At the UN It’s Ok to Be Anti-Semitic

News Abroad

Ruth R. Wisse is Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University.

Jeanne Kirkpatrick once remarked that while she was a professor of political science there were two mysteries she could not understand: how the Holocaust could have happened, and how the rest of the world could have let it happen. Things became clear once she took her post as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1981. The anti-Semitism of many member nations, and the reluctance of others to compromise their"neutrality" while pursuing their own political ends, were almost as much on view during her tenure at the United Nations as they had been in Europe four decades earlier.

On March 18, U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan released a letter to the media telling Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel must end what he called the"illegal occupation" of Palestinian lands. This statement was false. As George P. Fletcher noted in the New York Times, and other legal experts have long affirmed,"it is not illegal for victorious powers to occupy hostile territory seized in the course of war until they are able to negotiate a successful peace treaty with their former enemies." In recognition of this precept, following the war of June 1967 the Security Council passed Resolution 242 calling for Israeli withdrawal from"territories" rather than from"the territories," precisely avoiding the implication that the occupation itself was illegal. Annan not only obscured this crucial distinction, but then downplayed the significance of his terminology--on the perverse grounds that such incrimination of Israel had subsequently become common coin within his organization.

What Annan should have been seeking to end is the pernicious role of the U.N. as instigator and abettor of a possible international conflagration. The U.N.'s assault on Israel, in direct violation of its Charter, now rivals even the Jew-hating indoctrination that preceded World War II. The very organization that is charged with ensuring the equal protection of all nations, large and small, has become the spearhead of attempts to destroy one of its most vulnerable members.

THE U.N.'S first debate over Palestine set the pattern for everything that followed. On November 29, 1947, a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly adopted the recommendation of the Ad Hoc Committee on Palestine to divide the already divided area (of which Jordan had the lion's share) into a Jewish and an Arab state. The Jews accepted partition; the Arabs opposed it by force. Although the resolution gave Jews only a sliver of what the 1917 Balfour Declaration had promised them and a fraction of their historic homeland, they established Israel on the land they were accorded. The U.N. did not intervene when five Arab countries then attacked the new state, vowing to push its inhabitants into the sea. For the next 53 years Arab states fought Israel and never had to abide by the outcome of their military defeats. And they discovered early on that the U.N. would defer to their vast demographic and political advantage rather than come to Israel's defense.

It is worth asking why the Arabs did not accept the partition of Palestine and encourage the Palestinian Arabs to develop their independence. Arab states claim that they are opposed to Israel because the Jews deprived the Arabs of their land, but in refusing to partition Palestine, it is they who insisted on keeping the Palestinians homeless. Had Arab governments settled their Palestinian brethren as Israel did the Jewish refugees from Arab lands, they would have lacked evidence of Jewish malfeasance on which to base their politics of grievance. Maintaining Palestinian Arabs in refugee camps was a calculated strategy for organizing Arab politics in perpetual opposition to the Jews. The United Nations was charged with supporting a population that their fellow Arabs were determined to retain as refugees. They preserved and administered the squalid refugee camps. And those camps--the consequence of Arab policy--have been used to demonstrate the iniquity of Israel.

Let us acknowledge that the United Nations cannot successfully broker all the international conflicts that fall under its aegis, but in no other case except that of Israel did the organization become a weapon of belligerents against one of its members. When the United Nations took over the refugee camps instead of making Arab governments resettle their fellow Arabs, it absolved the Arabs of responsibility for their aggression, and perpetuated the apparent"evidence" that Israel had displaced the Palestinians. Similarly, following each new defeat on the field of battle, the Arabs resorted to the United Nations to end the conflict in a way that would preclude the need to concede Israel's legitimacy, and that would charge Israel retroactively with responsibility for their war against it.

The Arab assaults had left Israel holding land beyond its original borders. Those territories that Israel gained in self-defense were now exhibited as evidence of Jewish expansionism. Once again, as in the case of the refugee camps, the Arabs misrepresented the consequence of their aggression as the cause of their aggression. The Palestine Liberation Organization, founded in 1964, before Israel came into possession of the disputed territories of the West Bank and Gaza, was increasingly funded by Arab governments as the response to Israel's capture of the territories.

