It is now 40 years since Chaim Herzog delivered his famous speech at the United Nations, during which he tore the resolution that labeled the State of Israel a racist state. Now, newly declassified materials have revealed that the performance of Israel’s representatives at the time was not exactly stellar, to say the least, and that the president of the United States was the driving force behind many of the events. In fact, in 1991, an unprecedented resolution was passed in the United Nations, thanks to American intervention, that repealed the earlier resolution from 1975.
Forty years ago, in Kislev of the year 5736 (November 1975), the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and future president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, delivered one of the most famous speeches in the annals of Israeli diplomacy from the podium of the United Nations. At the end of his speech, Herzog ripped up a copy of United Nations Resolution 3379.
Resolution 3379 of the General Assembly of the United Nations was passed on November 10, 1975, and declared that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” The UN resolution was part of a series of anti-Israeli diplomatic actions taken by the Soviet Union and the Arab states during the Cold War. These actions included a failed attempt to remove Israel from the UN, cooperation between the PLO and the UN, and the establishment of a committee to protect the human rights of the Palestinian people. The General Assembly’s decision marked a low point in Israeli foreign relations, a situation that was to continue over the following 10 years. The improvement, when it came, began gradually, with the conclusion of the Cold War and the thawing of relations between Israel and the Soviet Union during the 1980s.
The proposal was supported by the Arab states, the majority of the Eastern Bloc states, most of the Asian countries, and many African countries south of the Sahara Desert, along with other countries, including Turkey, Portugal, Brazil, Mexico and Cuba. In fact, Cuba was one of the resolution’s sponsors, along with Guinea and the Arab states. It was opposed by the Western states, most of Central America, Uruguay, and several countries in Africa. The countries that abstained or absented themselves from the vote were most of the Latin American states, some of the African states south of the Sahara, a portion of eastern Asia, Spain, Yugoslavia, and Romania. The latter was the only country in the Eastern Bloc that did not support the proposal. The results were unequivocal: 72 countries favored the resolution, with 35 opposing it and 32 absent or abstaining. America, of course, was one of its opponents.
JUST A PIECE OF PAPER
In his response to the resolution, Chaim Herzog pointed out the irony of its timing: The vote took place on the 37th anniversary of Kristallnacht. At the UN podium, Herzog condemned the unjust resolution, warning the other ambassadors that they would be responsible for the next Holocaust, which was likely to erupt as a result of the decision. He concluded his address with the words, “For us, the Jewish people, this is nothing but a piece of paper, and we will deal with it as such.” With those words, he tore up a printed copy of the resolution.
One of the members of the Israeli delegation related that after the vote, the delegation left for their offices near the UN headquarters. They walked the entire way in silence, filled with indignation, anger, and a sense of loss. It was only after they arrived at their office that those feelings gave way to encouragement, as they were inundated with supportive telephone calls from Jews throughout the United States.
The United States ambassador to the UN at the time, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, responded sharply to the resolution equating Israel – or, more precisely, Zionism – with racism. “The United States,” he declared, “would like to make it clear to the General Assembly of the United Nations, and to the entire world, that it does not recognize and will not act in accordance with this deplorable resolution.”
AMONG THE TOP 50
Chaim Herzog’s address, in effect, was an imitation of the actions of his own father, Rav Yitzchok Isaac Halevi Herzog (grandfather of the current leader of Israel’s opposition, Yitzchok Herzog), who made a show of publicly tearing up the White Paper, the British declaration that the Land of Israel belongs neither to Jews nor to Arabs, after it was issued by the British government in 1939.
In any event, Herzog’s brief address became one of the most famous speeches in history. Several years ago, a group of British historians compiled a book listing the fifty most important speeches in history – “speeches that changed the world,” in their words – and Herzog’s address was included in the book. The speech was chosen because it was deemed “one of the most important speeches in the history of the struggle against anti-Semitism.” For Herzog, it was a great honor to be grouped together with several of the most famous speakers in history. The other historic figures cited in the book included Martin Luther King, the famous advocate of civil rights; Winston Churchill; Nelson Mandela; and President John F. Kennedy, who made the famous declaration, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” The book also includes Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The latter is famous for his statement following the terror attack on the Twin Towers that “a great people has been moved to defend a great nation.”
