Australia/Israel Review

The Last Word: When Anti-Racism isn’t

Apr 1, 2021 | Jeremy Jones

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock


I had been really looking forward to the travel and the adventure. It was an honour to be selected to represent a major international organisation at an inter-governmental conference. Unfortunately, my trip did not go ahead.

While this is the experience of many people during the past 12 months, the trip I am referring to was scheduled to take place 20 years ago, in 2001.

I had been asked to represent the World Jewish Congress at a forum as part of the process leading up to the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, scheduled for later that year in Durban, South Africa.

The Asian regional meeting was due to take place in Iran, after a change of venue.

First, some national governments, including Australia, were disinvited, due to a quirk in the UN system.

Then some legitimately credentialled representatives of international non-government organisations, including me, were warned that it was not safe for us to make that trip. To this day I have not had the opportunity to visit that country – known for its fascinating historical and cultural sites, interesting and welcoming people and a government contemptuous of human rights.

That regional meeting in Iran was the source of a number of the resolutions which undermined any claim the UN World Conference Against Racism may have had to being “anti-racist”. 

It is to Australia’s credit that our government was the one which most clearly opposed the UN’s NGO and Governmental Conferences’ politicisation and distortion of “anti-racism” – as this worthy term was twisted into a weapon for bullying and exacerbating, rather than ameliorating, political tensions.

Future columns will deal in more depth with the infamous Durban World Conference Against Racism, and its dismal failure in attempting to address a very real issue which affects so much of our planet’s population.

Fast-forwarding to today, there is concern, even fear, that one result of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a resurgence of the political extremism which includes racism in its armoury.

The difficult economic conditions faced by many, the failures of all too many governments to reassure their constituents that they knew how to protect them, and appeals to crude scapegoating and racist nationalisms, together are producing toxic trends.

In addition, online media has provided tools for conspiracy theorists, political manipulators and extremist recruiters to exploit the crisis to both spread messages and incite changes in behaviour.

The good news is that, in Australia, there are people willing to devote time, energy and resources to combatting racism in many ways.

At the recommendation of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the first far-right wing, racist organisation has been listed as a terrorist organisation by Australia, with further recommendations likely if any additional groups can be shown to reach a particular threshold of behaviour.

Various online platforms are showing more responsibility with respect to confronting their role in the distribution of racist material, governments are increasing their anti-racist messaging and, just as importantly, there is action at the local level.

On a recent tour through regional New South Wales and Victoria, I encountered not just concern at the spread and adoption of conspiracy theories and racist scapegoating, but a genuine desire to not allow the problem to grow and, instead, to drive racism back into the sewers from which it emerged.

Media, civic authorities and religious leaders are talking openly about racism, discussing ways of addressing the problem and promoting counter-visions for Australia.

I met religious leaders trying to make sure inter-religious understanding was not a casualty of a change in priorities forced on them by the pandemic; journalists asking questions about what type of country we want to be in the future; as well as interfaith councils, both reinvigorated and highly motivated, once again able to operate after months in forced, socially distanced, hibernation.

The genuine anti-racism of ordinary Australians stands in stark contrast to the UN’s disingenuous pronouncements.

It is an unfortunate reality that their efforts are so vital, now more than ever.


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