Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Anti-Semitism and Jewish Defense at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002 Johannesburg, South Africa

Filed under: Anti-Semitism
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

No. 6

After anti-Semitic propaganda reached its post-Holocaust peak in 2001 at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, Jewish leaders feared that the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held last August in Johannesburg would become another hotbed of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli hatred. A South African location did not bode well. At the September 2001 conference in Durban, the main defamers had been Arab governments, supported by many Muslim countries and a considerable number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Western ones. Terms such as “genocide,” “Holocaust,” “ethnic cleansing,” and even “anti-Semitism” were hijacked by the defamers and used against the Jews — who historically have been the main victims of these phenomena.


Approaching Environmental NGOs

Few, if any, Jewish executives have participated in as many recent United Nations conferences as Shimon Samuels, International Liaison Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC). Designated to act as the spokesman of the Jewish NGOs in Johannesburg, he developed his tactical approach to the conference with other Jewish leaders at a preparatory meeting in Jerusalem two months before. After the meeting, SWC contacted a large number of environmental NGOs in order to find out if they were willing to work with Jewish organizations.

To prepare, inter alia, for the Johannesburg Summit, the World Civil Society Forum — a periodical gathering of NGOs in consultative status to the United Nations to discuss the array of conferences and issues on the agenda — had convened in July 2002 in Geneva with more than 600 NGOs participating. At this meeting Samuels appealed to participants “to address the issues of the Summit — water, health, energy, agriculture, biodiversity and poverty — rather than to lose the occasion to political extremism and distortion serving unrelated agendas.”

The Wiesenthal Center then issued a press release “urging the environmental community to take the lead so that the upcoming Johannesburg Summit is not a repetition of last year’s World Conference Against Racism in Durban.”1 It went on to mention that the Center had also raised the same issue with such varied officials as France’s Minister for European Affairs, members of the Foreign Ministry in Mexico, and a decision-maker in the White House.


Positive and Negative Answers

Says Samuels: “A number of mainly small environmental NGOs around the world answered positively. They felt their grievances risked being shunted aside at Johannesburg because of the possible emphasis on the Palestinian issue. We wrote to 180 green organizations scheduled to go to the environmental summit, and 25 responded. These responses came from various developing countries and even from Green Cross International, Michael Gorbachev’s organization, which wrote that despite rather gloomy expectations for the Summit, there was still a possibility that it might turn into a useful and important event. This would depend on whether the NGOs would be able to present a positive and consolidated position at the Conference.2

“Most of the environmental NGOs which replied agreed to our point that land, water, housing, the environment and ecological issues are the rallying points and that the summit should not be hijacked. For instance, a Nigerian organization’s representative wrote about what was important for his organization: ‘I strongly agree with you that we, the environmental groups attending WSSD, must influence [major decisions impacting] environment and development. My interest and that of my organization has been on bringing the global attention to mangrove ecosystem protection.’ He went on to explain that ‘this unique ecosystem’ has been neglected by environmentalists and project funders for decades. It is all the more important now, he explained, because ‘mangrove degradation has an adverse effect on climate change as well as the survival of other biotic organisms (man, plants and animals).’3 “Two responses though were quite negative. They said that ‘Johannesburg should be a major battlefield between the exploitative North and the victim South; our aim is to see Johannesburg’s failure through chaos!’

“Our results thus indicated that a number of NGOs were prepared to work with us. However, they were not the major human rights groups such as Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and Save the Children, all of which had let the Jews down in Durban.”


Anti-Semitism, a Global Pollutant

“Another key element of our strategy was a daily meeting with the Jewish community in Johannesburg. They went all out to help us set up a logistical basis for our work. This had been more difficult in Durban because the number of Jews there was so small. The Durban community told us that the delegation to the UN conference had been the largest Jewish presence in that city since the Second World War.

“The World Union of Jewish Students had been very effective in Durban, and were again so in Johannesburg. They were present at all of the confrontational sessions, and they did their job on several occasions when heckling was more than justified. “We also discussed slogans suitable for an environmental summit, such as ‘Anti-Semitism, a global pollutant’ and ‘Tolerance = sustainable human development’ or ‘Don’t let the World Conference be hijacked.’ Another one I suggested was ‘Terror + Johannesburg = Rio – 10.’ The Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit was held 10 years before Johannesburg. These slogans were in fact, never used.

“In Durban both the Jewish community and the students had produced slogan T-shirts, which were distributed. Though we also had them in Johannesburg, for some reason they were not handed out. I don’t know why. In South Africa or elsewhere in the Third World, if you give people T-shirts they’ll wear them no matter what they say. In poverty-stricken countries, a T-shirt is a treasured possession. In Johannesburg, the pro-Palestinians handed out both T-shirts and scarves. The media is interested in street tactics and we sometimes tend to over-intellectualize, while they seek the most provocative approach.”


