Over at Turtle Bay on the east side of Midtown Manhattan, a man just bit a dog.
Not really. But – you hardly noticed this, though its significance is enormous – the United Nations headquartered there this month came out with a full-throated denunciation of antisemitism.
Of course, denouncing antisemitism isn’t exactly a revolutionary act, or even a remarkable one; it is the customary response to attacks on Jewish institutions, scrawls of swastikas on walls, Massachusetts football team hazing rituals, and the like. It’s happened following antisemitic episodes from Curry College in Milton to Duxbury High School.
And yet this denunciation issued from the UN has unusual weight, especially in light of the context – and of nearly a half-century’s worth of history.
“Just look at the imbalance at how unfairly the United Nations treats Israel,” Yehudah Mirsky, a former State Department official now on the faculty of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, said in a telephone interview from Israel. “Look at the number of condemnations Israel has received relative to the number from countries that are far greater human-rights abusers.”
The UN hasn’t exactly been the place Jews have looked to for comfort. By a 72-35 margin in 1975 – a vote which shall live in infamy – the General Assembly declared that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” That vote may have been almost 46 years ago – and it was rescinded 31 years ago – but it lives in the collective memory of Jews and other supporters of Israel.
Indeed, the American Jewish Committee has long argued that the UN resolution itself was an act of hate.
“Criticizing specific Israeli government policies as discriminatory or racist is not antisemitic,” the AJC asserts. “However, saying ‘Zionism is racism,’ a phrase which itself is a racist and religious distortion, conveys that the Jewish people – unlike all other people in the world – do not have a right to self-determination. The phrase also denigrates the Jewish State and belittles the diversity of Jewish life in Israel.”
Even with the revocation of the 1975 resolution, the UN Human Rights Council just two years ago established a Commission of Inquiry that it tasked with examining what it called “systematic discrimination and repression based on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity” in Israel and the Palestinian areas – “language previously used to allege that Israel is guilty of apartheid policies,” wrote Aaron Jacob, the director of diplomatic affairs for the AJC, adding, “Evidently, the term apartheid is meant to reintroduce the Zionism-racism equation under a different heading.”
Thus the debate migrated into new, dangerous territory, for clearly the employment of the word “apartheid” is damaging to Israel and potentially a threat to the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
But back to the UN’s most recent statement, issued in May. Jews and others can only applaud both the language and spirit of the document, titled “Taking Action to Combat Antisemitism.” In fairness, the new document is a follow-up to a 2019 initiative on antisemitism that had the express endorsement of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who at the time said antisemitism “threatens all peoples’ human rights.”
This new document goes even further, describing antisemitism as “a persistent and serious global problem, with a range, scale and depth that has continued to expand since 2019.” It acknowledges that international understanding of antisemitism “remains widespread.” It asks political and religious leaders to “play a crucial role in speaking out firmly and promptly against antisemitic incidents.’’ It says government officials should “disavow and take a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitic statements” and incidents. And it asks governments across the globe to appoint a “special envoy” to monitor and combat antisemitism.
The statement also recognizes an important nuance in the proliferation of antisemitic incidents in the new decade.
“While a substantial proportion of antisemitic incidents are committed by individuals who are affiliated with or influenced by extremist movements, antisemitic attitudes have also seemingly grown more prevalent among people who do not hold extremist views, and antisemitic discourse of several varieties have become increasingly normalized,” the statement says.
Plus, it takes a stab at Holocaust denial, a not-so-distant cousin of antisemitism:
“Governments should ensure that education about the manifestations and impact of anti-Semitism faced by Jews and Jewish communities and accurate educational material about the Holocaust, contemporary Holocaust denial and distortion and the history and contribution of Jewish communities to society be made available at all levels of the educational system.”
Does this sort of thing – do statements of this nature – make any difference?
Arguably, they do. They identify the leading international organization with the fight against antisemitism. They take another step toward salving the hurt from the “racism” resolution. They offer a blueprint for action. Listen to the charge:
“Every government – including in countries where no Jewish communities reside – should adopt a national action plan to combat antisemitism, or alternately, adopt a national action plan to combat hatred on racial, religious or other grounds that explicitly addresses antisemitism and its unique characteristics and manifestations.”
But the enormous significance of this most recent statement can only be understood in a broader context.
This is an age when discrimination is not only criticism but also roundly deployed. By identifying antisemitism itself with “hatred on racial, religious or other grounds” the recent statement does a consequential thing. Where once the UN identified Zionism with racism, it now identifies antisemitism with racism. The power of that cannot be underestimated.
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.