Behind the Headlines: U.n.’s Golden Anniversary Marked by Memories of Hope, Frustration
Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines: U.n.’s Golden Anniversary Marked by Memories of Hope, Frustration

The 50th anniversary of the United Nations finds mixed emotions among Jews, many of whom had pinned high hopes on the global body and were sorely disappointed by its failure to fulfill them.

The United Nations, after all, was the midwife in Israel’s birth only to become, through its domination by Cold War politics, the principal vehicle for Israel’s international vilification and ostracism. Nevertheless, say close observers, the United Nations has recently surfaced from its dark period, with still-vital functions to perform in areas of diplomacy, peacekeeping, health, human rights and economic development.

“The United Nations has emerged from a long period of politicized hijacking by the anti-Israel world and from deep paralysis,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “Things are changing slowly, but in the right direction.”

Events marking the 50th anniversary of the U.N.’s founding have been held all year throughout the world. They are scheduled to culminate in a special commemorative session of the General Assembly from Oct. 22 to Oct. 24, United Nations Day, which 150 heads of state and governments are slated to attend.

“The 50th anniversary was never meant to be a celebration,” said Harris Schoenberg, director of U.N. affairs for B’nai B’rith International and the only professional representative of a Jewish organization posted at the United Nations.

“It is an opportunity for education and introspection over how to make the U.N. better.”

Despite its problems, many believe that the world is better with the existence of the United Nations.

“We are so much better off with the U.N. than without it, but the fact that it could be so much better makes us critical,” said Morris Abram, head of the Geneva-based U.N. Watch, established in 1993 to measure the U.N.’s performance.

“It has defects which can be corrected if its members are ready to expend energy, treasure and sometimes blood,” said Abram, who served on U.N. bodies for almost 30 years, through appointments by the Kennedy, Johnson and Bush administrations.

The United Nations was a product of the free world’s victory over Nazism and fascism and was dedicated to the Jewish prophetic vision of freedom, peace and justice.

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation” is etched in the Isaiah Wall in the Ralph Bunche Plaza on 43rd Street, opposite the United Nations.

For Jews grappling with the devastation wreaked on their people by wartime nationalist passions run amok, the body resonated with Messianic promise. And they were deeply convinced of their stake in it.

Joseph Proskauer and Jacob Blaustein, former officials of the AJCommittee, met with President Roosevelt at the White House in March 1945 in their campaign to get the fledgling international entity to adopt an international bill of human rights.

They told Roosevelt that even though Jews had been the primary victims of Hitler’s persecution, securing human rights protections at the United Nations would “establish a world order that is just to every human being, irrespective of race, creed or nationality.”

Blaustein later wrote that Roosevelt told the men, “Go to San Francisco,” where the U.N. Charter was to be drafted, Blaustein’s daughter, Barbara Blaustein Hirshhorn, recalled in a speech to the AJCommittee in San Francisco in June.

“Work to get those human rights provisions into the charter so that unspeakable crimes like those by the Nazis will never again be countenanced by world society,'” Roosevelt said, according to Blaustein’s memoir.

The two men joined with other representatives of nongovernmental organizations at the San Francisco conference to wage their ultimately successful fight for the inclusion of human rights provisions in the U.N. Charter, which was signed in June 1945. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights they had sought was adopted at the end of 1948.

“There was a sense after the second World War that the U.N. could become humanity’s best hope to ensure against repetition of the war,” said Harris, explain AJCommittee’s long ties to the United Nations.

According to Abram, “No group in the world supported it with more fervor and more hope than Jews. We were too optimistic.”

World Jewish reverence for the United Nations intensified in 1947, when the infant body recognized Israel’s claim to statehood with a vote to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab countries. Two years later, it voted to admit the new Jewish state to its ranks.

“In 1947, Jews everywhere were hanging on the lips of the General Assembly and had an almost preternatural faith in the United Nations as a deus ex machina,” wrote U.N. expert Yoram Dinstein in 1975.

Israeli statesman Abba Eban, who was at the center of the campaign to enlist international support for partition, recalled in an interview some of the alliances and obstacles on the road toward statehood.

“There was a brief period when I spent more time in New York with Soviet Ambassador Andrei Gromyko than with the Americans after the Americans got cold feet” about partition, recalled Eban, who became Israel’s first ambassador to the United Nations. “The United States was our adversary, trying to push trusteeship when we had reached the edge of independence.”

The Israelis teamed up with the Russians to plan how to muster enough U.N. votes to foil the American plan.

The Russians always wanted to meet at midnight, Eban said, adding that he finally figured out why when he saw Gromyko constantly leaving the room. It was 8 a.m. in Moscow and Gromyko felt “it wasn’t wise to do or say anything without checking with Stalin.”

With the dramatic vote for partition accomplished in November 1947, the next challenge was seeking acceptance as a state.

Still vivid in Eban’s memory is the moment he gripped the Israeli flag at a ceremony in New York after the 1949 vote to admit the 1-year-old Israel to the United Nations.

“I remember thinking, `The status of the Jewish people in history is irrevocably changed,'” he said. The decision to admit Israel “towers above all else the U.N. did.”

But Israel’s “deference and devotion” to the global body did not last long,” said Dinstein, now the president of Tel Aviv University. “They were gradually replaced by disenchantment, disapproval, distrust and finally defiance.”

