The Magazine

The U.N.'s Jewish Problem

Anti-Semitism has found a comfortable home on the East River.

Apr 8, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 29 • By RUTH R. WISSE
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JEANE KIRKPATRICK once remarked that while she was a professor of political science there were two mysteries she could not understand: how the Holocaust could have happened, and how the rest of the world could have let it happen. Things became clear once she took her post as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1981. The anti-Semitism of many member nations, and the reluctance of others to compromise their "neutrality" while pursuing their own political ends, were almost as much on view during her tenure at the United Nations as they had been in Europe four decades earlier.

On March 18, U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan released a letter to the media telling Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel must end what he called the "illegal occupation" of Palestinian lands. This statement was false. As George P. Fletcher noted in the New York Times, and other legal experts have long affirmed, "it is not illegal for victorious powers to occupy hostile territory seized in the course of war until they are able to negotiate a successful peace treaty with their former enemies." In recognition of this precept, following the war of June 1967 the Security Council passed Resolution 242 calling for Israeli withdrawal from "territories" rather than from "the territories," precisely avoiding the implication that the occupation itself was illegal. Annan not only obscured this crucial distinction, but then downplayed the significance of his terminology--on the perverse grounds that such incrimination of Israel had subsequently become common coin within his organization.

What Annan should have been seeking to end is the pernicious role of the U.N. as instigator and abettor of a possible international conflagration. The U.N.'s assault on Israel, in direct violation of its Charter, now rivals even the Jew-hating indoctrination that preceded World War II. The very organization that is charged with ensuring the equal protection of all nations, large and small, has become the spearhead of attempts to destroy one of its most vulnerable members.

THE U.N.'S first debate over Palestine set the pattern for everything that followed. On November 29, 1947, a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly adopted the recommendation of the Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine to divide the already divided area (of which Jordan had the lion's share) into a Jewish and an Arab state. The Jews accepted partition; the Arabs opposed it by force. Although the resolution gave Jews only a sliver of what the 1917 Balfour Declaration had promised them and a fraction of their historic homeland, they established Israel on the land they were accorded. The U.N. did not intervene when five Arab countries then attacked the new state, vowing to push its inhabitants into the sea. For the next 53 years Arab states fought Israel and never had to abide by the outcome of their military defeats. And they discovered early on that the U.N. would defer to their vast demographic and political advantage rather than come to Israel's defense.

It is worth asking why the Arabs did not accept the partition of Palestine and encourage the Palestinian Arabs to develop their independence. Arab states claim that they are opposed to Israel because the Jews deprived the Arabs of their land, but in refusing to partition Palestine, it is they who insisted on keeping the Palestinians homeless. Had Arab governments settled their Palestinian brethren as Israel did the Jewish refugees from Arab lands, they would have lacked evidence of Jewish malfeasance on which to base their politics of grievance. Maintaining Palestinian Arabs in refugee camps was a calculated strategy for organizing Arab politics in perpetual opposition to the Jews. The United Nations was charged with supporting a population that their fellow Arabs were determined to retain as refugees. They preserved and administered the squalid refugee camps. And those camps--the consequence of Arab policy--have been used to demonstrate the iniquity of Israel.

Let us acknowledge that the United Nations cannot successfully broker all the international conflicts that fall under its aegis, but in no other case except that of Israel did the organization become a weapon of belligerents against one of its members. When the United Nations took over the refugee camps instead of making Arab governments resettle their fellow Arabs, it absolved the Arabs of responsibility for their aggression, and perpetuated the apparent "evidence" that Israel had displaced the Palestinians. Similarly, following each new defeat on the field of battle, the Arabs resorted to the United Nations to end the conflict in a way that would preclude the need to concede Israel's legitimacy, and that would charge Israel retroactively with responsibility for their war against it.

The Arab assaults had left Israel holding land beyond its original borders. Those territories that Israel gained in self-defense were now exhibited as evidence of Jewish expansionism. Once again, as in the case of the refugee camps, the Arabs misrepresented the consequence of their aggression as the cause of their aggression. The Palestine Liberation Organization, founded in 1964, before Israel came into possession of the disputed territories of the West Bank and Gaza, was increasingly funded by Arab governments as the response to Israel's capture of the territories.

Shortly after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, having failed to dislodge Israel in their third coordinated assault, the Arabs joined the Communist bloc in opening a new U.N. propaganda front. Arab governments recycled Soviet slogans of the 1930s and used their influence to pass a resolution defining Zionism as racism. Zionism is the belief that the Jews should have a country. Israel is that country--as sanctioned by the United Nations. Using the technique of the Big Lie, the Arabs who refused to recognize the Jewish state accused the Jews of committing a racial offense for the sin of wanting their own land.

The United Nations championed this new brand of anti-Semitism for the next fifteen years. Once again, as in the 1930s, an anti-democratic axis had formed in opposition to the Jewish people, only this time its pulpit was the U.N. itself. With the passage of the Zionism-is-racism resolution, Arab leaders demonstrated that it was possible to enlist the U.N. in the prosecution of a fellow member.

