by Anne Bayefsky
On Monday, the United Nations marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp with a day-long special session of the U.N. General Assembly, followed by the opening of an exhibition. Throughout the event, the words "never again" were repeated many times. But what exactly did they mean to U.N. members and officials?
Here is the cynical response: They meant that the secretary-general has been seriously weakened by the Oil-for-Food scandal and ongoing congressional and criminal investigations, as well as the sexual abuse of refugees in the Congo by U.N. peacekeepers and the mishandling of sexual-harassment charges in-house. A secretary-general seeking to serve out his remaining two years in office finds throwing something toward the Jews, in the form of commemorating a 60-year-old catastrophe, a relatively inexpensive means of redemption.
The scope of the exercise was strictly controlled. The Europeans agreed to promote the special session on the condition that there were no resolutions and no final declaration — in other words no lasting statement of purpose or resolve. They were not prepared to do battle with Arab and Muslim states over texts or outcomes. Not a single substantive U.N. document was distributed. The ground rules for the special sessions of the General Assembly for the previous decade were completely different — this one would be "commemorative" only.
One hundred thirty-eight U.N. members agreed with the proposition to hold the special session, and one more decided to speak at the actual event. Of the remaining 50 U.N. members, half were from the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
U.N. member states delivered 41 speeches over the course of the day. Only five of those speeches mentioned Israel. Even the speeches of the United States, the European Union, Canada, and Australia failed to refer to Israel. Nobel-laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel, who spoke at the outset, mentioned Israel once; citing a number of examples of steps that the allies might have taken, he added "if Britain had allowed more Jews to return to Palestine, now Israel, their ancestral land...it would have prevented or reduced the scope of the tragedy." Weisel also called for condemnation and prosecution of suicide-terrorism as a crime against humanity (without mentioning the context).
An evening reception brought hundreds of Jews to the public entrance of the U.N. where an exhibit containing photographs and artwork from Yad Vashem was unveiled. Walking through it, one comes across the word "Israel" on one occasion, in the last sentence, which reads: "Most of the Holocaust survivors immigrated to the state of Israel after its establishment in 1945 following a resolution of the United Nations." When the exhibit was opened, the assembled crowd sang Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem — although this breach of U.N. protocol is said to have been approved on the grounds that the song was for all victims of the Holocaust.
The rules of the game were articulated by U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz while speaking on behalf of the United States: "We have agreed today to set aside contemporary political issues, in order to reflect on those events of 60 years ago in a spirit of unanimity." And except for an indirect comment by Jordan and a direct reference to Palestinians by Venezuela during the day's speeches, the game plan was followed.
The upshot? The United Nations looks better in the eyes of many. The secretary-general improved his image. Israel, the perpetual U.N.-loser, was queen-for-a-day.
But the nagging question is, where does this leave "never again"?
Widening the lens, we notice that last month the U.N. adopted 22 resolutions condemning the state of Israel, and four country-specific resolutions criticizing the human-rights records of the other 190 U.N. member states. Also in December the public entrance of the U.N. sported the annual solidarity with the Palestinian people exhibit, featuring a display about Palestinian humiliation at having to bare midriffs at Israeli checkpoints. (No mention was made of the purpose of the checkpoints or the Israelis who have died from suicide belts on Palestinians who circumvent them.) On exactly the same day that the secretary-general announced the holding of the commemorative session, January 11, 2005, he also pushed forward the U.N. plan to create a register of the Palestinian victims of Israel's non-violent security fence. (There are no plans to create a register of Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism.) In March the U.N. will begin its annual session of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, at which Israel will be the only U.N. member state not allowed to participate in full because U.N. states continue to prevent it from gaining equal membership in a regional group. The U.N. remains without a definition of terrorism, never having transformed the names of Palestinian terrorists from abstract entities into the targets of specific U.N. condemnation or consequences of any kind. And any day now we can expect the secretary-general to continue his pattern of denouncing Israel's lawful exercise of self-defense as "extrajudicial killing" or as a morally reprehensible contribution to "a cycle of violence." In other words, U.N. demonization of Israel and the green light to the killers of Israelis that such demonization portends will not skip a beat. This is the face of modern anti-Semitism.
Jews everywhere are indebted to the willingness and ability of Israelis to live and breathe self-determination. When contemporary political issues are set aside, and an affirmation of the centrality of the Jewish state's well-being to the Jewish people's well-being is not key to a commemoration of the Holocaust, "never again" is an empty phrase. Worse, situated in a place where a U.N. General Assembly resolution said Zionism was racism until 1991 and the 2001 U.N. Durban Declaration delivers the same message, it plays into the hands of those who would separate Jews from Israel for no other reason than to divide and conquer.
The speaker of the Italian senate, Marcello Pera, was the only non-Israeli participant who was prepared to stand against the wheeling and dealing in the backrooms, telling the General Assembly that the anti-Semitism of "today...feeds on...insidious distinctions...made between Israel and the Jewish state, Israel and its governments, Zionism and Semitism. Or...when the struggle for life led by...Israelis is labelled 'state terrorism.'"
The less-cynical response to our original question — about the meaning of "never again"? Some Holocaust survivors such as Nesse Godin and Congressman Tom Lantos were able to speak directly — during the unofficial lunchtime break organized by Bnai Brith, in a room far from the General Assembly. Some people listened. Some people heard. The pictures of Auschwitz are still in the front hall of the U.N. for a little while longer. A blow was struck against Holocaust deniers. And for one day, the democratic state of Israel was not the most reviled member of the U.N. (less than half of whose members can be called "free" according to Freedom House).
When all was said and done, however, the U.N. got a lot more than it gave. Improving the image of the U.N. and its secretary-general could prove more costly than Israelis have bargained.