The UN and Israel: A History of Discrimination

“Unfortunately . . . Israel [has] suffered from bias—and sometimes even discrimination” at the United Nations, said none other than the UN’s highest official, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, speaking in Jerusalem in August. Back at headquarters a week later, Ban withdrew the substance of the comment without denying he had made it. The retraction was less surprising than the original assertion, which was remarkable because of the identity of the speaker, not for what was said, the reality of which is about as well concealed as the sun on a cloudless noon.

Israel’s status as a pariah state at the United Nations reflected a change in the world body dating from the 1970s. In its early decades, the UN was dominated by the Cold War competition between East and West, but between 1952 and 1968 these two blocs became outnumbered by a third, as the UN’s rolls increased from eighty-two to one hundred and twenty-six member states. Most of the new members were former colonies that had recently won their independence, and they formed what became the leading bloc at the UN, the Non-Aligned Movement.

The dearest cause of the NAM was anti-colonialism, which put the West in the dock. Thus, the new bloc was non-aligned far more emphatically with the West than with the Communist world. Indeed, while the Soviet Union was held at arm’s length by the NAM, other Communist states, some of them Soviet-allied, such as Cuba and Vietnam, played leading roles in the organization.

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The new anti-Western, anti-American zeitgeist of the UN, and the dominance of the NAM, with President Nasser of Egypt among its leaders and many Arab and other Muslim states among its members, reshaped the body’s stance toward the Middle East and its central “conflict.” It became the principal instrument for advancing Arab claims and actions against Israel, including even legitimating Palestinian terrorism.

Thus, in October 1974, fourteen years before the Palestine Liberation Organization even nominally forswore terrorism, the General Assembly voted to invite the organization to send a spokesman to take part in its deliberations. No one who was not a representative of a government—except the pope, and even he was the head of a quasi-state—had ever before been granted such a privilege, but the vote was overwhelming, one hundred and five to four, with only the United States, Israel, and two Latin American governments opposed.

Not a single European or other major industrial state joined America in resisting this extraordinary move. Most of them abstained, although a handful voted with the majority, largely because the PLO had proved so adept at playing on European fears. Harris Schoenberg, an author who represented the NGO B’nai B’rith at the UN, interviewed various European delegates who told him that “PLO spokesmen had undertaken to halt and actively seek to prevent further Arab aerial piracy and terrorist attacks in countries other than Israel if permitted to participate in the General Assembly debate.”

The assembled delegates heard Yasir Arafat proclaim the necessity of getting at the “historical roots” of the issue, namely, “the Jewish invasion of Palestine [that] began in 1881,” and addressing it with a “radical . . . antidote,” rather than “a slavish obeisance to the present.” The “present” from which Arafat wished to banish “obeisance” was the very existence of Israel. He pledged his “resolve to build a new world . . . a world free of colonialism, imperialism, neo-colonialism, and racism in each of its instances, including Zionism.”

This harangue was received with a standing ovation unique in its intensity. An alliance of Communist and third-world states was after the scalps of its chosen enemies. The United States, in the throes of losing its agonizing war in Vietnam, resisted with diminished strength, often unable to rally even its Western allies.

Besides Taiwan, which had been replaced by Beijing as the Chinese representative at the world body in 1971, the most vulnerable of these enemies was South Africa. To the black-majority states of Africa, South Africa’s formal system of racial hierarchy and oppression was an insufferable insult. In 1974, South Africa’s credentials were rejected by the General Assembly, which meant that the country “was effectively expelled,” wrote America’s then ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in A Dangerous Place. This violated the UN Charter, which left decisions about membership to the Security Council, but few were willing to speak up for due process lest they appear equivocal about South Africa’s repugnant racial system.

The next year, the foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference determined to have Israel expelled in the same way. The PLO lined up support for this move at a meeting of the African states, while training its sights on a ministerial meeting of the NAM scheduled a month later, August 1975, in Lima, Peru.

