However the U.N. World Conference Against Racism turns out, it will go down in history as the occasion when the idea of Zionism as racism was nearly revived. On Monday of this week, American and Israeli delegates walked out of the Durban, South Africa, gathering after failing to change resolutions branding Israel as "racist." On Wednesday France warned that it and the other members of the European Union were considering doing the same. But even if they don't, the condemnations of Zionism inserted in the conference's draft resolution at the behest of the Palestinians should not have been so difficult to expunge.
The fiasco has many proximate causes, most notably heightened tensions of late between Israel and the Palestinians. But to understand how Durban happened, it helps to return to the fall of 1975.
Twenty-six years ago, Middle East hostilities were more bitter than they are today. There were no peace treaties, and the region's geopolitical alignment had congealed along Cold War lines. Israel, after early socialist sympathies, stood solidly with the West. The oil-rich Arab states, once prospective American allies, had firmed up their ties to the Communist world. The exception was Anwar Sadat's Egypt, which had broken with the Soviet Union and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War was inching, nudged by the United States, toward recognizing Israel.
An Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty would have dealt a blow to both Arab unity and Soviet regional influence, and the prospect of such an accord was partly what sparked the trouble in the summer of 1975. The handwriting first appeared in July, when a U.N. conference on women's rights issued a declaration that called for the elimination of "Zionism, apartheid, [and] racial discrimination." Throughout the summer, Soviet and Arab diplomats made noises about ousting Israel from the world body when the General Assembly convened for its 30th annual session that fall. Increasingly, other Third World or "non-aligned" countries—some Islamic nations, some former colonies that viewed Israel as an outpost of Western imperialism—showed a willingness to go along.
Sure enough, on Oct. 1, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who was serving as the head of the Organization for African Unity, spoke to the General Assembly and called for the "extinction of Israel as a state." He urged Americans "to rid their society of the Zionists," who he said controlled the country's banks and news media and had turned the CIA into a "murder squad to eliminate any form of just resistance anywhere in the world." Amin's remarks drew a standing ovation from the U.N. delegates and he was feted by U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.
In previous years, such Third World mischief had met with only pro forma reproofs from American diplomats fearful of antagonizing the non-aligned states. But the new U.N. ambassador, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, deplored the State Department's customary go-along, get-along style as a kind of appeasement. Indeed, the previous March, after stepping down as ambassador to India, he had published a controversial article in Commentary titled "The United States in Opposition."
The piece argued that the United States, chastened by the Vietnam War and other misbegotten adventures, had too long tolerated Third World attacks on America, the West, and liberal democracy. Such passivity encouraged the worst instincts of these regimes—most of which were authoritarian in nature—and confined America to a defensive posture in multilateral arenas. Moynihan called on American leaders not to withdraw from international challenges but rather to speak out against the "tyranny of the U.N.'s 'new majority' " of post-colonial states.
After Amin's speech, Moynihan put his views into practice. He conspicuously boycotted Waldheim's banquet, dining at the home of journalist Teddy White instead. The next day, in a speech to the AFL-CIO, he endorsed a New York Times editorial's description of Amin as a "racist murderer" (Amin had had tens of thousands of innocents killed). Moynihan argued that tyrants, in the Communist and Third Worlds alike, wished to annihilate liberal democracies like Israel because they posed a threat. Overnight the ambassador became a target of vilification around the world.
The Amin affair, however, was just Round 1. The real fight came when Cuba, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and South Yemen introduced a resolution into the United Nations' Third Committee censuring Zionism as a form of discrimination. Arab spokesmen claimed that Zionism demanded not just the ingathering of Jewry to Israel but also the displacement of Arabs from the same land. By allowing Jews from any nation to claim Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return while forbidding the return of Palestinians displaced in the 1948 war, Israel, they said, was practicing racism.
Despite an effort by European and moderate African nations to table the measure, it passed the committee on Oct. 17, 70-29, with 27 abstentions. The General Assembly planned to entertain it three weeks later.
In the United States, Israel, and elsewhere, the equation of Zionism with racism was denounced as absurd and Orwellian. Zionism, Moynihan and others noted, was Jewish nationalism, the movement to provide a safe haven for a long-persecuted people. It was the anti-Israel bloc, they noted, by singling out the Jewish people as uniquely unfit for nationhood, who were espousing racism.
But as Moynihan understood, the condemnation of Zionism was more than Arab-world Israel-bashing. The line emanated from Moscow. Marxism had always denied the legitimacy of ethnic nationalism, but after World War II, to deny the nationalist aspirations of the peoples who had come under Soviet dominion, Communist propaganda actively promoted the conflation of nationalism and racism. And when Soviet Jews began clamoring to emigrate, the USSR zeroed in on Zionism in particular, likening it to Nazism. Following these cues, Arab propaganda, which had once denounced Israel as a pawn of the Bolsheviks, now compared Israel's democracy (in which Arab citizens had civil rights and representation) to South Africa's apartheid regime and Nazi Germany.
By 1975 the idea gathered such momentum—unchecked by any American resistance—that even Moynihan's vigorous opposition was too little, too late. In the General Assembly on Nov. 10, the measure's foes gleaned a few extra votes, but it still passed 72-35, with 32 abstentions and three nations absent. Moynihan delivered a stirring philippic, stating, "The United States declares that it does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act." A year later he was elected to the Senate from New York.
Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Chaim Herzog, predicted that the anti-Zionist resolution wouldn't harm Israel but would discredit the United Nations. He was right. For 25 years, anti-U.N. sentiment in the United States swelled, not only among conservative isolationists, as it had in the past, but also, increasingly, among the liberal internationalists who had always given the body its support.
The demise of Soviet communism offered a chance to improve U.S.-U.N. relations. And in 1991, following the Gulf War and the Soviet Union's collapse, the United States managed to repeal the Zionism-is-racism resolution. But global hegemony turned out to be less a blessing than a curse for America, which now stood alone as the object of developing-world envy. When the Bush administration assumed power in January, it openly disdained the Clinton administration's efforts to work in multilateral forums and announced plans to withdraw from or not sign a handful of treaties. Whatever opportunity might have existed to avert a showdown at the long-scheduled Durban conference was missed.
But in the end the Bush administration bears only a small portion of the blame for the Durban disaster. It is merely caught in a maelstrom that began more than 25 years ago and, for the time being at least, shows no signs of abating.