What accounts for the United Nations’ pervasive anti-Israel activities and voting patterns? How do they go beyond criticism of specific Israeli policies to classical antisemitism? How did they originate, and can they be changed?
Three experts, all with U.N.-related diplomatic experience, answered these questions at a Capitol Hill luncheon sponsored by the Jewish Policy Center on November 21. Co-sponsors were the American Jewish International Relations Institute and the Combat Anti-Semitism coalition.
“It’s beyond comprehension” that it is necessary to discuss “the state of antisemitism in the world today … 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz,” said Richard D. Heideman, president of the American Zionist Movement.
In cooperation with Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, Heideman and his wife, Phyllis Greenberg Heideman, president of the International March of the Living, have led groups of U.N. ambassadors to Poland and Israel. As a result, patterns of knee-jerk anti-Israel voting at the United Nations have begun to weaken, Heideman said, especially among African countries.
According to Heideman, resurgent antisemitism results from a confluence of traditional Jew-hatred, anti-Zionism, a related but distinct trend he called anti-Israelism, and Holocaust denial. These tendencies grow in the context of a world population of more than seven billion people, of whom only 14.6 million, or 0.2 percent, are Jewish. That’s a smaller proportion of Jews to the total than in 1900, Heideman said.
Eighty-four percent of world Jewry lives in either Israel or the United States, he noted. “There are only nine countries with 100,000 or more Jews” out of the 195 U.N. member states.
That means most delegates to the United Nations have little or no direct knowledge of Jews or the Jewish state until they get to U.N. headquarters in New York City, Heideman said. “They have no sense of the rich history of the Jewish people or of its history in Israel.”
Once at the United Nations, ambassadors and other members of foreign missions find a bureaucracy heavily invested in the anti-Israel campaign. Often lacking specific instructions from their respective capitals on Arab-Israeli issues, they tend to vote according to the prevailing U.N. line.
U.N. as anti-U.S., anti-Israel
That line, since the adoption by the General Assembly in 1974 of the Soviet-inspired, Arab League promoted resolution equating Zionism with racism, is that Israel constitutes a singularly illegitimate country. Though the United States successfully pressed for repeal of the resolution in 1991, U.N. agencies continue to spread its propaganda.
“If any [other] indigenous people returned to its ancient homeland,” Heideman said, “the world would applaud.” But in the case of the Jewish people and Israel, they are labeled “racist,” the worst of modern indictments.
Heideman dismissed “those who say, ‘we’re against Israel, not the Jewish people.’” The former head of B’nai B’rith International said, “there’s no difference, [since] Israel is the only Jewish state.”
Delegates to the 1985 U.N. Conference on Women in Mexico City, Heideman and his wife fought those who turned the session into another anti-Israel platform. The U.N. General Assembly’s 1975 “Zionism-is-racism” libel is “a boomerang that keeps coming back.”
It came back with a vengeance at the U.N. 2001 conference in Durban, South Africa. The session was called ostensibly called to combat “racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance.” But Heideman, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations’ U.N. Committee, watched as Durban turned into an antisemitic hate-fest.
The official U.S. and Israeli delegations walked out in protest. Three days after the Durban conference ended, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airliners and destroyed New York City’s World Trade Center, attacked the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and murdered nearly 3,000 people. So “the world paid little attention,” Heideman said, when Durban’s critics noted that Palestinian terrorist groups had used the conference to intensify the second intifada and blame Israel for Arab-Islamic hostility to the West.
Now Jewish and pro-Israel organizations that previously failed to unite to fight the spread of religious, ethnic and racial hostility in general and antisemitic, anti-Zionist activity in particular, “literally have to say we’re not going to take this anymore,” Heideman said. Since the White House and State Department have a host of concerns, activists should focus also on Congress in resisting the international campaign against Israel and the revival—including in the United States—of antisemitism.
Nicholas Rostow arrived at the United Nations as a senior advisor to the U.S. ambassador, shortly after al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Recalling William F. Buckley Jr.’s observation that one marker of antisemitism is obsession with Israel, Rostow said three things surprised him at Turtle Bay.
Bad and Worse
“One, the anti-Americanism was much worse than I thought. Two, the antisemitism was much worse. And the secretariat [the bureaucracy running the United Nations through the secretary-general’s office] was much more powerful than I thought.”
Rostow, Yale Law School senior research scholar and senior partner in the New York office of Zumpano, Patricios & Popok, noted “there is a difference between people who criticize particular policies and those who never find Israel in the right.” The latter is “the kind of antisemitism the anti-Israel people engage in.”
Rostow said the secretariat “hated” the U.N. Security Council because it could not control the body, on which the five permanent members (the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France) each have veto power. But in many circumstances, delegates lacking instructions from their governments, those susceptible to groupthink and peer pressure, and those who can be bribed present chronic problems.
“If you polled the U.N. staff … asking ‘should Israel have been created,’ there’s no question the answer would be ‘no,’” Rostow said.
Hostility at the United Nations to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not represent a new development, Rostow said. “A working majority blames Netanyahu for obstructing peace” with the Palestinian Arabs.
In 2015, President Barack Obama claimed the prime minister could have a “two-state solution” anytime he wanted, Rostow observed. “But the Nixon administration accused [Prime Minister] Golda Meir of the same thing.” He added that “all Israeli prime ministers get blamed for the fact there is no peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
U.N. diplomats talk about the conflict “as if Israel woke up one day and said, ‘Let’s take the West Bank and Gaza.’ There’s no discussion of why, of history, of U.N. Security Council 242” and more relevant background, Rostow said.
The United States, which provides 25 percent of the U.N. budget, “should push back against funding of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People” and other U.N. bodies that amount to the institutional source of the international anti-Israel campaign.
Those rights are said to include a Palestinian “right of return” for the 50,000 or fewer surviving refugees of the 1948-1949 Arab war against Israel and their estimated five million descendants to the Jewish state. Yet the United Nations itself established no such right in any of the relevant measures (General Assembly resolutions 194 , 393 , 394  and 513 ).
The United Nations’ anti-Israel obsession began “as an anti-American effort,” explained Ambassador Richard Schifter, head of AJIRI. Asked by Reagan administration U.N. Amb. Jeanne Kirkpatrick to represent the United States at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in 1981, Schifter said he discovered that the council was a source of anti-Israel hostility. Kirkpatrick, he said, had warned him that at the United Nations she was in “a cesspool of antisemitism.”
The hostility became institutionalize in 1974 with the unprecedented appearance—as a sop to the Soviet Union and its Arab clients, Egypt and Syria, defeated by Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War—of Yasser Arafat. Arafat, leader of the non-state and terrorist Palestine Liberation Organization, should have been ineligible to address the General Assembly.
The next year, the assembly, increasingly influenced by an anti-American, anti-Israel coalition led by Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, adopted the poisonous “Zionism-is-racism” resolution, Schifter recalled. The Cuban foreign ministry in particular worked long and hard to embed anti-U.S., anti-Israeli views and, more important, bureaucratic machinery and staff into the United Nations.
Although the United States proved strong enough to counter the diplomatic-propaganda warfare, “the U.N. program against Israel does serious damage” to the Jewish state, Schifter said. Since many U.N. votes are cast by people at diplomatic missions under pressure from anti-Israel sources, “it is important to reach the heads of governments.” Congress can play a role in doing so, he added, supplementing efforts by the overburdened White House and State Department.