History, like gravity, must be strong enough to keep us rooted but not so powerful that we can never stand on our own or progress. At a time when mass addictions to 24/7 media and mounting materialism have so many of us living in the Republic of Nothing, knowing our past can orient us ethically and existentially. Knowing our history is particularly important for those of us who care about Israel, because the state of Israel, along with Zionism, the movement of Jewish nationalism that founded the country, and the very idea of a Jewish State, are the targets of a systematic attack to rob us of that past.
Although every day is Israel-legitimacy day, because Israel’s legitimacy is a political fact consecrated by history, recognized by UN resolution, and validated by reality, November should be Israel Legitimacy Month, not just Jewish Book Month. This November starts with the 95th anniversary of the important Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, when “his majesty’s government” endorsed establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. With Great Britain about to get the mandate to run Palestine, the Zionist movement’s credibility soared as it developed the infrastructure of what became the state. The Balfour Declaration reminds us that European support came before World War II, that Israel is not reparations for the Holocaust.
This November ends with the 65th anniversary of the UN Partition Plan, passed on November 29, 1947. With that event, the community of nations, represented by the United Nations, recognized a Jewish State in Palestine. This move granted Israel a formal international legitimacy other nations lack, because legitimacy is usually assumed not granted.
Mid-month, on November 10, we mark that awful moment in 1975, when the UN General Assembly singled out one form of nationalism, Jewish nationalism, for special opprobrium by labeling Zionism racism. Amid the traumas of that day, a few heroes stood out. We should remember, and study, the Israeli ambassador to the UN Chaim Herzog’s eloquent celebration of Israel and Zionism, which remains one of the best explanations of what Zionism is- and isn’t. We should remember, and study, the American ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s masterful speech embracing Zionism while denouncing the new forces perverting international discourse about America and Israel, about democracy and human rights.
We should also remember four unsung heroes who assisted Moynihan. His wife, Elizabeth Moynihan, encouraged her husband to stand tall in the United Nations against democracy’s foes by defending Israel. Norman Podhoretz, the legendary editor of Commentary, tutored Moynihan and his staff about the Middle East and helped ghostwrite Moynihan’s UN speech which began and ended with Podhoretz’s line that US “does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.”
Calling the UN resolution “infamous” echoed Franklin Roosevelt’s revulsion at the dastardly Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. One of Moynihan’s American colleagues at the UN, Leonard Garment, chose the word “obscene” to telegraph his disgust at the flagrant, flamboyant profanation of something sacred, the UN’s founding ideals of fairness, equality, equity and human rights.
Finally, Moynihan’s top assistant at the UN, Suzanne Weaver, who later married Len Garment, understood, as Moynihan did, that this fight was not just for Israel, this was not just a fight for democracy and decency. This was a fight, Suzanne Garment recalls, against “them, them”: the Soviet communists who were encouraging the Arabs and manipulating Palestinians, Third World tinpot dictators who were invoking democratic procedures at the UN they would never grant their own people, Western diplomats who confused diplomacy with surrender, and one time patriotic liberals who had soured, becoming inconsistent, self-righteous, anti-American, anti-Zionist authoritarian radicals.
Although initially they did not realize it, Moynihan, Herzog and this band of four were reinforced by one of the most powerful forces in the world, American public opinion. Americans were furious at the UN, which was partially their creation, for turning on Israel, which was partially the UN’s creation. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites united in outrage. Leading civil rights leaders like Cesar Chavez and Coretta Scott King, recovering radicals like the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, feminists like Betty Friedan, expressed the fury of millions in denouncing the resolution – and affirming the Jewish people’s right to a state – which had also been affirmed by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the UN Partition Plan thirty years later.
Together, these three dates tell a story about the Zionist movement’s changing relationship with the world. In 1917, the Zionist movement needed Great Britain, then the world’s great power, to respect Jewish rights as it redrew the map of the Middle East following World War I. The Zionist movement’s internationally credibility built over the next three decades, such that on November 29, 1947, the two leading powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, overcame their Cold War rivalry to endorse a Jewish State in Palestine. Unfortunately, by 1975, a different world emerged, one where Arab petrodollars and Soviet anti-Americanism poisoned the atmosphere, but could not choke Israel with the American people and the Jewish people united.
We need to do a better job remembering these moments, these heroes, and their broader meaning. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar have supported major initiatives to teach Zionist heritage, but we all have to embrace that responsibility. In Israel and in the Diaspora we should use props, like an Israel legitimacy month, and like a serious campaign to name something significant in Israel in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s memory, to spur discussion, to deepen education, to improve our memories, which like our muscles, atrophy if not exercised.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” was just published.