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When Daniel Moynihan Stood Tall at the UN

An interview with historian Gil troy on his new book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism and Racism.”
Daniel Moynihan

Daniel Moynihan

On November 10, 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 3379, declaring Zionism a form of racism. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the United States ambassador to the UN at the time, rose after the resolution passed and proclaimed, “The United States…does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.”

A new book by historian Gil Troy, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism and Racism” (Oxford University Press), traces Moynihan’s fight against Resolution 3379 as well as its impact on American foreign policy and Moynihan’s subsequent 24-year career as a New York senator.

The author of eight previous books, Gil Troy is a professor at McGill University, a fellow at the Hartman Institute, and a columnist for The Jerusalem Post. An interview with his brother Tevi Troy – a fellow at the Hudson Institute and an adviser to Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign – appeared in The Jewish Press on December 7.

The Jewish Press: Why did you write this book?

Troy: First of all, when I was growing up, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was my hero and I remembered Moynihan’s moment standing up [for Israel in the UN]. And as an American historian, I was surprised that this moment – which to me was a critical turning point in America’s relationship to the UN and the world – was barely mentioned in books about the 1970s.

When the General Assembly passed this infamous act, it was six months after the fall of South Vietnam. It was a moment of tremendous American demoralization. Moynihan spoke a language that inspired Americans. In fact, it inspired Ronald Reagan, who quoted Moynihan in his speeches on the campaign trail in 1976 when he ran against Gerald Ford.

Why did the UN proclaim Zionism a form of racism? Was it already so anti-Israel in 1975?

The UN had started turning anti-Israel in the 1960s. I interviewed George Will for the book, and he said Israel made a tremendous mistake in 1967: It dared to win at a time when the Left was falling in love with victims.

The interesting thing about Resolution 3379 is that it was a fallback. The original idea was to kick Israel out of the UN. That ran into the opposition, though, of Henry Kissinger and many Asian and African countries that were new members of the United Nations and didn’t want to start making membership in the United Nations something that was debatable.

You write in the book that Moynihan fought Resolution 3379, not out of love for Israel but love for America. Can you explain?

Moynihan comes in as UN ambassador in 1975 saying, “Israel is not my religion.” But he sees that the new way of humiliating the United States is Israel, and it offends his sensibilities. It plays into his fears of where the Third World and the UN is going, and so he says this is unacceptable.

You also write that at the same time the UN was debating whether Zionism was racism, a genocide was under way in Cambodia which the UN was ignoring.

Absolutely, and that’s part of the reason why I call November 10, 1975 the day the UN died.

Although Henry Kissinger, secretary of state at the time, opposed Resolution 3379, he didn’t fully support Moynihan’s campaign against it. Why not?

Kissinger was more from the realist school rather than the idealist school that Moynihan was from. He wanted a quieter, softer diplomacy, so he found Moynihan a bit of the bull in the diplomatic china shop. To my shock, I found transcripts where Kissinger literally says to one of his foreign aides, “We’re conducting foreign policy here. This isn’t a synagogue.”

In fairness to Kissinger, the Americans saw Egypt in the process of leaving the Soviet orbit after the 1973 war. Kissinger – and the Israelis – saw Resolution 3379 as a line in the sand that the Palestinians, Libyans and Syrians were drawing to force Egypt to vote with them and thus keep Egypt alienated from the West. So Kissinger and the Israelis didn’t want to overreact because they thought from a geo-strategic global perspective, it was better to have Egypt come into the American camp.

Kissinger also wanted to make friends with the Third World, and so he was annoyed by this “Zionism is racism” thing. He wanted to be fighting on other fronts.

Finally, Kissinger had established himself as a German-American intellectual and was uncomfortable with his Jewish identity. Like so many of us in the 1960s and ‘70s, he understood that the best way to get ahead was by not emphasizing his Jewishness. He didn’t want to be the Jewish secretary of state. He wanted to be the American secretary of state. So this whole thing stirs a hornet’s nest of discomfort.

One of the surprising stories in this book is Betty Friedan. Most people just know her as a feminist, but she actually, as you write, was something of a Zionist as well.

In July 1975, the International Women’s Year Conference came out against Zionism and, given the discourse among many feminists today about Zionism, I had assumed before writing this book that Betty Freidan had rolled over and embraced that idea.