Shortly after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, having failed to dislodge Israel in their third coordinated assault, the Arabs joined the Communist bloc in opening a new U.N. propaganda front. Arab governments recycled Soviet slogans of the 1930s and used their influence to pass a resolution defining Zionism as racism. Zionism is the belief that the Jews should have a country. Israel is that country--as sanctioned by the United Nations. Using the technique of the Big Lie, the Arabs who refused to recognize the Jewish state accused the Jews of committing a racial offense for the sin of wanting their own land.

The United Nations championed this new brand of anti-Semitism for the next fifteen years. Once again, as in the 1930s, an anti-democratic axis had formed in opposition to the Jewish people, only this time its pulpit was the U.N. itself. With the passage of the Zionism-is-racism resolution, Arab leaders demonstrated that it was possible to enlist the U.N. in the prosecution of a fellow member.

When the Zionism-is-racism resolution was repudiated in 1991, thanks to the initiative of the United States, no apology was made to the Jewish people for a campaign of defamation. Nor did the secretariat and U.N. bureaucracy make any attempt to stanch the poison that had seeped into the international arena. Instead, Arab governments were allowed to use the perception they had fostered of Israel's illegitimacy to hijack an ever-increasing proportion of U.N. time and resources--almost 30 percent of Security Council meetings--for a country that contains about one thousandth of the world's population. Indeed, the anti-Jewish campaign of the United Nations reached extraordinary heights at the United Nations Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance that convened in Durban, South Africa, just prior to September 11, 2001. In the words of one observer,"A coalition led by regimes that persecute their own people--and in some cases harbor international terrorists--sought by formal declaration to delegitimize the Jewish state, demonize its people, and mobilize a global movement against its existence as a country." Even longtime students of anti-Semitism were shocked by the level of anti-Jewish invective at the conference, which was obviously intended to deflect criticism from many of the regimes mounting the attacks.

Obsession with Israel at the U.N. is by now as commonplace as the wolfish nature of the wolf in an Aesop fable. Reporting last month on the 46th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, where the United States tried to promote a resolution on the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan, Kate O'Beirne writes wearily,"In the end there was only one roll-call. It was on that hardy U.N. perennial, the condemnation of Israel." In another recent session, the Commission on Human Rights passed one resolution on the Congo (population: 43 million), none on Burundi (6 million), Somalia (7 million), Angola (10 million), or Algeria (31 million), but five resolutions on the"Occupied Arab Territories" (population: 3.5 million). Canadian legal scholar Anne Bayefsky, who specializes in refugee studies, says this record of the United Nations"ought to be an embarrassment to every democratic U.N. member. The tragedy, and the peril, is that it is not."

IN ALLOWING the Arab countries to internationalize their war against the Jewish State, the United Nations has endangered Jews in new ways. Whereas earlier anti-Semitism could be identified with its evil sponsors and morally, if not militarily, countered, the United Nations lends its presumed legitimacy and prestige to anti-Semitism. The Jew-hatred of certain Arabs and Muslims is one thing; Muslim clerics have even distorted the Koran's injunction against suicide to encourage more killings of Jews in Israel and elsewhere. But on university campuses students now cite the U.N. as the source of their antipathy to the Jewish state. They accept"that hardy perennial, the condemnation of Israel," as a moral beacon rather than the sign of corruption that it is.

The tragedy and the peril do not end there. Experience ought to have taught the international community that anti-Semitism is an instrument of anti-democratic politics. When a U.N. delegate from Algeria, one of the most notorious abusers of human rights, recently used Nazi terminology to describe Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, he was mocking all those who know what Nazism is and who went to war in order to defeat it. When delegates to a conference on humanitarian aid spent twelve hours bashing Israel as opposed to two hours on the AIDS epidemic in Africa, they advertised their contempt for governments that try to cure disease by scientific means. A society's deflection of energy to anti-Semitism is a sign of its political demoralization; the more it whips up frenzy against the Jews, the more it requires going to war to release that frenzy. The rise of anti-Semitism at the U.N. correlates with the rise of the politics of resentment against what Jews represent--an open and democratic society, the ethic of competition and individual freedom.

