On a cool and drizzly night in this Indian Ocean port city, a vast white tent standing in the middle of a cricket field seemed to fit in with the circus atmosphere of the U.N. World Conference Against Racism, one Jewish observer said.
This was no regular circus that had come to town, however, but a viciously anti-Israel, anti-Jewish circus that had carried on all week and was about to reach its apex.
It got so bad on Monday, just halfway through the official governmental conference that began Aug. 31 and ends Sept. 7, that the United States and Israel recalled their delegations.
The U.S. delegation said it would not continue working in such a "racist," anti-Semitic atmosphere.
Speaking in Israel, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres announced that Israel had decided to withdraw following a "unilateral and ugly proposal by the Arab and Muslim leagues that are united against peace and for the intifada against Israel.
"We have instructed our delegation in Durban to come back home. We regret very much the very bizarre show in Durban," Peres said. "An important convention that is supposed to defend human rights became a source of hatred."
By Wednesday, France was threatening that the European Union could walk as well if South Africa did not remove references to Israel as a racist and apartheid state.
Thus, the walkout may have had the intended effect: Final documents might not include any mention of the Middle East issue -- if a compromise languageon the subject cannot be reached.
But even with efforts to continue the conference despite the walkout, the events leading up to the walkout marred the forum.
Last Saturday night thousands of nongovernmental organizations from around the world had gathered in the white tent to hammer out a final declaration after a weeklong preliminary portion of the racism conference. Thanks to Palestinian-led efforts, one issue dominated discussion -- the Mideast conflict.
After a week spent enduring hate-filled chants, insults, pamphlets, posters, marches and demonstrations, some three dozen Jewish activists huddled in the first rows under the great tent.
To their right sat their nemeses -- large delegations of Palestinians and other Arabs who waited excitedly, most dressed in secular garb but some in chadors and others with kaffiyeh scarves draped around their necks. The document to be considered included a litany of alleged sins to be laid at Israel's door -- including genocide, ethnic cleansing and apartheid -- and the Jewish contingent was split on strategy.
After a chaotic start with procedural disputes that lasted more than an hour, it was the fourth speaker, an African woman from the Ecumenical Caucus, who first broached the Jewish issue.
The speaker wanted to strike from the declaration a passage that the Anti-Semitism Commission had inserted: that anti-Zionist rhetoric over the past year had incited violence against Jews and Jewish institutions around the world and should be considered a new form of anti-Semitism.
"I am against anti-Semitism, but I am also against the genocide of Palestinians," the woman said. And she wanted the declaration to name names -- that is, to castigate Israel.
The Jewish delegation immediately challenged, but the chairman called for a vote of the 43 caucus representatives.
All in favor? Forty-two hands shot into the air, holding aloft yellow voting cards. All opposed? The solitary hand of the startled Jewish representative.
With that, the members of the Jewish caucus rose from their seats. As they made for the exit, they chanted "Shame, Shame, Shame!"
The pro-Palestinian group erupted with a rejoinder: "Free, free, Palestine! Free, free, Palestine!"
After a full week of such treatment, they could stomach no more, the Jewish delegates said afterward.
"This is the first time I've ever felt anti-Semitism this personally, at such a level of intensity," said David Matas, the senior counsel for B'nai Brith Canada and holder of the Jewish Caucus' yellow voting card.
"It's a kind of collective guilt," said Matas, a Winnipeg-based refugee lawyer, "but instead of saying that the Jews killed Christ, they're using the modern-day language of human rights to accuse us of some of the worst sins known to humanity."
As the Jews vacated their seats in protest, the Palestinians and their colleagues swooped in to occupy them. There were smiles and hugs and handshakes all around.
For months, Jewish leaders and activists have warned that Palestinian and Arab diplomacy has been aimed at "delegitimization of the State of Israel."
In the weeks leading up to the Durban conference, Jewish activists had pushed frantically to prevent the Arab world from reintroducing a resolution denigrating Zionism as racism; minimizing the uniqueness of the Holocaust; and diluting the definition of "anti-Semitism" by expanding it to include discrimination of other "Semitic" peoples, like the Palestinians.
Those issues, it turns out, were mere "decoys," said Shimon Samuels, the Paris-based director of international liaison for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the head of the Jewish Caucus in Durban.
With the approval of the NGO declaration, a blueprint for the conference's real agenda has come into focus, Jewish delegates said.
Call it the South Africa strategy.
Durban has given birth to a declaration that denounces Israel as a "racist, apartheid state" and calls for the world to use the same tactics against Israel that ultimately dismantle South Africa's apartheid regime. The declaration calls for "mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel."
It also demands the "launch of an international anti-Israel Apartheid movement" through "a global solidarity campaign network of international civil society, U.N. bodies and agencies, business communities, and to end the conspiracy of silence among states, particularly the European Union and the United States."
A pro-Palestinian activist at the conference said there is no overarching plan to dismantle Israel itself, only to revamp its political system.
"This is a paranoid kind of thinking," Jamil Dakwar, an Israeli Arab lawyer with Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, told JTA. "The people I know who criticize Israel say it can't continue as a religious- and ethnic-based state, simply because it contradicts democracy."
The NGO document also calls for creation of a U.N. war crimes tribunal to prosecute Israeli "war crimes, acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing and the crime of Apartheid"; a U.N.-sponsored education and media campaign to counter those who support Israel and to promote the Palestinian cause; and elimination of the Law of Return which guarantees citizenship for any Jew who wishes to settle in Israel -- coupled with the Palestinians' own "right of return" for all refugees of Israel's 1948 War of Independence, and their descendants.
As always, Jewish activists said, Israel will count on the United States to defend it through lobbying or, if necessary, by wielding its veto on the U.N. Security Council.
Yet some activists noted that "apartheid" itself is now a recognized legal term that might be prosecuted if -- as many activists hope -- the International Criminal Court is established in the near future.
Regardless, the Palestinians already have won a conviction of sorts against Israel in the propaganda war being waged here in Durban. Incessant Palestinian rhetoric, dutifully reported by the world media, whipped the crowd here into a virtual frenzy.
"They scream at you and shake their finger in your face; you can feel scared and embattled," said Judy Palkovitz, chairwoman of government relations for Hadassah: The Women's Zionist Organization of America. "Whatever dollar amount they spent to organize this, it was well worth it. They've gotten very good bang for their buck. They may not win the war, but they've won this battle."
Presumably it was no accident that the new mantra "racist, apartheid" was unveiled here in South Africa, where those words are most inflammatory. Such propaganda helped foster what Jewish activists described as a "lynch mob" atmosphere that won "kangaroo court" validation in the NGO declaration.
The most prominent featured speakers at the NGO conference were Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat -- who lashed out at Israel in a vicious speech, even as Peres was courting him for new peace talks -- and Cuban President Fidel Castro.
After the walkout, the pro-Palestinian activism had died down somewhat and the official Arab delegations took a more moderate tone, reportedly expressing a willingness to sign off on a final governmental declaration that didn't refer to "Zionism" or "racism."
But Jewish delegates concluded that the stance was a tactic to appease the West -- while leaving the Arab states leeway to trumpet the NGO document as "the voice of civil society" around the world.