United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last April vowed to take action to end anti-Semitism, and called the denial of Israel’s right to exist a modern form of anti-Jewish hatred. Speaking at a World Jewish Congress Assembly in New York, Guterres said he could not control all expressions of bias against Israel at the United Nations. But he said Israel has the right to be treated like any other U.N. member state.
“A modern form of anti-Semitism is the denial of the right of the State of Israel to exist,” Guterres said. “As secretary-general of the United Nations, I can say that the State of Israel needs to be treated as any other state, with exactly the same rules.”
His was an amazing statement. What I found most amazing is that it took decades for a secretary general to acknowledge what the institution has become: the world megaphone for anti-Semitism.
The United Nations was founded in 1945 as a bold phoenix, rising from the ashes of World War II. A terribly large proportion of those ashes were of Jews murdered during the Holocaust. And so, many Jews took hope from the opening words of the U.N. charter: “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind … to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors.” Even more Jews took hope when the world body voted to partition Palestine in 1947, leading to the creation of the State of Israel.
When I was growing up, the United Nations was spoken of as the world’s last, best hope for avoiding Armageddon, and for promoting international peace and justice. We were proud as Americans that it was headquartered in New York, and that America contributed most of its funding. Our schools drilled us in U.N. functions like the General Assembly and the Security Council, and about noble agencies like UNESCO, the High Commission for Refugees, the World Food Program, the World Heath Program and the International Atomic Energy Organization.
As kids we went door to door on Halloween, trick-or-treating for UNICEF — the little square UNICEF cans competing in our neighborhood with round blue-and-white cans for the Jewish National Fund. We had to wait until we were in junior high to be considered mature enough to make the vaunted, much-anticipated visit to U.N. headquarters — shushed by our teachers as we stood in awe of the soaring entrance hall and watching the General Assembly and its international members with their headphones. We rushed home to tell our parents, who were impressed that their kinderlach actually stood inside the world’s Supreme Court — and that, perhaps, we would one day become part of it.
Most condemnation of Israel in the United Nations until 1967 came from the Arab states. Perhaps the European members, shamed by the awful revelations of the Holocaust and their role in it, kept their criticism in abeyance. But in 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his allies provoked war with Israel by announcing that they were going to “throw the Jews into the sea,” massing troops in the Sinai and in Golan, ordering a U.N. peacekeeping force out of Sharm-el-Sheikh and closing the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.
After Israel’s smashing victory in the Six Day War, a tidal wave of anti-Israel hypocrisy was unleashed around the world: the Soviet Bloc and many Asian and African nations broke off relations with the Jewish state, while anti-Israel rallies roiled Europe and South America. The world wasn’t ready for Jews as victors instead of victims, as conquerors instead of conquered, as occupiers instead of occupied, as militarily strong and secure instead of weak and helpless.
Since then, nothing has restrained the United Nation’s anti-Israel crusade. In 1975, an Arab-sponsored resolution condemning “Zionism as racism” passed 75-35, with 32 abstentions; among those voting for the resolution were Mexico and Chile. In 1979, the Security Council condemned Israel six times, but said nothing about the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
The pace has quickened dramatically in recent years: Since 2012, the General Assembly has condemned Israel — a nation the size of New Jersey, with a population smaller than Maryland’s — 103 times, but all the other countries of the world 23 times. Since 2006, the so-called Human Rights Commission, most of whose member states have been brutal dictatorships, aimed more than half of its condemnations at Israel. Last year alone, 20 resolutions were passed against Israel in the General Assembly, but only one against the Palestinians.
But anti-Israel bias is not the disease; it’s a symptom. The disease is anti-Semitism, and it has been a cancer on humanity for millennia before the United Nations was founded. It is not ipso facto anti-Semitic to question Israel’s policies — if it were, the vast majority of Israelis would have to be considered anti-Semites because they criticize their government and leaders even more than we do ours. But to consistently single out Israel for condemnation — to deny its right to exist while the rest of the world goes to hell in a hand basket — is irredeemably, undeniably, the work of people and nations who want the Jewish state to be destroyed because it is a Jewish state.
The value of the United Nations for Jews like us, living securely in the land of the free and the home of the brave, is to make graphic the poison that infects the world around us — and to remind us of how important to our Jewishness is our kinship with the Jewish state. Attacks on Israel are attacks on every Jew everywhere in the world.
The next time you hear people decrying Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria, ask them if they’ve raised their voices against the Chinese occupation of Tibet or the U.S. occupation of Guantanamo. When a church near you speaks up for the boycotts, sanctions and divestment (BDS) movement against Israel, ask congregants if they have the same outrage over the murders of hundreds of thousands of their co-religionists by Islamic fanatics in Africa and the Middle East. If your neighbors decry supposed Israeli violations of human rights, remind them that 21 percent of Israeli citizens who are non-Jews enjoy the same civil rights as every Jewish citizen.
All of us are, first and foremost, Americans. But when we stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel, we are standing up for freedom, liberty and democracy — ours and Israel’s.
William S. Weiss, a retired journalist and corporate executive, teaches and lectures on American history. He lives in Arizona.