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Getting anti-Semitism wrong at the United Nations

French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Levy addresses a U.N. General Assembly meeting on antisemitism. One recent Iranian assassination plan reportedly targeted Levy, an outspoken critic of repressive regimes. Credit: U.N. Photo/Eskinder Debebe.
French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Levy addresses a U.N. General Assembly meeting on antisemitism. One recent Iranian assassination plan reportedly targeted Levy, an outspoken critic of repressive regimes. Credit: U.N. Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

You have to hand it to the United Nations, I guess. It’s hard to think of another body that would organize a special meeting on the subject of rising anti-Semitism with anti-Semites not just in attendance, but making speeches as well.

The Jan. 22 meeting on the subject at the U.N. General Assembly, organized in the run-up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day, started well enough. The keynote speaker was French philosopher and author Bernard-Henri Levy, who used the occasion to mount a forthright denunciation of what he called “the delirium of anti-Zionism.” That he did so from the same podium where the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1975 was first moved was deliciously ironic, though I can’t say for sure whether anyone else in attendance made that connection, and Levy didn’t point it out.

Levy explained that there were three key aspects to the current upsurge of anti-Semitism: the demonization of Israel as an illegitimate state, the denial of the Holocaust, and what he described as “the modern scourge of competitive victimhood,” whereby Jewish efforts to commemorate the Holocaust are scorned as an attempt to belittle the sufferings of other nations.

For good measure, Levy also expertly dispensed with some of the myths that surround the current debate on anti-Semitism, notably the contention that Jew-hatred would go away if only the Palestinians had a state of their own. “Even if the Palestinians had a state, as is their right—even then, alas, this enigmatic and old hatred would not dissipate one iota,” Levy declared, as the assembled delegates scratched their heads in puzzlement and, one might add, a degree of nervousness.

But did Levy’s message—essentially, that anti-Zionism, the denial of the right of national self-determination to the Jewish people, is the principal pillar upon which today’s anti-Semitism rests—get through?

Sadly, it didn’t. After Levy left the podium, we were treated to a seemingly endless stream of anodyne statements from the various delegations, with a couple of noble exceptions—Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Ron Prosor, who had the guts to say that anti-Semitism “can even be found in the halls of U.N., disguised as humanitarian concern,” and American Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, who reminded those delegates sitting in the General Assembly that Holocaust denial remains a staple of official media across the Middle East and North Africa.

The lasting impression, however, was left by Arab and Muslim delegates, most of whom pushed the insidious—and deeply stupid—myth that because the Palestinians are “Semites,” they cannot be anti-Semitic. As far as I’m aware, no one countered these remarks by pointing out that first, there is no such nationality or ethnicity as a “Semite,” and second, that the term “anti-Semitism” was devised by anti-Semites to give their loathing of the Jews scientific respectability.

It got worse, though—much worse. Imagine a meeting about segregation in the Deep South, with one speaker paying tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and another pointing out that these uncivilized descendants of African slaves bore the lion’s share of the blame for the racism heaped upon them, and you’ll have some idea of what the delegate from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)—Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the U.N. Abdallah Al-Moualimi—had to say on the topic of anti-Semitism.

“Occupation itself is an anti-Semitic act, because it threatens humankind and human rights,” he said. “The persecution of the Palestinian people and the denial of their human rights—this is also an example of anti-Semitism.”

In other words, the man from the OIC was saying, why are we talking about hatred directed towards Jews when the real issue is the “anti-Semitic”—his word, definitely not mine—treatment of the Palestinians by Israel? In listening to the denial of the historical nature of anti-Semitism as a form of prejudice targeting Jews, I and everyone else in that room witnessed an act of, well, anti-Semitism.

Nobody walked out or protested (although when I muttered my own disgust, a few people turned around and gave me glaring looks). And this seemed to me to underline Prosor’s point: that not only does anti-Semitism stalk the halls of the U.N., but that we expect nothing else.

Why, then, bother trying to engage the U.N. as a partner in the fight against anti-Semitism? Why agree to meetings in which the imperative of protecting Jews is compromised by the presence of those determined to insult them? Why put up with obligatory mentions of “Islamophobia”—a term that doesn’t refer to bigotry against Muslims, but seeks to silence those who offer theological critiques of Islam as a faith—in order to balance out all these references to anti-Semitism?

Therefore, I want to suggest an alternative tack. While it would be churlish to demean the efforts of Jewish advocacy organizations and the Israeli U.N. delegation in helping to pull off the meeting, it’s important to recognize that our side of the debate doesn’t have full control of the proceedings, and never will. As long as we fail to control the substance of the debate, and as long as we are powerless to weed out anti-Semites like the OIC delegate from these deliberations, we will never properly explain to the world what anti-Semitism involves.

Ultimately, it’s not about trading in discredited stereotypes or being nasty to individual Jews—these are just expressions of a more complex underlying phenomenon. In the era of the Jewish state, anti-Semitism has transformed itself into a reactionary movement in the literal sense of that word. It seeks the restoration of the status quo that prevailed before the Second World War, when there was no Jewish state, and when Jews were by definition a minority at the mercy of others.

That is what we have to oppose. And so, if there is a future meeting about anti-Semitism at the U.N., or at a national parliament, or any similar body, let’s state at the beginning that the movement to destroy Israel—which spans Middle Eastern governments, Middle Eastern terrorist groups, and assorted Western activists brandishing signs in favor of anti-Israel boycotts—is the greatest concern and the greatest threat.

If we can’t say any of those things, then it’s probably not worth holding the meeting to begin with.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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