Home inFocus The UN and Israel: A History of Discrimination

The UN and Israel: A History of Discrimination

Joshua Muravchik Spring 2017
United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York City. (Photo: Basil Sou)

In late December 2016, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2334, lambasting Israel for creating “settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.” The resolution also asserted that these settlements have “no legal validity and constitute . . . a flagrant violation under international law.” The United States abstained on the resolution, allowing it to pass by a vote of 14 – 0.

This came as a blow to Israel. Ordinarily, the United States has exercised its veto to shield the Jewish state from such motions, but just weeks from leaving office and free of political constraint, President Obama opted to allow this Security Council condemnation (and, according to Israel sources, encouraged it), as a final gesture of his disapproval of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies.

Israel’s bitterness over this action stemmed from two causes. One is that such actions can rarely be undone. A future U.S. administration might wish to correct the imbalance in Resolution 2334, but any of the other four states wielding vetoes – Security Council permanent members France, the United Kingdom, Russia and China – all with policies tilted against Israel in varying degrees, could veto any counterbalancing measure. The second is that the United Nations – in which a lone Jewish state weighs in the balance against 22 members of the Arab League and 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – has proved itself to be irredeemably biased against Israel.

Speaking in Jerusalem in 2013, this shameful reality was confessed by none other than the UN’s highest official, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. “Unfortunately… Israel [has] suffered from bias – and sometimes even discrimination” at the United Nations, he said. Back at headquarters a week later, Ban withdrew the substance of the comment without denying he had made it. The retraction was less surprising than the original assertion, which was remarkable because of the identity of the speaker, not for what was said, the reality of which is about as well concealed as the sun on a cloudless noon.

Israel’s History at the United Nations

Israel’s status as a pariah state at the United Nations reflected a change in the world body dating from the 1970s. In its early decades, the UN was dominated by the Cold War competition between East and West, but between 1952 and 1968 these two blocs became outnumbered by a third, as the UN’s rolls increased from 82 to 126 member states. Most of the new members were former colonies that had recently won their independence, and they formed what became the leading bloc at the UN, the Non-Aligned Movement.

The new anti-Western, anti-American zeitgeist of the UN, and the dominance of the NAM, with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser among its leaders and many Arab and other Muslim states among its members, reshaped the body’s stance toward the Middle East and its central “conflict.” The United Nations became the principal instrument for advancing Arab claims and actions against Israel, including even legitimating Palestinian terrorism.

Thus, in October 1974, 14 years before the Palestine Liberation Organization even nominally forswore terrorism, the General Assembly voted to invite it to send a spokesman to take part in assembly deliberations. No one who was not a representative of a government – except the pope, and even he was the head of a quasi-state – ever before had been granted such a privilege. But the vote to extend the invitation was overwhelming, 105 to 4, with only the United States, Israel, and two Latin American governments opposed.

Not a single European or other major industrial state joined America in resisting this extraordinary move. Most of them abstained, although a handful voted with the majority, largely because the PLO had proved so adept at playing on European fears. Harris Schoenberg, an author who represented the NGO B’nai B’rith at the UN, interviewed various European delegates who told him that “PLO spokesmen had undertaken to halt and actively seek to prevent further Arab aerial piracy and terrorist attacks in countries other than Israel if permitted to participate in the General Assembly debate.”

The assembled delegates heard Yasser Arafat proclaim the necessity of getting at the “historical roots” of the issue, namely, “the Jewish invasion of Palestine [that] began in 1881,” and addressing it with a “radical . . . antidote,” rather than “a slavish obeisance to the present.” The “present” from which Arafat wished to banish “obeisance” was the very existence of Israel. He pledged his “resolve to build a new world . . . a world free of colonialism, imperialism, neo-colonialism, and racism in each of its instances, including Zionism.”

This harangue was received with a standing ovation unique in its intensity. An alliance of Communist and third-world states was after the scalps of its chosen enemies. The United States, in the throes of losing its agonizing war in Vietnam, resisted with diminished strength, often unable to rally even its Western allies.

