses in the vast General Assembly hall.

For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, more than two dozen world leaders appeared in person Tuesday on the opening day of the General Assembly. The atmosphere was dire, with the COVID-19 and climate crises the top issues for heads of state and government, and with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issuing a grim warning that “we are on the edge of an abyss.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is one of at least 83 world leaders who plan on attending in person. Twenty-six leaders applied to speak remotely.

Bennett will address the gathering on Monday, September 27 and will speak about Israel’s national security and regional issues, according to his office. His remarks will likely focus on Iran’s nuclear program and its support for armed proxy groups.

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