Disenchantment came swiftly after the partition resolution. The world body failed to come to Israel’s defense after Arabs seized the opportunity to attack Israel in a war that would become the War of Independence.

“When Israel was attacked by six Arab armies, the Security Council didn’t use its security apparatus to protect it,” said Abram. “It failed to comply with its charter,” which spells out its responsibility for collective security.

Any lingering faith that the United Nations could be relied on as a bulwark against Arab aggression was shattered on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967. U.N. Secretary-General U Thant withdrew the U.N. Emergency Force from Sinai and the Gaza Strip at Egypt’s request without any international consultation.

The move left Israel facing hostile Egyptian forces without a buffer, which ultimately precipitated war. It also provoked strong condemnation from some quarters at the United Nations.

Arthur Goldberg, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, “was white with anger,” recalled Eban.

Despite these disappointments, the United Nations did continue to achieve some good for Israel, Eban said.

“There is a legend that all the good ran out in 1950, but this is not true,” he said. After some failures, the armistice agreements brokered by the United Nations between Israel and its neighbors early in Israel’s statehood “had a stabilizing effect, enabling Israel to turn away from war” in spite of isolated instances of violence.

Later, the U.N.’s peacekeeping forces in the Middle East were largely successful, he said.

As is well known, the climate in the U.N. General Assembly became intensely hostile to Israel after 1967, best expressed in an annual ritual challenge to the Israeli ambassador’s credentials and in a delute of successive anti-Israel resolutions.

These culminated, of course, in the infamous Resolution 3371, which equated Zionism with racism, and which passed on the anniversary of Kristallnacht on Nov. 10, 1975.

“I was there,” said B’nai B’rith’s Schoenberg. “It felt like they were coming to get the Jews again.”

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) was also there. As the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, he was a central figure in the defense against the anti- Zionist onslaught.

“I have never experienced the visceral hatred that we saw that evening at the General Assembly,” he recalled in a telephone interview. “Waves of vicious anger unleashed at a tiny democracy” by “totalitarian regimes.”

“The vote was announced and the frenzied celebration broke out,” Moynihan continued.

“I walked back to my seat to find an unexpected visitor – Senator Hubert Humphrey, his body racked by the disease that would shortly take his life. He had flown up for the evening to `bear witness.’ I leaned over and he whispered, `The battle to repeal this lie will tell us a lot about the United Nations and a lot more about ourselves.'”

Israeli Ambassador Chaim Herzog “stood tall and proud against the mob that evening,” Moynihan said.

Indeed, Herzog lent a note of drama to the proceedings prior to the vote. He concluded an eloquent defense of Zionism by tearing the resolution in two. Forty years earlier in Jerusalem’s Yeshurun Synagogue, his father, a rabbi, had torn in two a copy of the British White Paper, which had limited immigration to the Jewish national homeland.

It took 16 years, but in an unprecedented action by the United Nations, the hated resolution was rescinded Dec. 16, 1991.

“It was like hearing the wings of history beating over my head,” Schoenberg recalled. “People hugged and wept.”

Still, there were many difficult moments. The culmination of the U.N.’s political warfare against Israel, in Schoenberg’s view, was the address to the General Assembly by Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on Nov. 13, 1974.

He “paraded to the U.N. platform consecrated to peace” with a gun holster under his jacket and to thunderous applause, “declared as his aim the destruction of the Jewish state,” Schoenberg said. The anti-Israel campaign that dominated the United Nations for so many years was seen in part as a reflection of the heightened power of the oil-rich Arab states in an alliance with the Third World that anti-Semitism helped to cement. But, above all, it was viewed as a product of the Cold War.

“The Soviets tried to discredit all of Western liberal democracies by attacking the weakest link in the democratic chain,” Moynihan said. “Israel was a victim of `collateral damage.'”

Discussions at U.N. forums on the plight of Soviet Jews were especially fractious, said Rita Hauser, an appointee of the Nixon administration to the Human Rights Commission and various General Assembly committees.

“I took the greatest heat for the fight on Soviet Jewry,” she said. “The mood was totally hostile” to the United States and Israel. “It was a very, very bad time.”

Despite those negative experiences, Hauser said she believes in the organization.

“Many resolutions were not thought out, but what goes on reflects the world,” said Hauser, who now chairs the U.N.-affiliated International Peace Academy, which trains peacekeepers. “People were disappointed because they expect it to perform miracles.”

For Israel, the U.N. Climate has warmed significantly since the end of the Cold War and the launching of a Middle East peace conference in Madrid in October 1991.

But there remains some distance to travel. Israel still is the only member state without a seat in a regional grouping, which is a requirement for serving as a rotating member of the Security Council and on the Human Rights Commission.

This, notes Gad Yaacobi, Israel’s current ambassador to the United Nations, is “a violation of the U.N.’s principle of universality and sovereign equality of all its members.”

Israel, along with the United States, has launched a campaign to gain membership in the West European and Others group.

Yaacobi also seeks the elimination of several Palestinian rights committees, which he says “consistently adopt distorted and one-sided positions” on the Arab-Israeli conflict and only intensify polarization.

“In order for the peace process to continue to attain results, it must be nourished and encouraged,” said Yaacobi. “The U.N. General Assembly can contribute to this process if it adopts resolutions that reflect the new realities in the Middle East.

“By doing so, the General Assembly will contribute not only to the cause of peace in the Middle East, but to improving its image.”

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund