Thursday, September 24, 2009

A great American Democrat speaks to the United Nations

I thought of this when I saw the despicable Muammar Gaddafi and the dangerous Mahmoud Ahmadinejad holding forth at the UN. Not much has changed at the UN General Assembly in three decades, since that great American, proud Democrat, and captivating speaker, Daniel Patrick Moyhihan, gave the dictators and despots of that time (who included Gaddafi even then, God help us) hell. But one thing has changed. They're not making them like Pat Moynihan anymore.

It was November 10, 1975. The United Nations General Assembly had just approved by a vote of 72 to 35 and 32 abstentions the infamous Resolution 3339, which condemned Zionism as a form a racism. The resolution was the culmination of a Soviet Bloc push that began on the heels of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war to forge an anti-Israel coalition of Arab, African and Communist nations. After Israeli Ambassador Chaim Herzog brilliantly defended his nation and the Zionist movement and devastatingly excoriated supporters of the resolution, then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and future U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan delivered a blistering attack on the 72 nations that voted yes. Some said it was undiplomatic of him. UN member states would take offense. Perhaps, they would like the US less. Nonetheless, this is part of what Pat Moynihan said, because it needed to be said:

The United States rises to declare before the General Assembly of the United Nations, and before the world, that it does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.


There will be time enough to contemplate the harm this act will have done the United Nations. Historians will do that for us, and it is sufficient for the moment only to note the foreboding fact. A great evil has been loosed upon the world. The abomination of anti-semitism--as this year's Nobel Peace Laureate Andrei Sakharov observed in Moscow just a few days ago--the Abomination of anti-semitism has been given the appearance of international sanction. The General Assembly today grants symbolic amnesty--and more--to the murderers of the six million European Jews. Evil enough in itself, but more ominous by far is the realization that now presses upon us--the realization that if there were no General Assembly, this could never have happened.

As this day will live in infamy, it behooves those who sought to avert it to declare their thoughts so that historians will know that we fought here, that we were not small in number--not this time--and that while we lost, we fought with full knowledge of what indeed would be lost.


The proposition to be sanctioned by a resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations is that ``Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.'' Now this is a lie.


What we have here is a lie--a political lie of a variety well known to the twentieth century, and scarcely exceeded in all that annal of untruth and outrage. The lie is that Zionism is a form of racism. The overwhelmingly clear truth is that is it not.


Now I should wish to be understood that I am here making one point, and one point only, which is that whatever else Zionism may be, it is not and cannot be ``a form of racism.'' In logic, the State of Israel could be, or could become, many things, theoretically, including many things undesirable, but it could not be and could not become racism unless it ceased to be Zionist.
Indeed, the idea that Jews are a ``race'' was invented not by Jews but by those who hated Jews.... It was a contemptible idea at the beginning, and no civilized person would be associated with it. To think that it is an idea now endorsed by the United Nations is to reflect on what civilization has come to.

It is precisely a concern for civilization, for civilized values that are or should be precious to all mankind, that arouses us at this moment to such special passion. What we have at stake here is not merely the honor and the legitimacy of the State of Israel--although a challenge to the legitimacy of any member nation ought always to arouse the vigilance of all members of the United Nations. For a yet more important matter is at issue, which is the integrity of the whole body of moral and legal precepts which we know as human rights.

The terrible lie that has been told here today will have terrible consequences. Not only will people begin to say, indeed they have already begun to say that the United Nations is a place where lies are told, but far more serious, grave and perhaps irreparable harm will be done to the cause of human rights itself. The harm will arise first because it will strip from racism the precise and abhorrent meaning that it still precariously holds today. How will the people of the world feel about racism and the need to struggle against it, when they are told that it is an idea as broad as to include the Jewish national liberation movement?

As the lie spreads, it will do harm in a second way. Many of the members of the United Nations owe their independence in no small part to the notion of human rights, as it has spread from the domestic sphere to the international sphere exercised its influence over the old colonial powers. We are now coming into a time when that independence is likely to be threatened again. There will be new forces, some of them arising now, new prophets and new despots, who will justify their actions with the help of just such distortions of words as we have sanctioned here today. Today we have drained the word ``racism'' of its meaning. Tomorrow, terms like ``national self-determination'' and ``national honor'' will be perverted in the same way to serve the purposes of conquest and exploitation. And when these claims begin to be made--as they already have begun to be made--it is the small nations of the world whose integrity will suffer. And how will the small nations of the world defend themselves, on what grounds will others be moved to defend and protect them, when the language of human rights, the only language by which the small can be defended, is no longer believed and no longer has a power of its own?

There is this danger, and then a final danger that is the most serious of all. Which is that the damage we now do to the idea of human rights and the language of human rights could well be irreversible.

The idea of human rights as we know it today is not an idea which has always existed in human affairs, it is an idea which appeared at a specific time in the world, and under very special circumstances. It appeared when European philosophers of the seventeenth century began to argue that man was a being whose existence was independent from that of the State, that he need join a political community only if he did not lose by that association more than he gained. From this very specific political philosophy stemmed the idea of political rights, of claims that the individual could justly make against the state; it was because the individual was seen as so separate from the State that he could make legitimate demands upon it.

That was the philosophy from which the idea of domestic and international rights sprang. But most of the world does not hold with that philosophy now. Most of the world believes in newer modes of political thought, in philosophies that do not accept the individual as distinct from and prior to the State, in philosophies that therefore do not provide any justification for the idea of human rights and philosophies that have no words by which to explain their value. If we destroy the words that were given to us by past centuries, we will not have words to replace them, for philosophy today has no such words.

But there are those of us who have not forsaken these older words, still so new to much of the world. Not forsaken them now, not here, not anywhere, not ever.

The United States of America declares that it does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.

It took relentless efforts by the US and the West to get R. 3339 rescinded finally in 1991. In the intervening 16 years, the UN -- at least, the General Assembly -- lost a great deal of its credibility, trust and support. Naturally, its effectiveness in helping to secure peace waned as confidence in it drained.

The lesson most of us -- Democrats and Republicans -- took from the confrontation over R. 3339 was that American diplomacy must be tough smart, but also moral and rooted in principles -- our principles. We should never give that up -- or fail to honor our obligations to allies -- in the name of better relations with one or another thuggish regime.

Pat Moynihan understood that. Pity there aren't more like him.

What do you think? Post a comment.


  1. Great man, great speech.

  2. I miss Pat Moynihan. The average IQ of the Senate dropped at least ten points when he retired.