The UN and the Jews
by Anne Bayefsky - February 26, 2004
It was not an event that any of the big newspapers saw fit to cover, but this past December, a draft United Nations resolution condemning anti-Semitism was quietly withdrawn by Ireland, its sponsor in the General Assembly. In a complicated exchange, Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen had promised the measure to his Israeli counterpart Silvan Shalom, but in the end Cowen refused to carry out his side of the bargain, pointing to a lack of consensus on the issue. (Several Arab and Muslim states had objections.) Thus went by the boards what would have been the first-ever General Assembly resolution dealing directly with the problem of anti-Semitism.
And thus, too, has gone much else at the UN in the name of human rights. Indeed, for veteran observers of the goings-on at Turtle Bay, the outcome of the latest session was just one more episode in a long and ugly history. Even when judged against the hypocrisy with which the UN has frequently treated its own founding principles—principles of tolerance, human dignity, and national self-determination—the international body’s abiding hostility to the just claims of Israel and the Jewish people remains a special, and especially egregious, case.
The events of World War II and the Holocaust weighed heavily on the founders of the United Nations. The starting point of the new organization’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, was the determination to overcome the “disregard and contempt for human rights” that had “resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” Nazism had tried to eradicate one people, the Jews. The UN’s core documents generalized from that case, declaring that global progress depended on respect for fundamental freedoms without distinction of race, sex, language, or religion. Human rights were to be the new currency of international politics.
But even as some transgressions of these principles received juridical attention in the UN’s early years—theft of cultural property, gross deficiencies in education and labor standards, and the like—no mention was made of anti-Semitism. Not until 1959, when some 2,000 anti-Jewish incidents, ranging from serious property damage to threats of bodily harm, were reported in almost 40 countries (a large number of them in West Germany), did the UN’s Commission on Human Rights pass a resolution titled “Manifestations of Anti-Semitism and Other Forms of Racial Prejudice and Religious Intolerance of a Similar Nature.” By the time the resolution reached the floor of the General Assembly, however, the term “anti-Semitism” had been dropped.
Drafters of the UN’s key declarations on human rights soon became masters at evading the issue. When, in 1964-65, the American delegation (with the assistance of Brazil) tried to include a reference to anti-Semitism in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the effort failed, thanks to the Soviet Union, its satellites, and its Arab allies, who among other things insisted that anti-Semitism was a question not of race but of religion. When the UN finally got around to adopting its first declaration on religious intolerance in 1981, anti-Semitism was again excluded. By 2003, the lead sponsor of the perennial resolution on religious tolerance, Ireland, insisted with a straight face that anti-Semitism should be omitted because it was more properly considered under the rubric of race.
Against this unrelievedly dark record of omission, a few glimmers of progress have appeared over the past decade. After tumultuous multi-week negotiations in 1994, the U.S. persuaded the UN Commission on Human Rights to adopt its first resolution including the word “anti-Semitism” in over 30 years—and only the second in its history. Even so, a full third of the commission’s members refused to support it, and eight years later, with the U.S. temporarily voted off the commission, it returned to form, withdrawing its short-lived concern and excising anti-Semitism from the racism resolution. Last year, after drawn-out negotiations, the General Assembly did manage to permit references to anti-Semitism in two resolutions on racism, one of them without effect or follow-up and the second in the full knowledge that other elements in the resolution would force the United States and Israel to vote against it.