Continuing a Trend

Besides Taiwan, which had been replaced by mainland China as the Chinese representative at the world body in 1971, the most vulnerable of the Soviet bloc-third world enemies was South Africa. To the black-majority states of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa’s formal system of racial hierarchy with minority whites on top and majority blacks oppressed was an insufferable insult. In 1974, South Africa’s credentials were rejected by the General Assembly, which meant that the country “was effectively expelled,” wrote America’s then UN ambassador, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in A Dangerous Place. This violated the UN Charter, which left decisions about membership to the Security Council, but few were willing to speak up for due process lest they appear equivocal about South Africa’s repugnant racial system.

The next year, the foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference determined to have Israel expelled in the same way. The PLO lined up support for this move at a meeting of the African states, while training its sights on a ministerial meeting of the NAM scheduled a month later, August 1975, in Lima, Peru.

Washington pulled out all the stops. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger delivered a major speech on the subject, with a thinly veiled warning that the United States might turn its back on the United Nations. In addition to Washington’s hard line, the drive to expel Israel was also slowed by disarray within the ranks. At the Lima conference, allies of Moscow and Beijing turned on each other, as did oil producers and consumers, and these stumbles were capped by a Peruvian coup that overthrew the host government during the conference. The most decisive factor disrupting the expulsion maneuver was the surprising position of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who announced his opposition because “Israel must be present at the United Nations if it is expected to comply with its resolutions.”

But sighs of relief in Jerusalem at the collapse of this effort to anathematize Israel proved premature. Its enemies soon ginned up an alternative that did Israel almost as much damage: a resolution of the General Assembly, echoing Arafat and Soviet propagandists declaring Zionism to be “a form of racism.” As Moynihan pointed out, the United Nations was predicated on the equal legitimacy of all political systems, however odious. It mattered not a whit how repressive a regime was or whether it starved or slaughtered its own subjects. Only one thing was declared unacceptable: racism. To label Zionism a form of racism was to declare Israel inherently illegitimate, regardless of its borders or behavior.

Political Warfare

In 1982, the body declared that Israel “is not a peace-loving member state and that it has not carried out its obligations under the Charter.” Since the Charter itself specifies that “membership . . . is open to all . . . peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the . . . Charter,” this kept alive the threat to expel Israel. Moreover, it called for an international campaign against that country, exhorting “all member states to cease forthwith . . . all dealings with Israel in order totally to isolate it in all fields.” It even called upon “all states to put an end to the flow to Israel of human resources,” thereby stamping the UN’s imprimatur on the practice of the Soviet Union and other European Communist regimes of denying freedom of emigration – specifically Jewish emigration to the Jewish homeland.

This language was adopted again and again throughout the 1980s, although the fever cooled a little with the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, which also led to the rescinding of the resolution equating Zionism with racism in 1991. Nonetheless, every year the General Assembly votes on anywhere from 70 to 100 or so resolutions, apart from meaningless consensus resolutions on administrative matters and the like. Between 15 and 20 of these votes pertain to Israel, all in a pejorative way. Very few of the world’s most repressive or blood-soaked regimes have received even a single rebuke from this august chamber. Of all General Assembly resolutions that criticize a particular country, three-quarters apply to Israel.

The European view that these resolutions amount only to empty rhetoric is true insofar as there are no enforcement mechanisms attached to these words. But this ignores the fact that third world countries, lacking the military, economic, and political power of the large industrial states, attach great importance to the United Nations and therefore are likely to be influenced by its declarations. It ignores, too, that the relentless recitation of UN declarations impedes compromise and peace by reinforcing the conviction in the Arab world that all right lies on the Arab side and that Israel is irredeemably evil.

Sanctifying Violence

The General Assembly’s positions also sanctify violence and even terrorism – so long as it is carried out in the name of an approved cause. This stance, which contradicts the UN Charter, originated in the struggles for African independence and then was carried over to the Arab-Israel conflict. In the 1960s, the General Assembly passed several resolutions regarding Portugal’s colonies and the white-ruled states of southern Africa, affirming “the legitimacy of the struggle of the colonial peoples to exercise their right to self-determination and independence” (e.g., Resolution 2548). In 1970, an important modification was added in the phrase “by all the necessary means at their disposal” (Resolution 2708).

