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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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.