This fall is going to be Palestine Season at the UN. The Palestinians seem set on winning a unilateral declaration of independence from the General Assembly, despite the Obama Administration’s efforts. No less ominous for Israel is the convergence of that process with Durban Three, celebrating the moment ten years ago – as it turned out, just days before September 11 -- when a UN conference in South Africa against racism turned into an anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic hate fest.
In turning to the UN, the Palestinians will once again get words that please them, as the world’s totalitarian majority continues to dominate UN discourse. Yet this is the diplomatic equivalent of crack cocaine, providing a quick temporary high that masks the harm it actually causes. Since the mid-1970s, the UN’s anti-democratic and anti-Israel bias has made the world body an obstacle to Middle East peace, encouraging extremism, discouraging moderation, and making a two-state solution harder and harder to achieve.
Anyone who considers himself or herself “pro-peace” should advise the Palestinians to turn away from the UN – and beg for the UN to stay out of the conversation. Since November 10, 1975, when the UN passed General Assembly 3379, declaring Zionism to be racism, the UN has been the world center for anti-Israel and anti-peace radicals. Resolution 3379 in 1975 was the resolution that signified the UN’s surrender to Third World sensibilities and turned human rights talk against democracies. This was the resolution that soured Americans on their high hopes for the UN. And this was the resolution that made the UN a destructive, inflammatory force in the Middle East, rationalizing Palestinian terrorism, encouraging Palestinian rejectionism, and shifting the conversation from the post-1967 question of what boundaries Israel should have to the pre-1947 question of should Israel exist – a shift which has consistently weakened the pro-peace camp.
The delegitimizing, and ultimately exterminationist rhetoric of “Zionism is racism” repeatedly has trumped UN Security Council Resolution 242, the post-1967 diplomatic template seeking a compromise based on mutual recognition, compromise, and mutual respect. This “Big Red Lie,” as the former US Ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan called the Zionism is racism resolution, proved more potent than its Soviet creator. Despite the Soviet collapse in 1989, despite the UN formally repealing the resolution nearly twenty years ago in December 1991, the Zionism is racism resolution nevertheless has shaped the United Nations for a generation, especially after the Durban conference resurrected its message in 2001.
The Zionism is Racism resolution marked a turning point, the moment when many realized that during the 1960s and 1970s, an alliance of Third World and Communist countries had established an anti-Western majority in the UN. The institutional language shifted from championing individual rights to indulging national grievances, from aspirational to confrontational, from universal to categorical, from echoing America’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to sounding like a Soviet tract or a guerilla communiqué.
Branding Zionism as racism made Israel into what the Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis called a “fashionable enemy.” The Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and his allies understood that beyond terror attacks and diplomatic moves, this was an ideological war. They needed to shape world public opinion. Exploiting the rise of a global mass media, and what the Palestinian academic Edward Said called the twentieth century’s “generalizing tendency,” the Palestinians transcended their local narrative of woe, framing it as part of a global struggle, no matter what the facts were. They invested heavily in research centers, think tanks, publishing houses to tell their story – and link it to broader trends. As a result, Said noted in 1979, “the Palestinians since 1967 have tended to view their struggle in the same framework that includes Vietnam, Algeria, Cuba, and black Africa.” Their new language of worldwide anti-colonial rebellion, of Third World solidarity, artificially shifted race to a more central part of the Palestinians’ story and rhetoric. Thanks to Said and others, “The Zionist settler in Palestine was transformed retrospectively and actually from an implacably silent master into an analogue of white settlers in Africa.”
In making this shift, calling Zionism “Racism,” Palestinian propagandists were resurrecting parts of Nazi ideology reinforced by Soviet anti-Semitism, while negating Jewish nationalism and people hood: To deny Jews’ claim to Palestine – and paint the Jewish state as a theocracy -- propagandists denied Jewish people hood and Jewish ties to Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. In 1969, Arafat’s chief deputy Abu Iyad accused Zionism of “distorting and faking religious books to lead the Jews in all parts of the world into believing that their place is in the land of Palestine.” Beneath the intellectual veneer ran a pulsing vein of Jew hatred. Adolf Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf was required reading in some Fatah training camps, where former Nazis trained Palestinian guerillas.
“All this has nothing whatever to do with the rights and wrongs of the Arab-Israel conflict which, despite its bitterness and complexity, is basically not a racial one,” Bernard Lewis would explain. “It is no service to the cause of peace or of either protagonist to inject the poison of race into the conflict now.”
The history of this Big Red Lie exposes the hypocrisy of Palestinian diplomacy and UN posturing. If they want to continue their assault on Israel, Palestinians should return to the poisoned well of the General Assembly. If they seek peace, they should return to negotiations with an Israeli government which has already acknowledged the principle of two states for the two nations in love with the same land. This September, therefore, is not a test of Israel or Israeli diplomacy. It is a test of Palestinians and Palestinian intentions – do they seek more empty rhetorical wins or genuine progress? Do they seek compromise or Israel’s destruction?
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of "Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today," and six books on the American presidency, he is currently writing "The Big Red Lie: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Zionism is Racism, the fall of the UN and the Rise of Reagan." firstname.lastname@example.org