Years after that resolution, the United Nations continues to carry on its tradition of serving the enemies of Israel. Nothing has changed. The Israeli ambassador today, Danny Danon, recently commented that as soon as he sets foot outside the United Nations building, he sees a tremendous difference between the atmosphere within the building and that on the street outside. Inside, he asserted, we are hated. Outside, we are loved.
Many people still remember, even if somewhat murkily, the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism. Few are aware that the resolution was later abolished by the UN itself. On December 16, 1991, the General Assembly accepted another resolution (number 4686), in which it announced its retraction. This resolution was passed when Chaim Herzog had already become the president of Israel.
Israeli law permits divulging the contents of classified documents after 40 years have passed. This past week, Chaim Herzog’s communiqués from his tenure as ambassador to the UN were revealed. Some of them were sent to the Foreign Ministry and to Yigal Alon, the foreign minister at the time, while others were sent to the Israeli embassy in Washington and to Ambassador Simcha Dinitz. The messages express Herzog’s great disappointment with the Reform Jewish organizations in the United States, which he accused of sitting on the fence and failing to make sufficient efforts to prevent the resolution from being passed. Herzog appeared at a convention, where he treated the leaders of those organizations to a barrage of criticism. The Israeli Foreign Ministry, in turn, reprimanded Herzog for antagonizing the American Jews. The records of their exchanges indicate childish, even foolish, behavior on the part of the State of Israel, particularly in its dealings with Chaim Herzog himself.
The UN resolution of November 1975, as we have noted, accused Israel of being an apartheid state. “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination,” it proclaimed. Herzog’s diplomatic communiqués describe his efforts to prevent the majority vote that supported the resolution, although he admitted that he did not see much chance of being successful.
In a letter to the Foreign Ministry sent after the vote, Herzog wrote, “We had no illusions about the vote. The Arabs have succeeded in convincing many countries, although our efforts and those of the Jewish community did improve the results of some of the votes.”
What is less known is that the UN resolution was the result of a similar attempt made ten years earlier, in 1965. Israel’s foreign minister at the time was Golda Meir, and the United Nations was holding discussions on the subject of human rights as part of an effort to eradicate racism. The State of Israel considered itself an important participant in the talks. The United States, on the instructions of then-President Lyndon Johnson, pressed for the struggle against racism to include anti-Semitism as well, a move that was opposed by Russia. The reason was simple: Russia itself was plagued by anti-Semitism. At the same time, the Russians were reluctant to declare publicly that they were opposed to eliminating anti-Semitism.
MOYNIHAN JOINS THE FRAY
Then a “diplomatic exercise” was conducted. One of the countries advanced a proposal calling for Zionism to be included in the list of invalid, racist views. The country in question threatened that if its proposal was not accepted, anti-Semitism would also be dropped from the list. Either anti-Semitism and Zionism would both be verboten, or neither element would be included in the final resolution. The Americans were forced to swallow this bitter pill, and the resolution passed that year against racism and apartheid encompassed neither anti-Semitism nor Zionism. America saw this as a loss, while Israel viewed it as a victory.