Washington pulled out all the stops. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger delivered a major speech on the subject, with a thinly veiled warning that the United States might turn its back on the UN. In addition to Washington’s hard line, the drive to expel Israel was also slowed by disarray within the ranks. At the Lima conference, allies of Moscow and Beijing turned on each other, as did oil producers and consumers, and these stumbles were capped off by a Peruvian coup that overthrew the host government in the midst of the conference. The most decisive factor disrupting the expulsion maneuver was the surprising position of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who announced his opposition on the grounds that “Israel must be present at the United Nations if it is expected to comply with its resolutions.”

But sighs of relief in Jerusalem at the collapse of this effort to anathematize Israel proved premature. Its enemies soon ginned up an alternative measure that did Israel almost as much damage: a resolution of the General Assembly, echoing Arafat and Soviet propagandists, declaring Zionism to be “a form of racism.” As Moynihan pointed out, the UN was predicated on the equal legitimacy of all political systems, however odious. It mattered not a whit how repressive a regime was or whether it starved or slaughtered its own subjects. Only one thing was declared unacceptable: racism. To label Zionism a form of racism was to declare Israel inherently illegitimate, regardless of its borders or behavior.

Moynihan later mused that “our principal tactical mistake was not to understand the willingness of the Arabs simply to buy themselves a majority.” But on this point he is not convincing. The Arabs certainly had used their oil wealth to buy political influence, and indeed do it to this day. But the margin for the Zionism-is-racism resolution was decisive: seventy-two to thirty-five, with thirty-two abstentions. More than bribery, it reflected what the Soviets used to like to call the “correlation of forces.” In the UN at that time, the weight of the Arabs, the Islamic Conference states, the NAM, and the Soviet bloc easily surpassed that of Israel and the West. Even without oil or what one delegate called “blandishment,” a euphemism for payoffs to delegates, the forces arrayed in implacable opposition to Israel were overwhelming.


In the ensuing years, the Arab states, confident of commanding overwhelming majorities in the General Assembly, reiterated this resolution and added new ones. In 1982, the body declared that Israel “is not a peace-loving member state and that it has not carried out its obligations under the Charter.” Since the Charter itself specifies that “membership . . . is open to all . . . peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the . . . Charter,” this kept alive the threat to expel Israel. Moreover, it called for an international campaign against that country, exhorting “all member states to cease forthwith . . . all dealings with Israel in order totally to isolate it in all fields.” It even called upon “all states to put an end to the flow to Israel of human resources,” thereby stamping the UN’s imprimatur on the practice of the Soviet Union and other European Communist regimes of denying freedom of emigration.

This language was adopted again and again throughout the 1980s, although the fever cooled a little with the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, which also led to the rescinding of the resolution equating Zionism with racism in 1991. Nonetheless, every year the General Assembly votes on anywhere from seventy to one hundred or so resolutions, apart from meaningless consensus resolutions on administrative matters and the like. Between fifteen and twenty of these votes pertain to Israel, all in a pejorative way. Very few of the world’s most repressive or blood-soaked regimes have received even a single rebuke from this august chamber. Of all General Assembly resolutions that criticize a particular country, three-quarters apply to Israel.

The European view that these resolutions amount only to empty rhetoric is true insofar as there are no enforcement mechanisms attached to these words. But this ignores the fact that third-world countries, lacking the military, economic, and political power of the large industrial states, attach great importance to the UN and are therefore likely to be influenced by its declarations. It ignores, too, that the relentless recitation of UN declarations impedes compromise and peace by reinforcing the conviction in the Arab world that all right lies on the Arab side and that Israel is irredeemably evil.

The General Assembly’s positions also sanctify violence and even terrorism—so long as it is carried out in the name of an approved cause. This stance, which contradicts the UN Charter, originated in the struggles for African independence and then was carried over to the Arab-Israel conflict. In the 1960s, the General Assembly passed several resolutions regarding Portugal’s colonies and the white-ruled states of southern Africa, affirming “the legitimacy of the struggle of the colonial peoples to exercise their right to self-determination and independence” (e.g., Resolution 2548). In 1970, an important modification was added in the phrase “by all the necessary means at their disposal” (Resolution 2708).

