It was an offer I was all too willing to accept. A well respected global human rights organisation was convening a session as part of an international conference, with attendees to include parliamentarians, diplomats, media, religious leaders and prominent civil society activists. The subject was the way denial of the Nazis’ genocide of Jews was dealt with under the laws of different jurisdictions.
I received a request to discuss Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act, specifically the internationally well-regarded Section 18C, as well as the way in which our Federal Government had dealt with a visa application by far-right icon David Irving.
My co-panellists were to be authorities of the highest standing and I was flattered to be included in that company.
Hours before it was due to take place, I was contacted by one of the organisers, who had tears in her eyes.
The session, she told me, had been cancelled, as authorities from the highly visible, well-armed security detachment had said they were unable to guarantee the safety of the participants.
At any time, this would have been disgraceful, reflecting terribly on the security organisations and even more so on the environment in which they were operating.
But consider this: the context was an international conference hosted by the United Nations, purportedly dedicated to combating racism, antisemitism and all forms of xenophobia.
It was part of the NGO forum of the United Nations “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance”, held in Durban, South Africa, 15 years ago this month.
The cancellation was preceded by a series of anti-Jewish incidents including harassment, bullying and intimidation, the distribution of overtly anti-Jewish literature and physical disruption of discussions on the subject of antisemitism.
By and large, the well-known, global human rights NGOs, in the main unaccountable to donors who contribute to them in good faith, were complicit through action, or through refusal to act morally.
A fair slice of the “media” contingent took part in the physical and verbal harassment and “anti-racist NGO” delegates were overtly, vocally and unashamedly antisemitic – with some going as far as to refuse to participate in a “Sea of Hands” in support of Indigenous Australians because one of the dozen or so Australians organising it was recognisable as a member of the Jewish caucus.
At a session on hate crimes, an elderly lawyer with decades of leadership on human rights issues was heckled with a chorus of “Jew, Jew, Jew” when he asked a question on a simple procedural issue.
A woman at a different session, who asked if she would be permitted to respond to one of the more daft assessments of the roots of racism anyone would ever be likely to hear, was heckled as “a Zionist dog” – to which the moderator responded by laughing at the victim of the abuse.
Under the cover of UN extraterritoriality, delegates distributed anti-Jewish literature and cartoons which would have been illegal under South African law, and leaflets were distributed bemoaning the fact that Hitler was unsuccessful in achieving his dreams for the Third Reich.
A small group of people who identified themselves as Jews, from the tiny and eccentric Neturei Karta sect, showed their contempt for Jews by demonstrating alongside the antisemitic Hamas, and contempt for Judaism by doing so while those they condemn as not “Torah true” were attending synagogue services for the Sabbath.
That conference brought disgrace to the United Nations, embarrassment to the NGO network and set back serious anti-racism activity by years, if not decades.
Sadly, many good people had attended with the best of intentions, travelling from all points of the globe with the belief they were going to be part of something of immense value to humanity.
With current concern, in many places, at a resurgence of xenophobia, racism and bigotry, it is worth recalling the time, 15 years ago, when so much of the international community placed a higher value on being antisemitic than discussing seriously measures to combat just these phenomena.