After those events, several unsuccessful attempts were made to have the State of Israel declared a racist state. From time to time, various diplomats privately told the Israeli ambassador to brace himself for just such an initiative. During the following decade, there was an international conference in Mexico, where the Russians managed to have a resolution passed declaring Zionism to be a form of racism. Israel’s friends warned the ambassador to prepare for a similar attempt to be made in the UN. Chaim Herzog was appointed the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations in 1975, but his predecessors had also been on guard, and Herzog himself was ready to deal with the challenge as soon as he entered his position. One of the people whose aid Herzog sought to enlist was the American ambassador to the United Nations, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Immediately after meeting with Moynihan in a hotel in New York, Herzog sent a communiqué to Simcha Dinitz, the Israeli ambassador to Washington. “I had nothing to say to Moynihan. He knows better than I do what is happening, aside from the fact that I think the UN is planning an attack against us,” the newly-installed delegate related. “You may disagree with my assessment, but I see how the anti-Semitic attacks against us have been steadily increasing and are becoming a normal part of international life.” Moynihan and Herzog agreed on one point: A resolution declaring Israel to be a racist state would bring the United Nations’ struggle against Israel to a new height.
THE DIPLOMATS ARE SKEPTICAL
Herzog’s correspondence shows that the Jews of America did not act as he thought they should. Even Moynihan questioned him, “Where are your Jews?” Herzog called for a gathering of the presidents of America’s Jewish organizations, who he rebuked for failing to take a stand. One of those men later wrote that he had attended a meeting at the Israeli embassy in Washington, where the diplomats had scoffed at Herzog’s fears. “Forget about it,” they had told him dismissively. “It’s nonsense.”
This leaves two possibilities: Either that American Jewish leader was lying, which says something about the Jewish organizations of America, or he was telling the truth, in which case it reflects very poorly on the Israeli embassy. Either way, these recent revelations do not leave us feeling particularly comfortable with the events of the past.
As for what happened after the vote, a member of the Israeli delegation related, “The vote in the United Nations took place on a Friday afternoon. The plenum was filled almost to capacity. As soon as the resolution was passed, we began to feel as if we were in the middle of a pogrom. The Arab delegates were dancing on the tables; we felt that we were in physical danger. We were frightened. And then Ambassador Moynihan stood up. He was a tall, imposing man, and he began walking toward us. He reached Herzog and he didn’t say a word. He simply embraced him.”
In a cable sent to the Foreign Ministry two days after the vote, Herzog wrote, “I assume that you have already conducted a political analysis on the continents and countries involved, and I do not wish to revisit that. Two days have passed, and the media is still discussing the subject in tones that are clearly pro-Israel. In my estimation, this subject can be made into a cause that will alter our political and public relations standing, to a certain extent.” But if Herzog was correct and the atmosphere wasn’t anti-Israel, then why did the resolution pass with such a decisive majority?
BUSH ON THE OFFENSIVE
In 1981, Chaim Herzog was elected to the office of president of Israel, a position in which he continued dealing with this subject obsessively. In 1985, he hosted many dignitaries in the President’s Residence, including Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former United States ambassador to the UN who had become a senator in 1981. On that visit, Moynihan expressed his surprise at the fact that Israel was not working to change the earlier resolution.
Israel’s international standing in 1985 was much better than it had been ten years earlier, but it would still be several more years before the opportunity would arise to right the historic injustice. In 1991, the Soviet Union had fallen and Israel had already signed its peace agreement with Egypt. In October of that year, a conference was held in Madrid to advance the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. That was the opportunity.
At that time, Israel introduced a proposal to annul the earlier resolution, but even then, the work was done by America on Israel’s behalf. The Americans exerted pressure on other countries, threatening to cancel their aid if they did not support the annulment of the resolution. In the UN General Assembly, President Bush addressed the countries that were still undecided. “You say that you are working to advance the cause of peace,” he declared, “yet you threaten the existence of the State of Israel.”
So it was that the year 1991 saw the passage of Resolution 4686, which cancelled Resolution 3379 from the year 1975. Now the UN officially acknowledged that Israel is not racist. The new resolution was supported by 111 countries and opposed by 25, with 29 others abstaining or absent from the vote. The UN thus rescinded its own resolution, which was a major political accomplishment. Today, though, an Israeli political figure remarks that not only would we not have been able to amass a majority for such a vote, but even the Americans would not have stepped forward to assist us.