The PLO, backed by the Arab states and the Islamic Conference, was to cite this language as sanctioning its deliberate attacks on civilians. In his famous speech to the General Assembly, Arafat claimed that “the difference between the revolutionary and the terrorist lies in the reason for which each fights. Whoever stands by a just cause . . . cannot possibly be called [a] terrorist.”

Just a week after Arafat’s appearance, the General Assembly affirmed “the right of the Palestinian people to regain its rights by all means” (Resolution 3236). Any ambiguity in this phrase was wiped away in a 1982 resolution that lumped the Palestinian case together with lingering cases of white rule in southern Africa and affirmed “the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples against foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle” (Resolution 37/43). Since the Palestinians were engaged neither in conventional nor even, for the most part, guerrilla war with Israel, but rather a campaign of bombings and murders aimed at civilian targets, this is what was meant by “armed struggle.”

This endorsement was repeated and invoked in various other UN resolutions over the ensuing decades until the September 11th attacks brought new urgency to the issue of terrorism. Then Secretary General Kofi Annan urged the adoption of a general treaty against terrorism, but the Islamic Conference would have none of it, insisting, as the Washington Post reported at the time, “that anti-Israeli militants be exempted.” As the Pakistani ambassador put it three years later, when the watered-down resolution finally passed: “We ought not, in our desire to confront terrorism, erode the principle of the legitimacy of national resistance that we have upheld for fifty years.” Thus Annan’s efforts were thwarted, and on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, his successor, Ban Ki-moon, lamented that the UN still had not been able to adopt a treaty against terrorism.

As if the General Assembly’s topsy-turvy stance on terrorism were not enough, the UN Commission on Human Rights went even further, affirming that Palestinian terrorism (i.e., “resist[ing] Israeli occupation” by “all available means, including armed struggle”) was not only “legitimate” but even a means of “fulfilling . . . one of the goals and purposes of the United Nations.”

This was only a particularly tangy example of the commission’s well-articulated system of double standards where the Jewish state was involved. The governments that most egregiously abused or repressed their citizens escaped year after year without a word of censure. Indeed many of them—the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, and others of their ilk—were members of the commission. Occasionally, a dictatorship that had become politically isolated, such as, say, Burma’s, would suffer the indignity of a single diplomatically worded resolution chiding it for misdeeds. Meanwhile, at every session some five to eight separate resolutions would excoriate Israel.

This bias also infused other UN activities conducted in the name of human rights. The UN’s 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, was so extreme in its anti-Israel focus and tone that Secretary of State Colin Powell ordered the US delegation to leave. Israel was front and center; the actions of Hutus toward Tutsis or Turks toward Kurds or Russians toward Chechens or Serbs toward Albanians or scores of other cases of inter-group conflict that might also have been on the agenda were not mentioned. When a resolution decrying bigotry was adopted, a proposal to include anti-Semitism on the list of proscribed prejudices almost was turned aside.

Eventually, the hypocrisy that had become the hallmark of the Commission on Human Rights so alarmed Kofi Annan that he said it cast “a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole.” At Annan’s initiative, the commission was replaced in 2006 by the Human Rights Council, which was designed with somewhat different rules of selection and procedure intended to make the body more faithful to its mission than its predecessor. But these hopes were to be disappointed badly on all counts. Most of the world’s worst human-rights abusers never have suffered even mild rebuke, while Israel continues to be chastised as often as all of the rest of the countries combined and in terms more condemnatory.

The new council, like the commission before it, includes the “Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories” as a separate agenda item at every meeting, while no other country or situation is treated in this way. Indeed, all of the other countries of the world together constitute a single other point on the agenda, as do various thematic and administrative issues, such as “racism” and periodic reports from the high commissioner for human rights. In 2007, the council mandated a follow-up conference to the 2001 Durban confab against racism, selecting Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government in Libya to chair the preparatory committee.

The council’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, a Swiss sociologist and activist, concentrated primarily on castigating Israel for allegedly depriving the people of Gaza of nourishment, although he also found time to denounce the “imperialist dictatorship” that rules the United States for “genocide” of Cubans by means of its embargo.