I’m very happy to say, though, that I discovered this whole story of Betty Freidan, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, and Bella Abzug – joined by non-Jewish American feminists – who opposed the conference’s resolution against Zionism. And on November 11, 1975 when [Jewish groups organized] this huge rally in midtown Manhattan against Resolution 3379, Betty Friedan was the surprise guest speaker. She got up and said for the first time publicly: “I am a Zionist.”

This is something that really affected her soul and shook her up. It’s important for us to learn that story.

Going back to the United Nations: Many people today take it for granted that the UN is anti-West. In your book, though, you write that Americans were actually in love with the UN when it was first founded.

It’s like a messy divorce where people forget they were once in love. The UN in 1945 was supposed to be the mechanism that was going to bring peace and world order. There was this redemptive, almost messianic quality of the conversation about the UN in 1945. I remember people in my neighborhood would trick-or-treat for UNICEF.

So what happened?

First, by getting involved in Vietnam, the United States lost its credibility with much of the world.

But the two more important things are the growth in UN membership and the Soviet ascendancy. The UN grew from 40 or so nations in 1945 to 142 in 1975. [These new members included many] Third World countries with dictators who started using the very democratic rights and procedures that most of them didn’t give their own people to assert themselves in the UN. And the people who [took advantage of] this were the Soviets who started realizing that the UN can become a new arena in which to fight the West.

In the first 20 years of the UN’s existence, the Soviets were actually known as the veto people. Andrei Gromyko, who was the Soviet ambassador to the UN, was known as “Mr. Nyet.” But by the 1970s, you start seeing the U.S. for the first time using its veto in the Security Council and being outvoted in the General Assembly.

What did the Third World have against America? Why would it vote against it in the UN?

It’s complicated. If you look at the Kennedy administration, the Third World was in love with America. But things changed due to Soviet manipulation, America’s involvement in Vietnam, and ironically enough America’s own internal rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s. Elite Americans, especially on the far left, started trashing America.

And if America itself has voices saying that America is an evil, imperialist, racist, colonialist country, then the Third Worlders – manipulated by the Soviet propagandists – say the same thing.

Moynihan saw this turn against the United States in the UN and said, “Let’s acknowledge it. Rather than appeasing, let’s start doing something. Let’s link our foreign aid to voting records in the UN. What kind of people have we become that we continue to pump money into countries that disrespect and betray us in the UN?”

For many liberals today, bashing America is something of a fad. Moynihan, interestingly, was a liberal and yet decried this practice. You quote him as saying, “It is past time we ceased to apologize for an imperfect democracy. Find its equal.”

Right, that’s one of his classic lines. Moynihan was fighting a double fight. On the one hand, he was fighting the Third World, the Soviets, and American diplomats who were appeasing them. But he was also fighting the Left. He was a man of deep liberal principles, and he sees this New Left breaking away from core liberal values of universal ideals and human rights. It’s one of the things that scared him about the 1960s.

On December 16, 1991, the UN officially reversed itself and “revoked the determination contained in its resolution 3379.” What led the UN to change its mind?

This is a great and important story today when we so often get discouraged. Everyone told the Jewish community that the General Assembly does not repeal resolutions. The General Assembly had never gone back on any of its resolutions.

But Moynihan, Israeli President Chaim Herzog, Ronald Reagan, Bibi Netanyahu, and the American Jewish community pushed. They didn’t succeed, but they kept on trying. David Harris of the American Jewish Committee called it “nudnik diplomacy.”

And then under George H. W. Bush, in a remarkable moment of bipartisanship, the resolution was repealed. The Soviet Union was weeks away from falling, and the Jewish community cleverly framed this as a declaration of independence of Soviet influence. They made this a moment of healing, and it worked.

Resolution 3379 was passed 37 years ago and repealed 21 years ago. Why should anyone care about these events today?

Three reasons. First, it’s an inspirational moment. It teaches us that activism counts and that we can win this fight.

Second, unfortunately the great big lie that Zionism is racism lives, and we have a responsibility to understand it.

And the third reason is that we have to learn some of the lessons of the book. One is that we saw this tremendous support on the part of the American people for Israel and the Jewish people in 1975. That’s a unique bipartisan relationship, and it’s not manipulated by a lobby. It’s what I call grassroots, not Astroturf. So we learn that the fight against the delegitimization of Israel must be a core value that unites left and right. It should not be a right-wing issue. It must be a left-right issue.

Editor’s note: Elliot Resnick’s recently-published interview collection – “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” – is available on BrennBooks.com and Amazon.com; in bookstores; and through The Jewish Press.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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