When the Zionism-is-racism resolution was repudiated in 1991, thanks to the initiative of the United States, no apology was made to the Jewish people for a campaign of defamation. Nor did the secretariat and U.N. bureaucracy make any attempt to stanch the poison that had seeped into the international arena. Instead, Arab governments were allowed to use the perception they had fostered of Israel's illegitimacy to hijack an ever-increasing proportion of U.N. time and resources--almost 30 percent of Security Council meetings--for a country that contains about one thousandth of the world's population. Indeed, the anti-Jewish campaign of the United Nations reached extraordinary heights at the United Nations Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance that convened in Durban, South Africa, just prior to September 11, 2001. In the words of one observer, "A coalition led by regimes that persecute their own people--and in some cases harbor international terrorists--sought by formal declaration to delegitimize the Jewish state, demonize its people, and mobilize a global movement against its existence as a country." Even longtime students of anti-Semitism were shocked by the level of anti-Jewish invective at the conference, which was obviously intended to deflect criticism from many of the regimes mounting the attacks.

Obsession with Israel at the U.N. is by now as commonplace as the wolfish nature of the wolf in an Aesop fable. Reporting last month on the 46th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, where the United States tried to promote a resolution on the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan, Kate O'Beirne writes wearily, "In the end there was only one roll-call. It was on that hardy U.N. perennial, the condemnation of Israel." In another recent session, the Commission on Human Rights passed one resolution on the Congo (population: 43 million), none on Burundi (6 million), Somalia (7 million), Angola (10 million), or Algeria (31 million), but five resolutions on the "Occupied Arab Territories" (population: 3.5 million). Canadian legal scholar Anne Bayefsky, who specializes in refugee studies, says this record of the United Nations "ought to be an embarrassment to every democratic U.N. member. The tragedy, and the peril, is that it is not."

IN ALLOWING the Arab countries to internationalize their war against the Jewish State, the United Nations has endangered Jews in new ways. Whereas earlier anti-Semitism could be identified with its evil sponsors and morally, if not militarily, countered, the United Nations lends its presumed legitimacy and prestige to anti-Semitism. The Jew-hatred of certain Arabs and Muslims is one thing; Muslim clerics have even distorted the Koran's injunction against suicide to encourage more killings of Jews in Israel and elsewhere. But on university campuses students now cite the U.N. as the source of their antipathy to the Jewish state. They accept "that hardy perennial, the condemnation of Israel," as a moral beacon rather than the sign of corruption that it is.

The tragedy and the peril do not end there. Experience ought to have taught the international community that anti-Semitism is an instrument of anti-democratic politics. When a U.N. delegate from Algeria, one of the most notorious abusers of human rights, recently used Nazi terminology to describe Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, he was mocking all those who know what Nazism is and who went to war in order to defeat it. When delegates to a conference on humanitarian aid spent twelve hours bashing Israel as opposed to two hours on the AIDS epidemic in Africa, they advertised their contempt for governments that try to cure disease by scientific means. A society's deflection of energy to anti-Semitism is a sign of its political demoralization; the more it whips up frenzy against the Jews, the more it requires going to war to release that frenzy. The rise of anti-Semitism at the U.N. correlates with the rise of the politics of resentment against what Jews represent--an open and democratic society, the ethic of competition and individual freedom.

Had the United Nations been fulfilling its true mandate, Israel ought to have sparkled among over 100 even younger nations as the showpiece of democracy. No other country has ever achieved so much while defending itself against so relentless an assault. Not even the United States has successfully integrated so many refugees in ratio to its resident population. By allowing Arab countries to conscript the U.N. for their war against the Jewish state, the democracies advertised the weakness of their system. Every advantage that Arabs have gained over Israel at the U.N. proclaims the strength of autocracies and dictatorships over liberal democracy. This lesson is reinforced every time there is a condemnation of the Jewish state.

The U.S. government is hardly unaware of the enormity of this issue. Testifying before the House International Relations Committee in the summer of 1999, a representative of the State Department pointed out that Israel alone has been denied membership in a regional group, which precludes its membership on the Security Council and participation in the full range of international activities conducted at the U.N. He cited the pattern of abusive resolutions "incompatible with the basic principles guiding the search for peace" that the United States opposes year after year.

When American politicians, businessmen, or physicians betray their office or profession, they are subject to investigation so their wrongdoings can be checked and the system safeguarded. The United Nations has no such oversight. It has behaved like the physician who kills his feeblest patient, the businessman who cheats his smallest shareholder, and the politician who betrays his weakest constituency. Although we have passed the eleventh hour, the president of the United States ought to form an independent commission of inquiry to determine how the United Nations betrayed its mandate, whether anything can yet be done to rectify some of the damage, and whether the organization as we know it still deserves to exist.

Ruth R. Wisse is Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University.