While it is true that most UN bodies are devoid of practical power and cannot enforce their resolutions, this endless drumbeat, from one body to the next, from one corner of the world to another, singling out Israel as the pariah among nations, shapes the political environment in which Israel must live, trade, defend itself, and pursue peace with its neighbors. Moreover, to dismiss the UN as a feckless “talk shop” is to overlook those of its actions that do indeed have practical consequences. The Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Population of the Occupied Territories has produced little. But two other bodies, also dedicated entirely to the question of Israel and Palestine (and also having no analog regarding any other countries), have had a major impact.

The first, created in 1975, is the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. Whereas the “special committee” is only a whip to lacerate Israel, this one has the broader, more affirmative mandate of helping the Palestinians to achieve their larger goals. That goal, for some Palestinians, may be a state alongside Israel. But for many it remains what it was at the outset of this committee’s work—a state in place of Israel.

Of the twenty member states appointed to this body, eighteen had voted in favor of the resolution equating Zionism and racism, and sixteen refused to have diplomatic relations with Israel. The PLO, which was of course not a member of the UN and was still associated with terrorism, was nonetheless appointed a member of the drafting committee that wrote the larger committee’s first report.

This report emphasized that all Palestinian refugees from 1948 and after had an “absolute” and “inalienable right to return to their homes.” It made clear that the importance of this right was not humanitarian but political—“a condition sine qua non for the exercise by this people of its rights to self-determination, national independence, and sovereignty.” The language was a little dense, but its implications were clear. A people can exercise “self-determination” and “sovereignty” within a given territory only by ruling that territory. The point in this case was that all “Palestine,” apparently including Israel, belonged by right to the Palestinian Arabs. Not a word was to be found in the twenty-three-page document of any right possessed by Israelis or Jews.

This report, issued in May 1976, was only a starting point. Unlike most UN committees, this one was given a staff, which grew by 1979 into a special division within the UN Secretariat, the Division for Palestinian Rights. With some two dozen employees and a budget of millions, this office has functioned for more than three decades as a permanent, round-the-clock boiler room for anti-Israel propaganda and organizing.

Among its other projects, this division sponsors an annual day of “solidarity with the Palestinian people,” observed at UN offices worldwide on the anniversary of the UN’s 1947 resolution proposing to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, an idea rejected by the Arabs at that time. The spirit of the occasion was expressed, for example, in the highlight of the 2011 commemoration at the UN’s New York headquarters (others were held in Geneva and Vienna), a screening of the film La Terre Parle Arabe. According to its publicity materials, this documentary reveals that “well before the Balfour Declaration . . . Zionist leaders” plotted to “transfer . . . the Palestinians out of their land [by] all possible means.”

In May each year, the committee joins in yet another ritual lamentation of Israel’s existence, the annual observance of Nakba Day, the anniversary of Israel’s statehood, which is commemorated as a “catastrophe” (nakba) by the Palestinians.

Perhaps more important than these observances are the committee’s quarterly conferences, each one in a different city, bringing together as many as four to five hundred participants (at UN expense). Each year, one of the meetings focuses on civil society, and in 2004 it endorsed a boycott of Israeli goods. The 2005 gathering went further, concluding with a ringing “Call to Action” that endorsed a “global campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel to end the occupation and fully comply with international law and all relevant United Nations resolutions.” This appeal was reiterated in subsequent years, thus putting the prestige of the UN, as well as millions of dollars in resources, behind the global campaign to ostracize and materially damage Israel.

But the largest material impact that the UN has on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and other Arabs is through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. When UNRWA was created in 1949, its original purpose, as seen by the Americans who conceived it, was to provide temporary succor to those who were uprooted by the war that marked Israel’s birth. At almost the same time, another UN agency was created, the High Commissioner for Refugees, designed to assist persons who remained displaced from World War II. Although both UNRWA and the High Commissioner were created as short-term projects, both have endured in perpetuity.

There is, however, a critical difference. Over the decades, the High Commissioner has moved on from one group of refugees to another, helping them to rebuild their lives, either through repatriation or resettlement. After dealing successfully with the refuges from World War II, the UNHCR’s next concern was Hungarians fleeing the Soviet invasion of their country in 1956. Then came the spillover from Algeria’s war of independence, and then other crises in Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and eventually even Europe again, with the Balkan crisis of the 1990s.

