Delegitimizing Israel Makes Peace Harder to Achieve

Gil Troy on the history of the U.N.'s infamous—and later repealed—"Zionism is racism" resolution, and why it still matters today.

Richard Drew / AP Photo

This spring, as radicals again mount anti-Israel “Apartheid weeks,” they fail to understand that demonizing Israel threatens the two-state solution. Accusations that Zionism is racism and attempts to compare Israel to the racist apartheid South African regime inflame and polarize, making peace more difficult to achieve. The first excerpt from “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” (with permission from Oxford University Press, 2013, all rights reserved), showed how the U.N.’s Zionism is Racism resolution emboldened Israel’s settlement movement. This second of two excerpts argues that advocates for a two-state solution should see delegitimizing Israel as an obstacle to peace. (And yes, delegitimizing Palestinians is equally harmful, but not the subject of this work).

On November 10, 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 with 72 delegates voting “yes,” 35 opposing, 32 abstaining, and 3 absent. In the world parliament’s dry, legalistic language, the resolution singled out one form of nationalism, Jewish nationalism, for unprecedented vilification. Soviet engineered, absolutist, and impervious to changing conditions, the Zionism-is-racism charge fused long-standing anti-Semitism with anti-Americanism, making it surprisingly potent in the post-1960s world, despite being a political chimera. In the Iliad, a Chimera is a grotesque animal jumble, “lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle.” To make Israel as monstrous, Resolution 3379 grafted allegations of racism onto the national conflict between Palestinians and Israel. This ideological hodgepodge racialized the attack on Israel and stigmatized Zionism, for race had been established as the great Western sin.

Criminalizing Zionism turned David into Goliath, deeming Israel the Middle East’s perpetual villain with the Palestinians the perennial victims. This great inversion culminated a process that began in 1967 with Israel’s imposing Six-Day War victory, followed by the Arab shift from conventional military tactics to guerilla and ideological warfare, especially after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Viewing Israel through a race-tinted magnifying lens exaggerated even minor flaws into seemingly major sins.

Soviet propagandists understood the power of manipulating words to trigger “Pavlovian” responses, the Princeton kremlinologist Robert Tucker observed. For them, the “ultimate weapon of political control would be the dictionary.” Terms like “racism,” “colonialism” and “imperialism” came straight out of the Communist playbook for demonizing enemies. These terms effectively obscured what was really occurring—a clash of nationalisms between two nations emerging following the collapse of two imperial powers, first the Ottoman Empire, then Great Britain.

For many Palestinians, frustrated, harassed, disappointed, bereft, exiled, feeling abandoned by the world, Resolution 3379 was a cure-all, the U.N.’s remedy for their suffering. Many advocates for Israel believed the Zionism-is-racism charge was the ideological equivalent of crack cocaine for Palestinians. It gave this depressed people a rush, made this powerless people feel strong. But its nasty side effects included endorsing a terrorist crime spree and encouraging an unhealthy zero sum approach on both sides. When one people’s poison is another’s antidote, the conflict feels irreconcilable.

Sixteen years later, after an impressive bipartisan effort in the U.S. and as Soviet Communism collapsed, Resolution 3379’s revocation was a strong link in a chain of good news that promised to transform the Middle East in the 1990s. Just as 3379 had emboldened the rejectionist front and the settlement movement, the repeal made Israelis feel less embattled and confident enough to compromise. By 1993, the world witnessed the unexpected scene of Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shaking hands awkwardly at a White House ceremony launching the Oslo Peace Process. The repeal “paved the way for a clear cut rejection of terrorism by the international community” and encouraged the “peace makers,” said Shimon Peres, the Oslo Accords’ architect. Academic experts subsequently called the repeal the noteworthy step in reaching “Oslo via Madrid.”

Still, the libel lived. Resolution 3379 “has never quite gone away,” David Malone, a veteran Canadian diplomat and president of the International Peace Academy from 1998 to 2004 would say a decade after the repeal, as what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “the big red lie” was resurrected at the Durban conference against racism. Those who called Zionism racism consistently interpreted Israeli policy toward the Palestinians malignantly, especially during times of tension. Malone also noted that the Arab masses’ “sense of powerlessness” to influence events was so great, that many took refuge in doing “what they can...at the rhetorical level.” Malone’s analysis helps explain the intense anti-Semitic imagery and verbal violence in Arab anti-Zionism.

The assault on Israel damaged the prospects for peace. Part of the Zionism-racism slur’s toxic quality was to attack Israel’s honor, a “crucial topic modern moral philosophy has neglected,” as the Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches. Accusations of dishonor demonize and demoralize, making it difficult to compromise, and sapping the motivation to act nobly. In first passing the resolution, then perpetuating the libel, the U.N. inflamed extremists from both sides. In 1980 the General Assembly’s temporary president, Salim Ahmed Salim of Tanzania, would insist that there was “no basis for compromise on the inhuman policies of apartheid in South Africa,” or with Israel.

Thrown into the Middle East pyre, the Zionism-racism charge has been an accelerant, angering, alienating, polarizing both sides. The accusation integrated every tension into a monolithic narrative of racism and delegitimization, which the Israeli-Palestinian violence exacerbated. By viewing Zionism as racism, many Palestinians saw Israelis harshly as cruel brutes. Attacking each nation’s character transcended anger at specific, changeable policies.

Those interested in making peace, therefore, must shift the debate from attacking the immutable character of the Israelis or the Palestinians to encouraging a change in actions, on both sides.