Had the United Nations been fulfilling its true mandate, Israel ought to have sparkled among over 100 even younger nations as the showpiece of democracy. No other country has ever achieved so much while defending itself against so relentless an assault. Not even the United States has successfully integrated so many refugees in ratio to its resident population. By allowing Arab countries to conscript the U.N. for their war against the Jewish state, the democracies advertised the weakness of their system. Every advantage that Arabs have gained over Israel at the U.N. proclaims the strength of autocracies and dictatorships over liberal democracy. This lesson is reinforced every time there is a condemnation of the Jewish state.

The U.S. government is hardly unaware of the enormity of this issue. Testifying before the House International Relations Committee in the summer of 1999, a representative of the State Department pointed out that Israel alone has been denied membership in a regional group, which precludes its membership on the Security Council and participation in the full range of international activities conducted at the U.N. He cited the pattern of abusive resolutions"incompatible with the basic principles guiding the search for peace" that the United States opposes year after year.

When American politicians, businessmen, or physicians betray their office or profession, they are subject to investigation so their wrongdoings can be checked and the system safeguarded. The United Nations has no such oversight. It has behaved like the physician who kills his feeblest patient, the businessman who cheats his smallest shareholder, and the politician who betrays his weakest constituency. Although we have passed the eleventh hour, the president of the United States ought to form an independent commission of inquiry to determine how the United Nations betrayed its mandate, whether anything can yet be done to rectify some of the damage, and whether the organization as we know it still deserves to exist.

This article first appeared in the Weekly Standard and is reprinted with permission.

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More Comments:

Ilan Bardugo - 6/27/2006

Ms. Birnbaum:
I would only add to Ms. Troublion's comment on your pitiful outburst, that in fact ignorance has probably caused more harm then evil it self. The Mauda/Birnbaum group's activities against innocent Yemenite families is a good example.

Ilan Bardugo - 6/27/2006

Rina, It is very clear that you are the one sided pro Zionist and self-hating jew.

You have made yourself known as someone who engages in shadowy activities to fuherter your zionist agenda. These activities include an arson fire against a middel-eastern (Yemenite) family in Monroe, the break-up of peacfull yemenite families, the impersonation as a police officir to terror your victims, etc.

Your acts expose your true salf-hating / Anti-Semitic face. It is about time that you realize that these families have the right to defend themself, even if Anti-Semites like you would rather have them destroyed.

Sheryl Siegel - 12/16/2002

BS the settlements are not the issue and another red herring applied only to Israel. The difference between war and peace in the middle east is not dependent on land. If that were the case, why did Arab nations attack Israel when the West Bank and Gaza were Arab ruled??? What was wrong with Israel then?
When Jordan controlled the West Bank and Egypt controlled Gaza, why didn't so called 'Palestinians' (who are really Jordanians) call for a state then??? Answer: Arabs don't want or need another state. They want to destroy Israel.

Pierre S. Troublion - 4/29/2002

Ms. Birnbaum:

Your ridiculous insults might be a bit less ineffectual if you would learn English first.
What I said, in response to the question “What’s your stand on Zionism = racism” ?,
was that such patent absurdities thrive on ignorance (in that case in Arab countries).
Your pitiful outburst only demonstrates that ignorance can be found elsewhere as well.

P. Troublion

Rina Birnbaum - 4/29/2002

It is very clear that you are the one sided pro Palestinian propaganda , for which you are calling. Mrs. Weiss article did not even cover the tip of the iceberg of the UN anti-Israel face. Maybe she did not know the story of the colaboration of the UN soldiers in the kidnapping of 3 Israeli soldiers in Lebanon, and the coverup that follow this kidnapping. Your words expose your true Anti-Semitic face. You did not argue with the facts, but tried to convince the readers that Sharon could be compared to Hitler or to Arafat. The way you do it show your true agenda, which is based on no ground. Just to remind you, that Sharon was not just elected in a legal and democratic elections,His left-wing opponents are sitting in his government. Israel doesn't have a secret police to execute whoever do not agree with the Prime Minister. The poles are showing a full support of the Israeli public to its leader Sharon. It is not at all odd that you mention nothing about the way the PA leader Arafat was elected, and the treatment the "colaborators" of Israel is getting under his dictatorship. It is time you realize that Israel has the right to defend itself, even if Anti-Semites like you would rather have her destroyed.