But while the UNHCR has a staff of under eight thousand, serving nearly thirty-four million “people of concern,” the UNRWA reports it has a staff of thirty thousand, serving five million—in other words, four times as many staff for one-seventh as many beneficiaries. The essential reason for these differences is that according to its statute, “the work of the High Commissioner shall be of an entirely non-political character; it shall be humanitarian and social.” But the work of UNRWA is wholly political, and only incidentally humanitarian.

The General Assembly resolution creating the UNHCR called on all states to “promot[e] the assimilation of refugees, especially by facilitating their naturalization.” The Arab states, except for Jordan, ignored this injunction precisely because they wished Israel to disappear and therefore insisted that all Arabs who had fled or been expelled must be repatriated. They insistently pointed to a 1948 General Assembly decision, Resolution 194, which specified that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”

Not only did the Arab states thus wish to pick and choose among General Assembly resolutions, but their insistence that Resolution 194 conferred a “right of return” ignored its qualifying phrase “wishing to . . . live at peace with their neighbors.” There was of course no “practicable” way that Israel or anyone else could sort individuals by this criterion in the absence of an overall reconciliation between Jews and Arabs. In any event, the Arabs themselves insisted that the refugees be treated not as individuals but “as a group,” and that group was not prepared to make peace with Israel, thus rendering Resolution 194 moot in this case.

The Arabs’ view that the refugee question was political rather than humanitarian prevented UNRWA from concentrating resources on those most in need. Such efforts met objections from the Arab host countries and Palestinian leaders. They insisted that the refugees were entitled to the benefits offered by UNRWA regardless of individual circumstance.

James G. Lindsay, the former general counsel of UNRWA, notes that “it was clear from the beginning that rations were not desperately needed by all UNRWA beneficiaries—some refugees, for example, sold or ‘rented’ their ration cards to merchants, who . . . resold them on the open market.” Yet when donors pressed for a more focused use of their largesse, “the refugees, including UNRWA local staff, insisted that general distribution of rations continue, viewing the program as a guarantor of recipients’ well being, as ‘an acquired right,’ and as a reflection of the international community’s political commitment to them.”

The same point is underscored by the living arrangements of the Palestinians served by UNRWA. In the early years, these were camps, mostly of tents. Later the “camps” became small shantytowns or poor neighborhoods. But according to UNRWA, by 2011 only 1.4 million of the five million Palestinians registered with the agency lived in these “camps.” The rest—nearly three-fourths—“live in and around the cities and towns of the host countries, and in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” Nonetheless, they receive rations, medical care, education, and other services from the UN.

So the question arises: By what token are these five million, perhaps five percent of whom were alive in 1948, refugees? The answer is that UNRWA deems as “refugees” not only those who fled but their descendants, now comprising three or even four additional generations. Nowhere else in the world are refugees counted in this manner. The sole reason why these five million—or ninety-five percent of them—are treated as “refugees” is to keep alive the Palestinian “right of return,” which amounts to the end of Israel. Were it not for this, the Palestinian case would have been among the easiest to solve of the world’s many refugee problems, since the surrounding countries share language, faith, and culture with the Palestinians. Resettlement would have been far easier, for example, than Israel’s integration of an equal or larger number of Jews fleeing or expelled from the Arab countries at the same time, whose language was not Hebrew but Arabic.

In sum, Ban Ki-moon’s extraordinary confession last August afforded a fleeting glance into a sordid picture. By its countless one-sided resolutions and numerous “investigations” of Israel with predetermined results; by providing a global infrastructure for the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel; and by UNRWA, which sustains the idea of the “right of return,” the UN has served systematically to challenge Israel’s legitimacy and weaken its global position—a damaging and malign role entirely at odds with the UN’s founding purposes.

Joshua Muravchik is a fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a frequent contributor to World Affairs. His new book, Making David into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel, from which this is adapted, will be published next year.


Photo Credit: Escla 

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