My Word: From the UN podium to Succot booths

My Word From the UN pod

Speeches to the UN rarely leave a lasting impression. The exception that proves the rule is the case of the late president Chaim Herzog who, as Israel's ambassador to the international body, shocked the General Assembly with an address followed by an action that spoke even louder than his words. On November 10, 1975, the 37th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the UN General Assembly approved Resolution 3379, infamously declaring that Zionism is a form of racism. Following the decision, Herzog made the speech still considered one of the most important in Israeli diplomacy and definitely of his very full life. Warning the other ambassadors that they would be accountable for the next holocaust, Herzog stated: "For us, the Jewish people, this resolution based on hatred, falsehood and arrogance is devoid of any moral or legal value. For us, the Jewish people, this is no more than a piece of paper and we shall treat it as such." He then proceeded to tear the document to shreds. Herzog's address survived the test of time and a couple of years ago was included in a book edited by a team of British historians entitled Speeches that Changed the World. It obviously did not change the world enough, however. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's address to the UN General Assembly on September 24 was not aimed at changing the world. When Libya is allowed to preside over the General Assembly despite its human rights record - and the welcome it gave Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset al-Megrahi when he recently returned home - you might wonder if the world even can be changed. Netanyahu's speech, given in English to allow the largest number of people to understand it, was more of an attempt to change, or at least soften, world opinion. NETANYAHU'S SPEECH was not as dramatic as the build-up to it: In today's world, the hype preceding a speech can be more important than what is actually said. It was not even the most memorable moment of last month's gathering. That honor probably belongs to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's antics and ramblings, which went on so long that the noteworthy points were lost on the way. And Netanyahu's appearance was certainly not the most significant in the annals of UN history. Among the contenders for that distinction is Yasser Arafat's idea of diplomacy when in November 1974 he became the first representative of a nongovernmental agency to address a plenary session of the General Assembly. The leader of the PLO, wearing a holster, proudly proclaimed: "I come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun." The PLO soon became an official UN observer. It was a few months after 21 schoolchildren were killed in the Ma'alot massacre, two years after 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the Munich Olympics, and at the height of the PLO's terror campaign and hijackings that cost the lives of hundreds. It was one of those moments that casts considerable doubt over the UN's ability to carry out its mandate - to prevent wars, rather than wait to investigate how they are conducted. After all, we need peace or at least quiet from missile attacks far more than we need Richard Goldstone's lecturing us on how we should not have fought back. Of Netanyahu's speech two phrases echoed with me. They sounded out across the uncomfortably small global village and resonated in my Jerusalem neighborhood, where many victims of Arafat's combination of war and peace process used to live until they were blown up on the No. 18 bus or in the city's streets and restaurants. The first phrase was Netanyahu's resounding: "To those who gave this Holocaust-denier a hearing, I say on behalf of my people, the Jewish people, and decent people everywhere: Have you no shame? Have you no decency?" He was, of course, referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who seems to be turning Holocaust denial into a political survival technique. If he makes sure the spotlight centers on his outrageous claims that the systematic destruction of the Jewish people did not take place, the world might pay less attention to the fact that he is busy trying to ensure he has the means of a nuclear apocalypse. Clearly, just a few decades later, those who can deny that the murder of six million Jews took place have no shame. Can the same be said for future generations? They might be tempted to use ignorance as an excuse. Young adults growing up today on a diet of Hollywood movies in which mega-hit fictional versions like Inglourious Basterds are the staple might lose sight of the truth as the real survivors with their only-too-true stories die off. What will shape the thoughts of viewers of films like Valkyrie, The Reader, Good and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas which Post movie critic Hannah Brown pointed out "can be grouped in a category I'll call "A Few Words from the Nazis"? This is the danger in the larger-than-life world in which we live - a world in which "Survivors" are those fighting for attention in reality TV shows. The other phrase that struck a chord in Netanyahu's speech was his "We are not strangers to this land. It is our homeland." It is a message worth repeating. It could be heard echoing throughout the land, our land, as religious and secular alike erected succot, the booths that gave the Feast of Tabernacles its name and remind us of the temporary abodes erected by the Children of Israel as they wandered through the desert. True, today's booths might not resemble those desert dwellings of yore. Many in Israel are incongruously decorated with made-in-China Christmas-colored trappings. But nonetheless, Succot is one of those oh-so-Jewish festivals for which we have been reviled and admired over the millennia. Like Passover, marking the Exodus, or Tisha Be'av, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples, it is a sign not only of our ongoing national identity - united in joy and in sorrow - but also of our unbroken link to this land. Succot's essence as an agricultural festival has in the New Age turned it into a "green holiday," helping Jews of all types to find it relevant even after thousands of years. There is only one place to truly celebrate Succot. In Israel. Like the other Jewish festivals, here it not only feels right, it feels natural. This year, however, I couldn't help wondering whether some human rights group wasn't monitoring all the booths going up and preparing to file criminal charges against Israelis who dared add dwelling places without international permission. Only in Israel do the local municipalities put out palm fronds to use as roofing. Only here do the meteorologists on the TV and radio pronounce whether the weather conditions will be favorable. And only here do we count it as a blessing if it rains anyway. Netanyahu's words should act as a reminder to the world that we live here by right - as writer Haim Gouri puts it: Not because of the Holocaust but in spite of the Holocaust. It's about time our neighbors learn to live with it. Peacefully.