The PLO, backed by the Arab States and the Islamic Conference, was to cite this language as sanctioning its deliberate attacks on civilians. In his famous speech to the General Assembly, Arafat claimed “the difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist lies in the reason for which each fights. Whoever stands by a just cause . . . cannot possibly be called [a] terrorist.”

Just a week after Arafat’s appearance, the General Assembly affirmed “the right of the Palestinian people to regain its rights by all means” (Resolution 3236). Any ambiguity in this phrase was wiped away in a 1982 resolution that lumped the Palestinian case together with lingering cases of white rule in southern Africa and affirmed “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples against foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle” (Resolution 37/43). Since the Palestinians were engaged neither in conventional nor even, for the most part, guerrilla war with Israel, but rather a campaign of bombings and murders aimed at civilian targets, this is what was meant by “armed struggle.”

As if the General Assembly’s topsy-turvy stance on terrorism were not enough, the UN Commission on Human Rights went even further, affirming that Palestinian terrorism (i.e., “resist[ing] Israeli occupation” by “all available means, including armed struggle”) was not only “legitimate” but even a means of “fulfilling . . . one of the goals and purposes of the United Nations.”

Only Israel

This was only a particularly tangy example of the commission’s well-articulated system of double standards where the Jewish state was involved. The governments that most egregiously abused or repressed their citizens escaped year after year without a word of censure. Indeed, many of them – the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, and others of their ilk – were members of the commission. Occasionally, a dictatorship that had become politically isolated, such as, say, Burma’s, would suffer the indignity of a single diplomatically worded resolution chiding it for misdeeds. Meanwhile, at every session some five to eight separate resolutions would excoriate Israel.

This bias also infused other UN activities conducted in the name of human rights. The UN’s 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, was so extreme in its anti-Israel focus and tone that Secretary of State Colin Powell ordered the U.S. delegation to leave. Israel was front and center; the actions of Hutus toward Tutsis or Turks toward Kurds or Russians toward Chechens or Serbs toward Albanians or scores of other cases of inter-group conflict that might also have been on the agenda were not mentioned. When a resolution decrying bigotry was adopted, a proposal to include anti-Semitism on the list of proscribed prejudices almost was turned aside.

Eventually, the hypocrisy that had become the hallmark of the Commission on Human Rights so alarmed then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that he said it cast “a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.” At Annan’s initiative, the commission was replaced in 2006 by the Human Rights Council, which was designed with somewhat different rules of selection and procedure intended to make the body more faithful to its mission than its predecessor. But these hopes were to be disappointed badly on all counts. Most of the world’s worst human-rights abusers never have suffered even mild rebuke, while Israel continues to be chastised as often as all the rest of the countries combined and in terms more condemnatory.

The new council, like the commission before it, includes the “Human Rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories” as a separate agenda item at every meeting, while no other country or situation is treated in this way. Indeed, all other countries of the world together constitute a single additional point on the agenda, as do various thematic and administrative issues, such as “racism” and periodic reports from the high commissioner for human rights. In 2007, the council mandated a follow-up conference to the 2001 Durban confab against racism, selecting Moammar Qaddafi’s government in Libya to chair the preparatory committee.

The council’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, a Swiss sociologist and activist, concentrated primarily on castigating Israel for allegedly depriving the people of Gaza of nourishment, although he also found time to denounce the “imperialist dictatorship” that rules the United States for “genocide” of Cubans by means of its embargo.

The Practical Effect

While it is true that most UN bodies are devoid of practical power and cannot enforce their resolutions, this endless drumbeat, from one body to the next, from one corner of the world to another, singling out Israel as the pariah among nations, shapes the political environment in which Israel must live, trade, defend itself, and pursue peace with its neighbors. Moreover, to dismiss the UN as a feckless “talk shop” is to overlook those of its actions that do indeed have practical consequences. The Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Population of the Occupied Territories has produced little. But two other bodies, also dedicated entirely to the question of Israel and Palestine (also having no analog regarding any other countries), have had a major impact.