A Hate Speech on Radio Islam

“The evening before the conference we turned on the car radio and heard Radio Islam of Johannesburg (MW1548) broadcasting a hate speech against the Jews. The Imam of Johannesburg attacked the Jewish National Fund and demanded its expulsion from the conference because the JNF is stealing land from the Palestinians. I immediately wrote a letter to the South African Minister of Home Affairs, Mangosuthu Buthulezi, protesting the Imam’s position and stating that the JNF is an agency that is a model for the advancement of sustainable development.

“One of our problems in Johannesburg was that the Summit was divided over four campuses, 25 kilometers apart. We drove from one to the other and tried to find out where the Palestinians were active, but did not have enough manpower to cover everything that was going on.

“The government conference was held in Sandton, the up-market white area. Because the Wiesenthal Center holds Consultative Status to the United Nations, I also had access there, not only to the NGO conference. At another major location, water was discussed, which was not so central from our point of view. Another center was NASREC where the NGO Civil Society Forum was held. Most of the activity which concerned us took place there. In the UBUNTU exhibition center, among many exhibits, the JNF had two large displays, one on afforestation and the other on anti-desertification.”


The Ambiguous Attitude of President Mbeki

“The Palestine Solidarity Committee-South Africa (PSC-SA) consistently aimed their fire at the JNF. On the very first day, they held a press conference to launch a campaign for Marwan Barghouti’s release. His wife, Fadwa, was the keynote speaker. But this wasn’t just a campaign for the release of Barghouti and all Palestinian prisoners. It was also a fight for a Palestinian State with Jerusalem as its capital, the right of return for all refugees and the dismantling of all Israeli settlements.

“It added demands for the vindication of all martyrs, endorsing Fatah, Tanzim, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aksa brigades, mentioning them one by one. There was also a one-million-signature campaign in favor of withdrawing the South African embassy from Israel and breaking diplomatic relations, urging countries to smear Israel as the last apartheid enclave on earth.

“During the conference, a march against racism took place. We remembered that the demonstration in Durban, which was supposed to go from the conference center to City Hall, instead had stopped at the synagogue, a blatant act of anti-Semitism. In Johannesburg, however, differences of opinion among the various groups led to a split. On Shabbat morning, three major demonstrations converged just outside Sandton. The main one, the International Intifada for Human Rights and Development, was supposed to have been addressed by the South African President, Thabo Mbeki.”

However, Samuels had written to Mbeki, pointing out that the PSC-SA was calling upon participants to attend the march of the Global Peoples’ Summit and to listen to his speech “in order to inspire new victories in the fight against US-Israeli terrorism.” Samuels mentions “I asked Mbeki to dissociate himself and his government from this event and its organizers, adding that ‘your active or passive endorsement of their program would expose the WSSD as another Durban-style political hijacking and would be, yet again, a lost opportunity for South Africa, as also for the world’s hopes from this Summit.’4

“I was amazed that there was an answer at all from Mbeki’s advisors who said he would not participate. However, at the convergence of these three demonstrations, Mbeki was there. He stood by the Palestinian representative, Farouk Kaddoumi, who was the main speaker at the rally, and endorsed him.

“The conference also included a workshop on ‘Sustainable Development in Palestine’, which presented the so-called ‘GIPP’ program. This stands for Grassroots International for the Protection of Palestine, which has brought to the territories several thousand people from all over the world ostensibly in order to create international solidarity.”


Silencing Shimon Peres

“The worst anti-Israeli event took place at Witwatersrand, the main Johannesburg university, where Shimon Peres spoke. He said that Israel’s tragedy was that Arafat had not chosen to follow Nelson Mandela’s model. Because of the violence that broke out surrounding the campus, it took us four hours to leave the grounds of the university.

“As a result of threats of bloodshed by political extremists, Peres’ planned speech at the South African Institute for International Affairs was then canceled. I turned to the Institute’s Director, Greg Mills, whom I had known, to argue that surrendering to terrorism is a dangerous precedent for suppressing freedom of expression and academic discourse. South Africa and its academic community, I pointed out, had fallen victim to blackmail and hate. Today, those forces are focused on Shimon Peres, I told him, but I wonder against whom those voices will be directed tomorrow.”


Israeli Environmental Criticism

“The Israeli Green NGOs had prepared a Shadow Report for Johannesburg on Israel’s failure to implement its obligations under the Rio de Janeiro agreements. I had discussed this with Gidon Bromberg, Director of the Friends of the Earth (Middle East) at the Jerusalem preparatory meeting for Jewish NGOs.

