18 February 2007

18 February 2007 - Moynihan's courageous dissent

At the suggestion of a friend who is writing a B.A. thesis on competing human rights traditions in international law, I checked out Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s memoir of his term as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, A Dangerous Place. There is an entire chapter, and more, devoted to the notorious U.N. General Assembly resolution in 1975 equating Zionism with racism, and Moynihan’s role.

Though he had no connection with Israel, had never been to Israel, and by his own account did not have a good personal relationship with Israel’s U.N. representative, Moynihan realized early on—before the White House, before the anti-Israel State Department and even before the leadership of the American Jewish community—that the resolution had to be fought, because its target was bigger than Israel itself:

“The Non-Aligned and the Soviet blocs were reinforcing one another in a generalized assault on the democracies and a specific attack on Israel . . . . That an honorable cause [fighting racism] was being put to the service of a dishonorable one, few seemed to understand or care.” (156-7) Moynihan correctly perceived that the very legitimacy of the struggle against apartheid, and the UN itself, were at stake.

The rest of his account makes for fascinating reading. I knew that the “Zionism is racism” charge had originated with the Soviets, and was the direct ideological descendant of their equation of Zionism with Nazism. I had not known a few other particulars, such as that the person who first compared Israel with apartheid South Africa at the UN was none other than Idi Amin, then president of the O.A.U.

I was struck by the parallels between the debate thirty years ago and today’s debate over whether “Israel is an apartheid state.” The Arab states, for example, claimed that the “Israeli lobby” had established control of Congress, and believed that exposing it would rally the American people against Israel. They also paraded anti-Zionist Jews and critical clippings from the Israeli press as proof of their claims.

Moynihan described how the assault on Israel hijacked a wide variety of UN forums that were supposed to be focusing their attention on other, worthy causes, such as women’s rights and the end of racial discrimination. I was reminded of what I had seen and felt at the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001, where anti-Israel hatred had turned the conference into a convention of racists.

Referring to Freedom House ratings (I had arrived independently at the same notion, thirty years later), Moynihan related how the states supporting the resolution were overwhelmingly authoritarian, and those opposing the resolution were overwhelmingly democratic. Dictators like Pinochet backed it; so did a few third world democracies that had been bought off by oil-rich Arab autocracies.

The goal of the resolution and the debate, Moynihan noted, was not to establish that Zionism actually was ideologically or politically equivalent to racism or apartheid, but to undermine its very legitimacy. The UN accepted many different kinds of states as members, he wrote. However: “Only regimes based on racism and racial discrimination were held to be unacceptable.” (Original emphasis.)

Then as now, there were those who argued that the United States should sacrifice Israel to pacify the anger in the Arab world. People who hold this view today believe that pressuring Israel would appease the radical Islamists, or at least convince the moderates not to support them. Back in the 1970s, in the midst of the oil embargo, similar views were held by those who thought Israel should be traded for energy.

The debate about the resolution inspired some amazing thoughts about the origin and purpose of human rights. Moynihan and his team argued that the concept of human rights was born in the social contract theory of the seventeenth century, which took for granted that people had an existence independent of the state, and that when this language lost its meaning the concept of rights would disappear, too.

Perhaps the most interesting of Moynihan’s observations was that the Soviet goal in putting forth the “Zionism is racism” resolution was to thwart any effort at achieving peace between Israel and Egypt. Peace efforts had been led, ever since the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, by the U.S. The Soviets, who had lost their Egyptian client, now sought to create conflict and thwart America’s influence.

Then as now, the notion that Israel is a racist or apartheid state is calculated to destroy the peace process. It seeks to isolate Israel and deny it legitimacy, just as apartheid South Africa was—correctly—isolated and undermined. Its effect is to encourage Islamic radicalism and Palestinian terror; to force Israel into a defensive crouch; and to postpone peace. That is why the idea must once again be torn apart.


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