Despite its charter’s solemn affirmation of “the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small,” the United Nations is the home of singular mistreatment for one member state, Israel, whose commitment to equality can rival that of virtually any country in the world.
The mistreatment of Israel manifests itself in myriad ways. A permanent Human Rights Council agenda item is dedicated to singling out Israel, alone among nations, for hostile scrutiny.
A U.N. “special rapporteur” is dedicated to publicizing only Israel’s alleged faults. In the case of the last person to hold that position, he overtly promoted economic warfare against Israel.
At least three entire U.N. bureaucratic bodies are dedicated to the worldwide advancement of Palestinian political goals and an anti-Israel narrative that is as simplistic as it is vile.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) routinely lambastes Israel over, for example, its stewardship of holy sites in Jerusalem (a setting, for all its challenges, of exceptional multi-religious vibrancy in the Middle East).
At the very same time, that agency – which Palestinians exploited by pressing for status as a “member state,” in order to evade direct peace negotiations with Israel – recklessly politicizes sacred places by recasting landmarks like Rachel’s Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as Palestinian and primarily Islamic.
Now, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is again threatening to expand his “internationalization of the conflict” with Israel by unilaterally enlarging Palestinians’ foothold in U.N. bodies that can then serve as political weapons against the Jewish state.
Although U.N. officials, like Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, should be expected to exercise principled leadership by speaking out unequivocally against all these abuses, such abuses are often driven by the U.N. voting membership, comprised in considerable part of Arab and aligned states. In the many areas where politics – not any sense of just, meaningful policymaking – carry the day, it is politics rather than rejection of discrimination that will prevail.
Sometimes, though, leaders like Ban are positioned to do more than raise objections. At times, they can, and must, implement actual changes for the sake of the U.N.’s own institutional credibility.
A case such as this is before us now, when a member of Ban’s own senior management team, Under-Secretary-General Rima Khalaf, is openly complicit not only in deplorable propagandizing against one nation in the international community, Israel, but also in demonstrating how effortlessly anti-Zionist incitement slides into anti-Jewish terrain.
In February, Khalaf, who serves as executive secretary of the U.N.’s Beirut-based Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, was in Tunisia to herald the release of a 310-page ESCWA report, “Arab Integration: A 21st Century Development Imperative.” Although the document’s name, size and official provenance would suggest a serious and forward-looking treatment of challenges in an Arab world beset by extensive political crisis and human suffering, the report represents yet one more misuse of vital resources to whitewash complexity and defer reconciliation.
It manages to invoke Israel over 150 times – yet, in decrying Israeli defense efforts and control of (some) Arab-claimed territory, there is not one mention of Hamas and Hezbollah, lethal terrorist movements that are directly responsible for these realities.
Although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has killed more Arab citizens in three years than any Israelis have since the development of modern Zionism well over 100 years ago, he too goes unmentioned.
And Iran, whose war with Iraq claimed as many as one million lives and whose aggressive nuclear pursuit has (rightly) alarmed Arab leaders like little else has, gets negligible attention.
By contrast, Israel is charged with posing a “nuclear threat” and a vague conspiracy to “divide the region into sectarian mini-States.”
Indeed, in all six instances where the grave crime of “ethnic cleansing” is alleged, it is democratic Israel – whose Muslim and Christian populations have risen continuously, in contrast to Jews and Christians elsewhere in the Middle East – that is the report’s target. And the report – which affords no attention to the dozens of countries whose state religion is, for instance, Islam – libelously claims that Israel has sought to be an “exclusive” Jewish country, thus promoting “the religious or ethnic purity of states, a concept that inflicted on humanity the worst crimes of the last century.”
As if this wasn't enough, the report also asserts that Adolf Hitler partnered with Zionism – whose supposed purpose was not to alleviate exile from a sole ancestral homeland but to “introduce an alien Jewish community in the heart of the Arab world.”
Further adding insult to injury, Khalaf’s report mentions not once but three times Israeli aspirations to “Judaize” Jerusalem – when “Judaizing” Jerusalem, Yerushalayim, would be virtually akin to “Islamicizing” Mecca.
None of this is to say that the ESCWA report could not have made a constructive contribution – and this is precisely the point: By trafficking in slurs that are tired but still incendiary, Khalaf’s organization condemns not merely Israelis but also her own Arab constituency to a future no better than the past. In turn, she helps to mire the United Nations in a place not simply of irrelevance but of malignance.
Last November, Ban visited Auschwitz. There, he said: “Never again.… For our shared future, let us embrace our common duty as members of the human family to build a world of peace, justice, equality and human dignity for all.”
These were fitting words from the chief executive of the United Nations, which itself rose from the ashes of the Holocaust.
Increasingly, however, some in the international community have embraced denunciation of historical acts of hate while disregarding Jews’ continuing struggle to exist in the very heart of Jewish civilization across time, Israel. Palestinian leader Abbas recently conceded the enormity of the Holocaust – only to then announce partnership with Hamas, which denies both that historic genocide and Israelis’ right to live today.
While truly important, no commemoration of the Holocaust can compensate for abetting new expressions of demonization and delegitimization. The U.N. secretary-general has an opportunity to start ridding his house – our collective house – of prejudice by beginning with his own cabinet.
Derelict in upholding the founding values of the United Nations, Rima Khalaf’s role should be assumed by someone else: someone offering Arabs, as well as their neighbors, a better way forward.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, which maintains full-time, accredited representation at U.N. bodies worldwide.