The choice between attending or abstaining from September’s Durban IV conference in New York City—the twentieth anniversary of the anti-racism conference that quickly became a confluence of antisemitism—is the newest episode in Europe’s increasingly divided policy toward the Jewish state and combating antisemitism.
Interestingly, the rift over Durban IV does not follow the usual Western versus Eastern and Central European split on Israel policy seen in recent years. Countries that are boycotting the conference include some Visegrád countries (Czechia and Hungary), as well as Austria and Germany, typically leading the way on professed initiatives combatting antisemitism and strengthening ties with the Jewish state.
NPR noted in a headline earlier this year that “Europe’s approach to [the] Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more divided than ever.” The article appeared in the aftermath of the 11-day conflict between Hamas and Israel in May, as Hungary refused to join the European Union’s call for an immediate ceasefire, thus halting its passage. The division, however, does not stop at official stances toward the Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking process.
This split is also perceptible in the way European nations approach combatting antisemitism—and the very right of Israel to exist. As of late last week, New Zealand and Cyprus became the fifteenth and sixteenth states to announce a boycott of September’s Durban IV event—joining Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Hungary, Austria, Netherlands, the Czech Republic, France, Bulgaria, Italy, and Croatia.
All 16 countries cite concerns over the historic antisemitism linked to the Durban conference as their reason for abstaining. Take, for example, that at the original 2001 conference in South Africa—named after its host city Durban—copies of the antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as well as t-shirts exhibiting swastikas next to a Star of David, were disseminated. Most strikingly, Israel was the only country discussed at the week-long conference.
Notably, many of the European countries who have signed on to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which in its adoption cited multiple examples of antisemitism manifesting itself in anti-Israel or anti-Zionist sentiments, have yet to announce a formal boycott of Durban IV.
The list includes countries from both Western and Eastern Europe. Western European states such as Belgium, Spain, Denmark, and Switzerland, as well as Poland, Slovakia, and Lithuania in Eastern Europe, stand out as holdouts. Moreover, Poland abstained from the tenth anniversary of Durban in 2011, but has yet to announce similar plans for this year’s conference.
Although it’s a challenge to draw a stark line between Eastern and Western Europe when it comes to the countries that have announced a boycott of Durban IV, other issue areas relating to Israel or antisemitism paint a clearer picture. Take vaccine partnerships, for example. By early March, four European countries—Austria, Denmark, Hungary, and the Czech Republic—already announced a vaccine partnership with Israel.
Of the four, Denmark is the only country yet to announce a boycott of Durban IV. While Austrian, Hungarian, and Czech constituents generally criticized their leaders’ decision to partner with Israel on vaccine development, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen received criticism from some within her center-left coalition.
Following a visit to Israel, The Local Austria noted that Denmark and Austria saw “differing reactions” to the vaccine deal with Israel. Peder Hvelplund, a member of the Danish parliament who is ostensibly a Frederiksen ally, criticized the prime minister for choosing a “controversial choice of partner” in Israel.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz meanwhile is perhaps Europe’s foremost, and most vocal, friend of Israel. In mid-May, amidst the 11-day skirmish between Hamas and Israel, Kurz raised an Israeli flag above the chancellery building in Vienna. As the Israeli flag hung next to its Austrian and European Union counterparts, Kurz sent a tweet stating, “Together we stand by Israel’s side.”
Austria furthermore stands out as a leader in implementing the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. In early 2020, the Austrian parliament unanimously adopted a resolution condemning all forms of antisemitism, including the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and what it terms “antisemitism directed at Israel.”
While announcing the country’s boycott of the upcoming Durban IV conference, a representative of the Austrian Foreign Ministry stated, “Austria supports efforts to combat racism worldwide, while rejecting the misuse of the Durban process to unfairly single out and target Israel.”
Similarly, in front of the Dutch parliament, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok expressed that the country’s decision to pull out of the conference “was taken due to the history of the Durban process, the risk that this platform will once again be misused for antisemitic expressions and because of the conference’s disproportionate, one-sided focus on Israel, as exemplified in the original Durban declaration.”
Other European nations declining to participate, such as Germany, did not elucidate a reason. Germany, however, is another European leader in implementing the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. In fact, Germany has a federal government commissioner for Jewish life in Germany and the fight against antisemitism, namely, Dr. Felix Klein, who was raised Protestant.
Since 2018, Klein has propelled the implementation of the IHRA definition of antisemitism in Germany. In 2019, a cross-party alliance in the German Bundestag passed a resolution calling the BDS movement antisemitic and furthermore halting funding to any organization that “actively supports” the BDS movement.
Other countries in Central and Eastern Europe that show more overt support for the Jewish state than their Western counterparts include Hungary’s (favorable to Israel) voting record at the UN and EU parliament, the aforementioned Visegrád partnerships with Israel, and German and Austrian parliaments deeming forms of anti-Zionist and anti-Israel expressions antisemitism.
The list of European countries declining to participate in Durban IV, however, does not present a clear East-West divide, with the UK, France, and the Netherlands explicitly citing concerns over historic antisemitism as their basis for skipping the conference.
Perhaps the truly interesting story here isn’t the seeming hodgepodge of European countries that have declared a boycott of Durban IV, but those who haven’t.
What changed in Poland for it to perceive Durban III as antisemitic but have no issue attending Durban IV? Will those abstaining take further steps to implement the IHRA working definition of antisemitism at home, particularly the Western European countries who often lag behind their Central and Eastern counterparts in shaming certain anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiments as antisemitism? As for those who have adopted the IHRA working definition and still plan to attend Durban IV, could an unmistakable instance of antisemitism cause their officials to walk out of the conference?
Finally, as antisemitism continues to rise across the continent—perpetrated by both the far-right and left—the story of official European reactions to Durban IV seems more consequential than the (lack of) attention it’s now receiving.