Rina Birnbaum - 4/29/2002

To put it in the right perspective: the settlements were not a provocation to the neighboring Arabs living in the area. Au contraire, they were an uplifting fact to them. They just turnded the settlemnts issue to a negative one instead of seeing the blessing it could have brought to their midst. The Jews were always accepting to their Arab neighbors. It was to their demise that the Arabs did not accept their new neighbors. You have to remember that the, so called, "occupied land" was not taken from the Palestinians, but from Jordan, which occupied it for 19 years prior to losing it in a war. While Jordan held this land she did nothing to solve the refugees' problem. The claim for the land had to be Jordan's, but she singed a peace treaty with Israel and did not claim this land.

HNNfan - 4/29/2002

yes, indeed. That is the point that should be driving our foreign policy. Is it possible, that support of Israel may NOT lie in our national interest, and that our foreign policy has been hijacked?

Rina Birnbaum - 4/29/2002

The settlements are legal. All settlements were aproved by all Israeli governments of the time. Israel never saw it as "occupied" but rather "freed" territories. From Israel point of view there is no illegitimacy, and anyhow as we all know, that's a political issue.

Duby Diggs - 4/25/2002

Okay, so maybe the legal question is not 100% clear cut. So what ? The real issue ought to be: How do these settlements serve the interests of the United States of America ? Are they beacons of tolerance enlightening the Palestinians and rescuing them from anti-Semitism ? Do they manufacture high quality polling machines which help spread democracy throughout the region ?

Assuming you, Mr. Richard the First, are an American, what are you getting in return for your taxdollars which help protect these lovely peaceful settlements ?

richard-l - 4/25/2002

aside from blaming the victim, you're not too far off.

The sustained hostility to jews comes from cultures and individuals who bully, intimidate, and oppress their own people and feed them scapegoats as a way of dulling their pain. Why specifically the jews? Partly because jewish elites don't treat their own nearly as badly as most elites treat theirs, which
a) makes for a painful comparison that can give the commoners some dangerous ideas about how you don't need vicious elites in order to keep order; and
b) makes them a scapegoat that achieves the double service of giving people a place to vent, and getting rid of the bad example.

This explanation explains both Christian medieval and modern anti-semitism, and the kind of modern anti-Zionism by authoritarian regimes that Wisse describes. What it doesn't explain is how progressives can so astoundingly misread the situation and side with the most vicious fascist national "liberation" movement since the Nazis... can anyone explain that?

richard-l - 4/25/2002

these are disputed territories. Before the Israeli occupation they were not sovereign territories. Legality is not the issue, and trying to anchor your view of events on an "unambiguous" oversimplification does nothing to clarify your understanding. In any case, the focus of the illegality of the settlements actually obscures three significant points: 1) while the arabs controlled those territories they did nothing with them -- the Jordanians annexed but no other Arab nation recognized that; the Palestinians, including the PLO founded in 1964, never asked for it as a way to begin the process of nation-building; and the UN never said a word about the treatment of Jews and Jewish property in these territories. 2) these territories had previously had Jewish inhabitants who were systematically expelled, rendering the terrain Judenrein, during this period; Jerusalem was closed not only to Jews, but to Zionist Christians and Israeli Muslims; and every Jewish synagogue and cemetary destroyed or vandalized. 3) the settlements shd offer no impediment to a peace settlement as long as the Palestinians can envisage a democratic, secular state the recognizes the rights of minorities. they apparently have nothing of the sort in mind.