“I asked him how he would feel if he were to be used by the enemies of Israel, who could turn his words into anti-Israeli propaganda. He answered that he had obligations in attending a professional conference on ecology, and he considered it his job to see that water pollution in Israel was on the ecological agenda.

“What actually happened in Johannesburg was that there was an amazing workshop of the Friends of the Earth from Israel and Jordan. They presented a joint project for preserving the Dead Sea by pumping water from the Red Sea at a cost of about one billion dollars. Bromberg’s presentation was critical, but not hypercritical. The representatives of the JNF and Jewish Agency meshed very well with this presentation. Thus the problem I had foreseen did not materialize.

“All in all, the Israeli foreign ministry delegation was very happy with the results of the Johannesburg conference because it hadn’t been hijacked. On the other hand, because we were tracking the subtext, our conclusions were much less positive.”


Eight Points Against Israel

“The Palestinians and their allies came to Johannesburg to advance goals they had designed at Durban. There, the steering group of the NGO conference was dominated by SANGOCO (South African NGO Committee). It took over programming and procedures, using the methods of a Stalinist Politburo. SANGOCO views Israel as an ally of the former apartheid regime, a worldview broadly shared among the members of the current ruling ANC (African National Congress), including its Jewish supporters. There is a close relationship between the PLO and the African National Congress, dating back to the Soviet era when both groups were indoctrinated with radical anti-Semitism.

“In Durban, SANGOCO played a leading role in attacks on Israel. After the conference, they distilled from the Plan of Action, an eight-point program. After Mary Robinson, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, felt compelled to reject the Durban NGO Declaration and Plan of Action, SANGOCO claimed it had withdrawn its own eight points.

Samuels went on to summarize these eight points, all directed against the State of Israel:

“The first point: to launch an educational program to create worldwide solidarity against Israel, the last bastion of ‘apartheid.’ This word strikes a redolent chord across Africa and is meant to unleash the arsenal of the 1970s and 1980s Anti-Apartheid Movement, including the sanctions, boycotts and embargoes known as the Sullivan Program.

“The second point: to use all legal mechanisms in countries of universal jurisprudence against Israel. This we have seen in attempts to create war crime accusation cases against Sharon in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and recently also in the United States. Eventually our enemies aim to use the newly-established International Criminal Court against Israel.

“The third and fourth points of attack were to discredit the Law of Return, the foundation of Zionism and Israel, and to replace it with a Law of Return for all Palestinian refugees in order to create moral equivalence.

“The fifth point: to reinstitute the Arab boycott, out of Damascus, combined with a secondary boycott, as in the 1970s and 1980s. We are already seeing the ‘certificate of negative origin,’ once again, being demanded from European companies dealing with Arab countries.

“The sixth point: to impose a sports, telecommunications, academic, scientific and military embargo on Israel. Points seven and eight encapsulate their broad goals: the eventual rupture of all diplomatic relationships with Israel and measures against any state that does not accept ostracism of Israel. All of these eight points were to be carried out over a five-year program.”


The Next Target: the U.S.

“The next five years of their plan would target the United States for crimes of globalization, combined with a campaign for reparations for slavery. This plan would become the subtext to a worldwide campaign. I am not seeking a conspiracy theory, but, when they talk about solidarity against apartheid, it means involving churches, universities, Internet service providers, the United Nations, and NGOs.

“The solidarity campaign principally affects all of the agencies of the United Nations. It is a factor in the casting of Israel as the enemy of cultural heritage by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. At UNICEF, Israel is accused of being the enemy of children. Israel is also posited as the enemy of health in the World Health Organization.

“All eight points against Israel were brought by the PSC-SA with the aim of injecting them into the discourse in Johannesburg. For the most part they were unsuccessful, mainly because the focus of the conference was not ideological, but practical. Attacking Israel on water issues was difficult, of course, because Israel’s record in this field is very strong.

“The South African media did pick up the violent demonstration against Shimon Peres’ speech. However, the international media was not as interested because they had come to report on the real issues of the conference. They were mainly professional journalists specializing in environmental matters.”


The Changed Jewish Approach

In recent years, Samuels has radically changed his overall approach. For several years before the Durban conference, there was hope that anti-Semitism might become a phenomenon of the past. He says: “Conceptually and philosophically, the last two years have been defining a new reality for the world as well as for the global Jewish condition. We witnessed a period of prosperity as Wall Street soared, combined with tranquility offered by peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. It seemed that we could shift our vision of what was important for Jews and for Israel. We thought that the battle for survival had been won and we could now begin defining who we were in terms of Jewish dynamics.

