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30 Years After ‘zionism=racism,’ Memories of the Moment Remain Raw

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When the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in 1975 denigrating Zionism as racism, it was an excruciating moment for the Jewish state. After all, the General Assembly was the body that had sanctioned the State of Israel’s birth in 1948. To some, passage of General Assembly Resolution 3379, known as “Zionism=Racism,” felt like a mother bird eating its young.

While memories of the pain still linger 30 years later, some positive recollections also come to the fore. Chief among them is the show of defiance put on by Israel’s U.N. ambassador at the time, Chaim Herzog.

Disgusted by the notion that self-determination for the Jewish people was somehow racist, Herzog ascended the podium after the measure was passed, delivered a stirring condemnation of the resolution, expounded at length on the history of Zionism — and then tore a copy of the resolution to shreds.

At the time, Aryeh Mekel, now Israel’s consul general in New York, was a reporter and editor for Israel Radio. As the Zionism=Racism story gained steam, Mekel — who served as Israel’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations from 2003-2004 — interviewed Herzog on his Saturday radio show, Yoman Hashavuah.

“We were proud of Herzog, who took such a stance instead of arguing,” Mekel told JTA in a recent interview. “We knew it was basically hopeless, with the anti-Israel majority being automatic. He became a hero.”

Herzog’s stand boosted Israeli morale. When the resolution was eventually repealed in 1991, it was a welcome development in Israel.

But have the underlying attitudes that made the resolution possible changed since 1975? Has Israel’s position at the United Nations improved?

As they mark the 30th anniversary of Zionism=Racism, U.N. insiders and observers say Israel remains a second-class citizen at the world body.

“The attitude is still that Zionism equals racism in some way because it’s not universal, it’s particular,” said Amy Goldstein, director of U.N. affairs at B’nai B’rith International. “Palestinian self-determination, though also particularistic, was not seen as racist and was used as an excuse for bashing Zionism.”

When the Jewish community responded to the claim that Zionism is racism in 1975, Goldstein said, it did so by crying anti-Semitism — a charge that didn’t strike a chord in the general community.

“What we needed to say was that Zionism is the political movement to ensure the fulfillment of the Jewish people’s basic human right to self-determination,” she said. “According to the U.N. charter, all people have the right to self-determination, and that includes the Jewish people.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the aftermath of the Zionism=Racism resolution “poisons the debate” to this day. This naturally upsets Jews, but also is disheartening for what it says about the United Nations.

“Many in the Jewish community are supportive of the U.N. in its ideal form, which is why they take the distortion and corruption of that ideal so seriously, as opposed to those who dismiss the U.N. completely,” he said.

Hoenlein said the Presidents Conference is planning an event to mark the resolution’s 30th anniversary.

Still, it hasn’t been a bad year for Israel at the world body in relative terms.

Over the past year, the U.N. Department of Public Information convened a daylong conference on anti-Semitism. The General Assembly held a special session to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, and a Holocaust exhibit in the lobby of U.N. headquarters was launched with the playing of Israel’s national anthem and the recitation of a Jewish mourning prayer.

Annan attended the opening of the new Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, the first time a secretary-general had traveled to Israel.

In June, Dan Gillerman, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, became one of 21 General Assembly vice presidents, the first time Israel has held the position in more than half a century.

“There have been positive signs, and we always have to acknowledge that, too,” Hoenlein said.

Gillerman, however, said the changes were largely cosmetic.

“All these changes and all these achievements are mainly achievements in style and atmosphere, and we would like to see them translated into achievements of substance,” he said.

Indeed, next to the cafeteria in which Human Rights Commission members eat at the Palais des Nations, the main U.N. campus in Geneva, 10 life-size panels hang from the wall depicting Palestinian scenes — including pictures of a smiling Yasser Arafat. No other people with a national claim has such an exhibit devoted to them in Geneva, said Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch in Geneva.

“The message is that the Palestinians are the world’s No. 1 human-rights victims and Israel is the world’s No. 1 human-rights victimizer,” he said.

The situation today at the U.N. is “definitely worse” than it was in 1975, he said.

“Then, you still could be a leading human-rights activist and support the existence of the State of Israel, be a Zionist,” Neuer said. “Today, ground zero for the deligitimization of Israel is at the U.N. The repeal of the resolution was welcome and important, but the message of that notorious resolution is alive and well.”

Israel is hoping that a move to reform the United Nations, supported by the United States and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, will improve its lot in the organization.

Even so, for Gillerman, the Zionism=Racism days are growing smaller in the rearview mirror.

“I don’t think that problem exists any more,” he said. “Basically, the last year was a fairly good year for Israel at the U.N.”

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