What the Kanye West scandal can teach the UN

The contrast between the speed with which the private sector moved to condemn Kanye West’s anti-Semitism and the stubborn persistence of outdated, unhelpful and anti-Semitic notions about Israel at the U.N. is frankly painful to observe.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

The Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Gilad Erdan offered a telling quip during a debate last week at the international body concerning the latest report of its Commission of Inquiry into Israel and its apparently irredeemable offenses against international law. (The fact that the commission’s formal name is “The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel” itself suggests that its conclusions are hardly likely to be favorable, let alone neutral, towards the Jewish state.)

Referencing the viscerally anti-Zionist and often anti-Semitic utterances of the commission’s members—the canard the Israel is an “apartheid” state, the assertion that Israel shouldn’t be permitted to participate in the U.N. system—Erdan told the assembled delegates that “maybe the U.N. could learn from Adidas when it comes to hiring blatant anti-Semites!”

That, of course, was a reference to the decision of the sportswear company to sever ties with Kanye (“Ye”) West over the rappers’ revolting anti-Semitic comments. But Erdan didn’t have to cite Adidas alone; Foot Locker, Gap, Balenciaga, Def Jam and a host of other companies in the music, sports and fashion spaces have all cut links with West because of his hateful outbursts, while an unauthorized visit to the headquarters of Skechers in Los Angeles last Thursday resulted in him being escorted out of the building. “We condemn his recent divisive remarks and do not tolerate anti-Semitism or any other form of hate speech,” declared a gratifyingly clear statement from the footwear manufacturer, adding for good measure that “we again stress that West showed up unannounced and uninvited.”

In the space of a fortnight, West’s image has shifted from that of a hip-hop artist and fashion mogul with eccentric, often unpalatable opinions to an out-and-out racist and bigot who dresses models in “White Lives Matter” shirts, ostentatiously celebrates his violently anti-Semitic views and flirts with neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology. In the process, West has lost all of the sponsorships mentioned above and many more on top, at one point piteously crying out that he had netted a loss of $2 billion in one day. One can only hope that particular claim is true.

The contrast between the speed with which the private sector moved to condemn West’s anti-Semitism and the stubborn persistence of outdated, unhelpful and anti-Semitic notions about Israel at the U.N. is frankly painful to observe. And it compels us to ask why it is that established multinational companies with thousands of employees are nonetheless nimble enough to call out anti-Semitism in a timely manner, while the governments gathered at the U.N. building in Manhattan either enthusiastically endorse or turn a wearily blind eye towards that body’s long-established, hard-wired hostility towards the world’s only Jewish state.

There are several possible answers, but I want to emphasize one of them. It’s somewhat ironic, but private companies—answerable to their shareholders and fundamentally focused on their bottom lines—nevertheless appear to be more open-minded and flexible than the U.N., whose own Universal Declaration on Human Rights contains many principles that were violated by West’s comments.

Public sector bureaucracies, of whom the U.N. is an internationalized example, are notoriously resistant to change, even when it’s dangled in front of their noses. Moreover, in the U.N.’s case, anti-Zionism has enjoyed a privileged position in its deliberations about the Middle East for approaching 60 years. This combination of bureaucratic inertia, ideological fanaticism, lack of public accountability and immunity from consumer pressure ensures that the U.N. will continue to regard its critics as profoundly misguided, and its own record as impeccable, until it is compelled to do otherwise.

The consequences of that position, for Israel, is that the Jewish state has been treated as an interloper at the U.N. rather than an equal member. While the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, the body behind the “Independent International Commission,” has cast its net wider than Israel’s alleged violations in recent years, it still maintains an insultingly disproportionate focus on the Jewish state’s actions, not least through an annual fixed agenda item—“Item Seven”—that focuses on Israel alone. And that is matched elsewhere in the U.N. system, particularly through its dedicated Division for Palestinian Rights, created in the same week in 1975 that the U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution denouncing Zionism as a form of racism.

In such an environment, Israel cannot expect to be treated as an equal—but at the same time, that is the minimum it should demand. No country’s human rights record should be immune from scrutiny, but the extent of any examination should be consistent with the nature and frequency of the crimes being investigated, and all parties should be in the spotlight. As far as the “Independent International Commission” is concerned, Hamas and its missiles don’t even exist, since they remain unmentioned in its report. As is said, there are none so blind as those who refuse to see.

Yet it isn’t as though there is an absence of pressure at the U.N. for Israel to be treated decently. “Israel is consistently unfairly targeted in the U.N. system, including in the course of this commission of inquiry,” noted the U.S. State Department’s spokesperson, Ned Price, following the publication of the commission’s report. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also acknowledged that anti-Semitism has surfaced “in attempts to delegitimize the right of Israel to exist, including calls for its destruction, using the pretext of the situation in the Middle East to target Jews and Jewish symbols.” Still, the Human Rights Council and the array of U.N. Palestinian committees continue to do what they have always done, knowing that rhetorical condemnation, and not meaningful penalties, is the very worst they can anticipate.

The swift, devastating response of private sector companies to Kanye West’s ravings contains a lesson for the U.N.; namely that there are tools for identifying anti-Semitism, such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition, and that calling out Jew-hatred shouldn’t require too much mental effort. But until the U.N. shrugs off its anti-Zionist straitjacket, private companies whose goal is to shift their wares, not secure world peace, will have a surer claim on the moral high ground.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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