Forty years ago, on November 10, 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 calling Zionism a form of racism.
Today, as Palestinians lie about Israel’s alleged desire to change the status quo on the Temple Mount, and about Israel’s attempts to defend Israelis, we need to learn about this foundational lie, that leads so many not only to disagree with Israel but to object to its very existence.
Resolution 3379 presents two historical mysteries: How could Zionism – Jewish nationalism – be targeted, in this forum of nationalisms, as racism, when Judaism, which is a religion and a nation, allows individuals to convert into the Jewish religion, then join the Jewish people, making Zionism – Jewish nationalism – the least biologically-based, the most permeable and thus the least racist form of nationalism? And how could the UN, founded as the great redemptive institution after World War II, after the Holocaust, promising “Never Again,” betray America and the West, not just the Jewish people, demeaning core democratic ideals? Short answer: It was the 1970s.
Remember that misfire of a decade? The long sideburns, bell bottoms and huckapoo shirts? It was a time when democracies seemed doomed and the Soviet empire seemed invincible. America was reeling: inflation, crime, unemployment, grime, Vietnam, Watergate.
The Soviets – trying to humiliate America – schemed with the Palestinians to demonize Israel, to “South Africanize” Israel. Edward Said, the theoretician of Palestinian nationalism, advised Palestinians to link their fight to the broader fight against colonialism, imperialism and racism, in Algeria, in Vietnam. So ignoring the facts, forgetting that it’s a clash of nationalisms not races, that there are light-skinned Palestinians and darkskinned Israelis, and that little Israel quarreling over its borders is neither imperialist nor colonialist, they cooked up the Big Red Lie.
The UN must follow procedures. The proposal goes to the Third Committee, in mid-October, 1975. America’s representative there, Len Garment, speaks – Garment, a trial lawyer, sought the right word to convey his disgust. He comes up with “obscene” because an obscenity dirties us all. Garment predicts that universal, objective concepts like “human rights” “racism,” and “imperialism” will be politicized, hijacked, used as battering rams. Israel’s ambassador Chaim Herzog, elegant, urbane, eloquent, proclaims that the Jewish people are not on trial – the UN is – asking: will it fulfill its founding ideals, or violate them? Predictably, the resolution passes and is forwarded to the General Assembly. Delegates break out in applause, mocking Israel, mocking America, mocking the West. Herzog, anticipating such a display, had given the Israeli delegates strict instructions not to show any emotion, to represent Israel, the Jewish people, democracy, with dignity.
They sit there, with hands clasped at their desks, restraining themselves.
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Then, from across the room, a 6’5’’ Irish Catholic kid from the tough streets of New York now serving as America’s ambassador to the UN, a Harvard professor who served in the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford administrations – in a remarkable display of bipartisanship we desperately need today – stands, straightens his tie, walks across the room, hugs Chaim Herzog and loudly bellows: “F*** ‘em.”
The New York Times reports that the US ambassador “embraced” the Israeli ambassador. Daniel Patrick Moynihan would later say, “I uttered an Anglo-Saxonism not found in the Talmud.”
Let me, as Richard Nixon would have said, make a few things “perfectly clear.”
First, Moynihan, Herzog and Garment were not anti-UN – they were trying to save the UN. They fought so hard because they cared so much.
As public intellectuals they knew that words matter, ideas count.
Second, Moynihan was furious because he saw this as an attack on democracy and decency. When he began as US ambassador, he had no deep tie to Israel – as an academic he resented that he had never gotten one of those free trips to Israel. But he could recognize bullying when he saw it, he saw this as a Soviet-inspired power play attacking human rights, the UN, the entire enlightened liberal vocabulary we developed over centuries.
Third, Americans, from Left to Right, black and white, cheered Moynihan and Herzog. Americans in particular understood this as not “just anti-Zionism” but anti-Semitism, treating Israel as the Jew among nations, libeling Zionism because it was Jewish nationalism.
Fourth, Moynihan was then and remained a liberal. Reflecting America’s bipartisan support for Israel, he spent 16 years working with two Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, to repeal what he called “this infamous act.”
Remarkably, thanks to this bipartisan coalition, and a heroic effort involving many Jewish organizations, using what the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris called “nudnik diplomacy,” never giving up, in 1991, the General Assembly “revoked the determination” in the resolution.
Herzog called it the happiest day of his life. Note, protests can work; we should never give up.
Finally, note the historical sequence – the 1991 repeal preceded the 1993 Oslo Peace Process – which, love it or hate it – was a bold attempt at peace.
Clearly, delegitimizing Israel creates obstacles to peace. No country can compromise when its existence is threatened, its honor besmirched.
Herzog explained: “The real core of the conflict is the denial by the Arabs of Israel’s sovereignty and Israel’s right to exist.” True then, true now.
Fighting these lies should unite Left and Right, with those pushing Israel for territorial concessions opposing these lies even more passionately.
Moynihan and Herzog taught that an effective diplomat cannot always be diplomatic. Different challenges require different responses. So, he confessed: “Did I make a crisis out of this obscene resolution?” Moynihan smiled: “Damn right I did.”
We must follow Moynihan’s and Herzog’s courageous example, picking fights when necessary over similar obscenities, similar assaults against the UN’s mission and vision, against democracy, against peace.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. A professor of history at McGill University, this is his eleventh book. This article is the basis of remarks to be delivered on November 11 at the Israeli Mission of the UN’s 40th anniversary commemoration of Resolution 3379. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy www.giltroy.com.
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