Many assessments analyzing George H.W. Bush’s relationship with Jews underplayed perhaps his greatest contributions to Jewish history: working with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and the Jewish community to repeal the United Nation’s Zionism-is-Racism resolution.
In 1975, trying to humiliate America, the Soviet Union conspired with the Palestinians and the Arab world to slur Israel. These propagandists singled out one form of nationalism in that forum of nationalisms — Jewish nationalism — as “racist.” Moynihan, who served as America’s ambassador to the UN alongside Israel’s UN Ambassador Chaim Herzog, called it “The Big Red Lie.” They recognized that this anti-Semitic libel would enter the international bloodstream, undermining Israel’s standing.
The revolutions of 1989 ended Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. That spring, Secretary of State James Baker, understanding that delegitimizing Israel discouraged peacemaking, asked the Arabs to “repudiate the odious line that Zionism is racism.” Yasir Arafat refused, insisting: “Zionism is a racist movement, according to a UN resolution.”
John Bolton, then assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, wanted to mark Resolution 3379’s 15th anniversary by repealing it because it violated “basic UN principles.” At a Senate hearing to advance legislation endorsing the repeal, Moynihan encouraged the administration to be aggressive, asking “Did we ever tell one country, just one country, that you are getting American money, and you are not getting any more until you change your mind?”
Ultimately, the Israelis and Americans hesitated. The Israelis wanted to secure a lopsided vote providing a “moral victory.” President Bush feared distractions while assembling a global coalition against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
By autumn 1991, world conditions favored repeal. The Soviet Union was imploding. UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar condemned 3379, saying: “You cannot say that trying and get[ing] a state for your nation is racism, [as] for instance the Kurds or the Basques in Spain are not racist.”
Addressing the UN on Sept. 23, President Bush argued that the UN needed to “enhance its credibility and serve the cause of peace.” The New York Times noted, “Zionism-is-racism remains code language for bigotry,” now expressed by the evil Saddam Hussein. Even the Soviet Foreign Minister Boris D. Pankin called Resolution 3379 “obnoxious,” “a legacy of the Ice Age” and “an obstacle” to peace.
President Bush and Secretary Baker tried leveraging America’s power surge to make peace in the Middle East. Their pressure caused the conflict with Israel over loan guarantees, which still tars Bush’s reputation among many Jews. But it also yielded the three-day Madrid Peace Conference, which convened Oct. 30. Israel demanded reversing Resolution 3379 as a condition for granting the UN observer status at the conference, which, significantly, included Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinians, in Israel’s first bilateral talks with neighbors other than Egypt. While Arab leaders feared repeal might make Israel more intransigent, American diplomats assured them it would bolster Israeli confidence and engagement. European diplomatic sources reported that the Bush people kept saying: “You’re not doing this for Israel. You’re doing this to help George Bush make peace.”
Then, suddenly, the White House went passive. Jewish organizations had been working on this issue for years. Edgar Bronfman, the World Jewish Congress president and a Bush fundraiser, asked Bush why UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering had received “no instructions” to bring the repeal to a vote. It turned out that Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, an Arab-American, had not passed on Bush’s orders. Bush was furious. Baker immediately ordered a “full-court press.”
Both Bush and Baker were “mad dialers,” Bolton recalled, recruiting co-sponsors, not just supporters, by phone. The president directed America’s ambassadors to warn that any defiance risked that country’s relationship with the U.S. On Dec. 12, at Secretary Baker’s direction, the United States submitted a one-line, 18-word resolution 46/86 that “revoke[s] the determination contained in its resolution 3379….”
Addressing the General Assembly, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger insisted: “[I]t is not Israel which needs this action; it is the United Nations which requires it.” Repeal would “redeem” the UN and help peace “efforts currently under way.”
On Dec. 16, 1991, 111 countries voted to repeal the resolution. Bolton enjoyed watching the issue split the non-aligned caucus. The General Assembly president, Saudi Arabia’s Samir S. Shihabi, a Palestinian, walked out.
Bipartisan support for Israel, uniting a Republican president with a Democratic Congress, backed by a galvanized Jewish leadership, blessed by the right historical winds, succeeded. Not surprisingly, the Oslo peace process began shortly thereafter — proving that the more territory you want Israel to concede, the more you should fight delegitimization, which makes Israel justifiably dig-in-its-heels.
George H.W. Bush earned his place in world history and in Jewish history by helping preserve the UN’s credibility and lifting this slur.
Tragically, the UN-validated lie lingers. On the day Bush died, the General Assembly approved six anti-Israel resolutions, including two that reject Jewish ties to the Temple Mount and Jerusalem. Now, too many Jews have started internalizing it, too.
Gil Troy is the author of “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism-Is-Racism,” and the newly released “The Zionist Ideas.” He and Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue will participate in a Jewish Week forum on “How We Can Make Zionism Relevant Today,” on Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. in partnership with the synagogue, which will host the event.