Pierre Troublion - 4/24/2002

My only "stand" on the (generally over-analyzed) "Zionism = racism" flap is that it shows a need for better education and more democracy in areas of the world well-endowed with oil, well-stocked with weapons, and not blessed with much constructive assistance from the United States. We could all use a little more education. For instance Ms. Anderson might take a history course, which might help her appreciate that citing examples in support of a hidden thesis while ignoring obvious counter-examples contradicting that thesis rarely leads to a convincing historical argument.

It seems rather pointless to discuss Wisse’s “detailed facts” since she included so few while ignoring many of the most important ones. I ‘m not an expert on either Yiddish literature or the details of UN dealings in the Middle East, but certainly think that oil, the Cold War, Dag Hammarskjold, Resolution 242, Lebanon, and a brief overview of vetoes cast in the Security Council have some relevance to the latter subject.

I haven't noticed, on this website, any "pro-Palestinian article" as farcical or one-sided as Wisse's tirade, and may we be spared any such outrages (thank you HNN) ! Two wrongs, even if they are in “balanced” opposition to each other, do not make a right, and one can only hope that that moral principle might resurface in the Holy Lands soon and with vigor. Enough of this tiresome propaganda from both sides ! We've heard enough one-sided bombast from pro-Sharon and pro-Arafat partisans. Let them instead close their foaming mouths and, for a change, open up their ears and listen, think, and reflect. They might learn something, even from Kofi Annan.

Pierre S. Troublion

Bud Wood - 4/24/2002

There is little doubt that anti-semitism is a major force.

What is perplexing to me is how anti-semitism has grown and prospered over the decades; indeed, over centuries. The jews, collectively, must have irritated a lot of people to have this stand maintained over centuries. I doubt that we are still upset that the jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. My guess is that muslins could care less about that.

Then, what's the problems with the jews? What am I missing?

Bud Wood

Pierre Troublion - 4/24/2002

Wisse's propaganda is indefensible, but Roberta Seid wants to try - by stuffing words into my mouth.

To write 16 paragraphs about the past half century of relations between Israel and the United Nations without so much as mentioning the massive use by the United States of its Security Council veto to shelter Israel would be laughable, were it not such an insult to America and every half-literate citizen thereof.

How could we best describe a "history" of Gibraltar which goes into detail about Spanish grievances without mentioning the British fleet, or an account of 1970s and '80s Cold War detente which entirely omits the subject of nuclear weapons ? Travesty ?
Hypocrisy ? Pitiable ignorance ?

To committed Sharon propagandists no such consideration matters. For them, no matter what the cost to America's foreign policy interests or to basic common sense, the great democrat Sharon must be vigorously supported (preferably without mentioning his controversial name which has been sullied by the anti-Semites who have infiltrated the ranks of left-wing Israelis).

Now to my supposed (as pretended by Seid) “cynicism about democracy”. According to one of my "basic European history textbooks" (Hughes's “Contemporary Europe”), in 1932, a Reichstag election "gave the Nazis more than two hundred seats -thus ratifying their claim to being strongest party in the nation".

I can think of a few parallels here both with the background preceeding Ariel Sharon's rise to the position of Prime Minister, and with how subsequent historians might judge his relative standing amongst other leaders of his country. I also think that the differences between Israel in 2002 and Germany in 1932 quite obviously outweigh the similarities. But this kind of comparison was absolutely and (I thought) very clearly NOT MY POINT, despite Ms. Seid's pretense to that effect. My only reason for mentioning Weimar Germany (for anyone who may have genuinely misunderstood) was to remind people that sometimes democracies make big mistakes. Sharon may be Israel's biggest mistake yet and, if so, no amount of UN bashing will cover that up. Either he now pulls a dove out of his oversized skull or he turns his country into a kind of Lebanon or he shrivels up from old age and excess hate and fades away (to the enormous relief of a generation of Israelis and Palestinians and quite a few residents of Washington D.C.). Whatever Sharon’s fate, it is unclear to me whether or not the sometimes well-meaning and sometimes not well-meaning bureaucracy of the UN will play a decisive role in either helping or hindering efforts to clean up the mess he has made.

But, if the US is going to help put the Humpty Dumpty Mideast "peace process" back together after its pummeling by Sharon (with, it should be noted, considerable assistance from Yasir Arafat), we (including History News Network !) need to stop pretending that backhanded apologia like that of Ruth Wisse amount to anything more than 100% pro-Sharon litanies. I know little about Yiddish literature so I'm willing to assume that she has some professional competence in that field.

Jacob Goldfinger - 4/24/2002

An occupying power may temporarily (and indefinitely) occupy territory taken in war for defense purposes.

But there has never been a question that the SETTLEMENTS are illegal under the fourth Geneva Convention. This is a political problem. The answers to the legal questions are unambiguous.

Diane Anderson - 4/24/2002

You've also said the Bush/Sharon policy is "racism" and "genocidal." Do you really believe that? If so, what's your position on Yasser Arafat?

Diane Anderson - 4/24/2002

Ms. Wisse marshalled detailed facts in support of her position.
Please identify the factual errors you feel that she's made, so we can analyze them further.

I never see this level of detail in the pro-Palestinian articles.

Roberta Seid - 4/24/2002

It is troubling to see comments such as Troublion's from someone who presumably is an historian. M. Troublion objects to Wisse's piece because 1) she specializes in Yiddish Literature instead of...what? 2) He is tired of hearing that Israel is a democracy which he apparently feels is insignificant. These two comments, of course, don't address the very important and troubling issues Wisse raises vis-avis the UN's attitudes toward and disproportionate condemnatory concentration on Israel. Nor does he contest Wisse's correction of widely held distortions of the historical record about Israel and the UN's positions. She happens to be right on all counts.

Furthermore, Troublion tries to confirms his cynicism about democracy by referring to Hitler and indirectly implies Israel is no different. His facts are wrong and he should recheck some basic European history textbooks. Hitler was appointed Chancellor in Jan. 1933 in hopes of a coalition government being established to dealwith the widespread unrest which accompanied disastrous economic conditions. Shortly thereafter he called for general elections during which freedom of speech and of the press were suspended. Upon the National Socialist Party victory (with 44% of the vote), Hitler assumed dictatorial powers. End of democracy....This is hardly the situation in Israel which not only has had a functioning democracy for 54 years, but which also has done its best to live up to high standards of justice and humane behavior despite its being beleaguered by enemies who have sworn to destroy it ever since it was established.

Ann Jefferson - 4/24/2002

Thanks for a great comment. My only point of disagreement would be that the uncritical support the state of Israel customarily receives in this country is a lot worse than "tedious," as you called it. I don't think of German and Austrian support for Hitler as "tedious;" I think of it as an expression of racism, as genocidal, and as a crime against all of humanity. Which is just how I see the Bush/Sharon policy now.

Pierre Troublion - 4/23/2002

This article is an excellent example of what can happen when an obviously rhetorically- talented literature professor tries writing history. The result, in this case at least, is a piece of well-polished propaganda.

One thing most students learn in History 101 is the concept of multiple causation. Ms Wisse, by contrast, takes a Warsaw Ghettoian view of history: Describing how the brave Jews struggle against all odds to survive in an anti-Semitic world suffices to explain almost everything.

The Holocaust, real historians might remember, happened to a large degree because people who ought to have known better stood by and did nothing to stop it until it was too late. That phenomenon has occurred at other places and other times. As an example, recall Ariel Sharon's behaviour in Lebanon in 1982.

The unceasing hyping of Israel as a showpiece of democracy on this website and in the American news media is becoming tedious. Whatever happened to the concept of separation of Church and State ? Or is that principle just another form of pernicious anti-Semitism ?

Adolf Hitler received the votes of millions of Germans in a democratic Weimar Republic, similar in some respects to today's Israel. Does that mean Hitler should be immune from criticism ? Many Israelis have voted and spoken out against Ariel Sharon. Does that make them self-hating anti-Semites ?

Professor Wisse should go back to her Yiddish literature and leave history-writing to those who have a better understanding of what history actually is.

Chris Messner - 4/23/2002

A must read for all those who think the UN is a pro-peace and equality organization! Thank you for writing it.