“Before the new millennium, there had been a period of five to six years when I cared mainly about outreach. It was, we felt, the opportunity to be a ‘Light unto the Nations’ by working on other peoples’ genocides and human rights. We tried to apply the lessons of the Holocaust and Shoah education as a weathervane to sensitize people to impending dangers to democracy.

“As an example, I think back to a conference at the University of Utrecht in 1992, where I presented a seminar about the Holocaust as a benchmark for preventing contemporary atrocity. The organizers were resistance fighters from World War Two, and the participants were Moroccans from the Netherlands and France as well as Turks from Germany. They criticized Holocaust education as Zionist propaganda and called for a curriculum on colonialism and slavery.

“We had thus debated this matter there already. At that time I had just purchased neo-Nazi computer games, albeit primitive ones, with diskettes for a Commodore 64. These games focused in their hate on new topics, concerning foreign workers. The games used the hate language and the modalities of the Holocaust against them, e.g. Turken Raus! which means ‘out with the Turks.’”


A Working Cooperation

“The Utrecht meeting led to a long working cooperation. About four years ago, the European Union called for all anti-racist organizations to be represented at a meeting in Brussels. I went there with these groups to elect leaders for the ENAR — European Network Against Racism. It was a fascinating three days in which we decided that each of the 15 European Union member states would have two representatives on the board: one man and one woman.

“I remarked that there were also pan-European organizations not defined by a national affinity. Thus it was decided that this community would also have two representatives. I proposed myself as a candidate. A British Indian woman then reacted, saying that ‘only representatives of the victims of racism may be elected,’ whereupon I asked her to define a ‘victim of racism.’ She answered, ‘Only a Muslim or a person of color.’ This led to a tremendous furor and the meeting was interrupted.

“Afterwards, I was elected to the Board with endorsements of such migrant group leaders representing, inter alia, the Iraqis of Spain, the Moroccans of Luxembourg, and the Tunisians of France. I still sit on this Board today. My membership allowed me to stand for election to the preparatory meetings for the UN Durban conference in Geneva, Strasbourg, Santiago, Warsaw, and Teheran — all of which I attended, with the exception of Teheran, from which I was excluded. My presence throughout the process allowed me to reach out to Moslem groups.”


Changed Realities

“Then came the Intifada, the Durban Conference, September 11th and, what German Interior Minister Otto Schily has called ‘the spread of Islam-Fascism.’ We had to shift gears, without realizing how major this was and what price we had to pay. There was nobody to support us and from our Biblical aspiration to be a ‘light unto the nations,’ many of us fear a return to exclusion and ghettoization — to once again becoming ‘a people that dwells alone.’ It has always been my belief that we cannot permit this, and so we must do everything we can to maintain a presence in the international arena. For this reason, it was of critical importance to be in Durban and later in Johannesburg.”

Samuels concludes that the United Nations is a vital arena and that, increasingly, more international conferences are being held in Third World countries. “It is there that we face multiplier effect problems. Our enemies may not have the power to destroy us, but in the world’s chambers of diplomatic rhetoric, they conduct a war of attrition that leads to confrontations on campuses, boycotts, lawsuits and media campaigns. It is of prime importance not to leave the field and create a vacuum for our enemies to occupy.

“We must be present at these conferences to exploit the shifting configuration of interests and political mortgages. Although some NGOs will never be our friends and cannot be convinced, we shouldn’t generalize. Other NGOs see an important opportunity in collaborating with Jewish organizations. This goes far beyond the Green groups, which responded positively to our letter before Johannesburg. That is why I try to convince as many Jewish organizations as possible to come to these conferences. They may have problems of budget and priorities and perhaps feel these meetings are not engaging enough for their constituents. But, when Israel and Jewish issues are in the frontline of some of these controversies and the media pounce on them, being there becomes extremely important.”

Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld

*     *     *


1. Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) Press Information, July 23, 2002.
2. Email to SWC from Alexander Likhotal, First Vice President, Green Cross International, July 25, 2002.
3. Email to SWC from Edem Okon, Program Coordinator, Abgremo, July 20, 2002.
4. Email from Dr. Shimon Samuels to President Thabo Mbeki, August 28, 2002.

*     *     *

Dr. Shimon Samuels was born in England. He came to Israel in 1963 and received a B.A. in Political Science and History from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, returning to England for his second degree, an M.Sc. (Econ.) in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He earned his doctorate in a combined program with the University of Pennsylvania and the Sorbonne, Paris, and then served as Deputy Director of the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University. Dr. Samuels then was appointed European Director of the Anti-Defamation League based in Paris, and later became Israel Director of the American Jewish Committee. He is the Director for International Liaison of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, based in Paris, and also serves as Honorary President of the Europe-Israel Forum.