The first, created in 1975, is the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. Whereas the “special committee” is only a whip to lacerate Israel, this one has the broader, more affirmative mandate of helping the Palestinians to achieve their larger goals. That goal, for some Palestinians, may be a state alongside Israel. But for many it remains what it was at the outset of this committee’s work – a state in place of Israel.

Of the 20 member states appointed to this body, 18 had voted in favor of the resolution equating Zionism and racism, and 16 refused to have diplomatic relations with Israel. The PLO, which was of course not a member of the United Nations and was still associated with terrorism, was nonetheless appointed a member of the drafting committee that wrote the larger committee’s first report.


The largest material impact that the United Nations has on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and other Arabs is through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. When UNRWA was created in 1949, its original purpose, as seen by the Americans who conceived it, was to provide temporary succor to those who were uprooted by the war that marked Israel’s birth. At almost the same time, another UN agency was created, the High Commissioner for Refugees, designed to assist persons who remained displaced from World War II. Although both UNRWA and the High Commissioner were created as short-term projects, both have endured in perpetuity.

There is, however, a critical difference. Over the decades, the High Commissioner has moved on from one group of refugees to another, helping them to rebuild their lives, either through repatriation or resettlement. After dealing successfully with the refuges from World War II, UNHCR’s next concern was Hungarians fleeing the Soviet invasion of their country in 1956. Then came the spillover from Algeria’s war of independence, and then other crises in Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and eventually even Europe again, with the Balkan crisis of the 1990s.

But while UNHCR has a staff of fewer than 8,000, serving 16 million people it classifies as refugees (the agency lists 65 million “forcibly displaced people”), UNRWA reports it has a staff of 34,000, serving five million – in other words, four times as many staff for almost one-fourth as many beneficiaries. The essential reason for these differences is that according to its statute, “the work of the High Commissioner shall be of an entirely non-political character; it shall be humanitarian and social.” But the work of UNRWA is wholly political, and only incidentally humanitarian.

The General Assembly resolution creating the UNHCR called on all states to “promot[e] the assimilation of refugees, especially by facilitating their naturalization.” The Arab states, except for Jordan, ignored this injunction precisely because they wished Israel to disappear and therefore insisted that all Arabs who had fled or been expelled must be repatriated. They insistently pointed to a 1948 General Assembly decision, Resolution 194, which recommended “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”

Not only did the Arab states thus wish to pick and choose among General Assembly resolutions, but their insistence that Resolution 194 conferred a “right of return” ignored its qualifying phrase “wishing to . . . live at peace with their neighbors.” There was of course no “practicable” way that Israel or anyone else could sort individuals by this criterion in the absence of an overall reconciliation between Jews and Arabs. In any event, the Arabs themselves insisted that the refugees be treated not as individuals but “as a group,” and that group was not prepared to make peace with Israel, thus rendering Resolution 194 moot in this case.

The Arabs’ view that the refugee question was political rather than humanitarian prevented UNRWA from concentrating resources on those most in need. Such efforts met objections from the Arab host countries and Palestinian leaders. They insisted that the refugees were entitled to the benefits offered by UNRWA regardless of individual circumstance.

Ban Ki-moon’s extraordinary confession in 2013 afforded a fleeting glance into a sordid picture. By its countless one-sided resolutions and numerous “investigations” of Israel with predetermined results; by providing a global infrastructure for the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction (BDS) Israel; and by UNRWA, which sustains the alleged “right of return,” the United Nations has served systematically to challenge Israel’s legitimacy and weaken its global position – a damaging and malign role entirely at odds with the world body’s founding purposes – and one which disqualifies the United Nations from any role in Mideast peacemaking.

Joshua Muravchik, Ph.D., is a distinguished fellow at the World Affairs Institute and the author of Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel, from which this is adapted.