Durban 2001 AP
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators marching during a protest at the UN conference on racism in Durban, August 31, 2001. Photo by AP
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The American Jewish Committee lauded the Obama administration on Wednesday for its decision not to take part in the upcoming United Nations’ Commemoration of the Durban World Conference Against Racism, set to take place on September 21 in New York.

The conference, referred to as "Durban 3", is to mark the 10-year anniversary of the contentious 2001 conference in the South African city of Durban which was dominated by clashes over the Middle East and the legacy of slavery. The U.S. and Israel walked out midway through the eight-day meeting over a draft resolution that singled out Israel for criticism and likened Zionism - the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state - to racism.

The second Durban Conference took place in 2009, also singling Israel out and condemning it for alleged human rights violations and racist policies. The United States did not take part in the conference.

“The U.S. announcement is the clearest indication that this gathering will be just as bad for Israel - and for those truly dedicated to the fight against racism - as were the previous two international conferences in 2001 and 2009,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris. “To acknowledge the current reality is a sad day for the UN and the struggle against racism.”

Harris lamented that the fight against racism has been "repeatedly hijacked by countries with little actual regard for human rights and whose primary goal is to advance highly politicized, anti-Israel agendas."

The AJC director called on other democratic countries to follow the United States' and Canada's (who has also said it will not participate in the UN sponsored conference) example and refuse to attend.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations echoed the AJC's sentiments, calling on democratic countries to boycott the conference.

“The global campaign of delegitimization against Israel was launched at Durban I," the Conference of Presidents leaders said it a statement, adding that "it has remained a lasting scar on the reputation of the UN and ought not to be commemorated or celebrated."

The Jewish leaders said that they would fully support the conference if it "truly addressed bigotry and xenophobia", claiming that Durban 3 is little more than a "sham".

AIPAC too commended the Obama Administration for its decision not to participate in Durban 3, and B’nai Brith leadership at its recent Board of Governors meeting in New York, passed a resolution urging all UN member states not to participate in the conference. 

Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that “It is appropriate for the U.S. to refuse to be a party to anti-Semitism and anti-Israel extremism at the United Nations. It is appropriate and important for the United Nations to examine racism and intolerance. However, doing so through the tainted Durban process only serves to perpetuate the very bias it purports to work against. We would welcome the opportunity to work with the U.S. and other governments to advance the fight against racism through other constructive forums”.

The U.S. announcement that it would not be participating in Durban 3 came in a letter to Congress from Joseph E. Macmanus, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs. The letter stated that the U.S. will not participate because the Durban process "included ugly displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism," Macmanus wrote.

On Thursday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said that the U.S. to pull out of Durban 3 was based on the belief that the “Durban process includes displays of intolerance and anti-Semitism, and we don't want to see that commemorated. In our conversations about this commemoration, we've not seen the kind of progress that we think is indicative. We remain unconvinced that the conference is moving in a new direction.”

In a conference call with representatives of Human Rights organizations on Thursday, Obama administration officials, including Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, and Samantha Power, senior director for Multilateral Affairs at the National Security Council, tried to explain that the original document of Durban conference singled Israel out, and while Obama in no way does not want to pull away from dealing with human rights issues, the Durban conference is not the right forum to deal with them.

However, many participants remained deeply disappointed, questioning whether the decision was related to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington, and whether the US Administration “throws these issues under the bus because of Israel.”

One participant told Haaretz that “everybody knows that when the US pulls out, there is a vacuum left, and there are those willing to fill it - in 2009, during Durban II, the U.S. pulled out - and Ahmadinejad gave a speech there”.