Is Zionism…Racism?: UN Resolution 3379

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On Nov 10, 1975, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 3379, determining that Zionism is “a form of racism and racial discrimination.” That’s quite a loaded description! In this episode, Noam Weissman breaks down what led to this infamous resolution, the UN’s relationship with Israel, and what it still means to us, almost 50 years later.

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Episode Transcript

In 2014, popular Israeli reggae band Hatikva 6 released the song “Hachi Israeli,” or “the most Israeli,” a catchy ode to all the things that give Israel its distinctive character: six-month post-Army trips to South Asia or South America; consistently being left out of the World Cup; and disregarding any and all social niceties, including waiting one’s turn in line. Too much? I kid.

As someone who has spent a lot of time in Israel, I can tell you: this is all pretty accurate. But for a song about Israel, it’s curiously apolitical. The group could have easily inserted another verse or two in there about the other things that make Israel so unique… like being the U.N.’s personal punching bag. 

Now, you may be a fan of the U.N. I’m not here to tell you that the U.N. is bad, nor am I here to tell you that its aims are somehow ignoble. I am here to discuss what I think was the single most devastating UN resolution to Israel and the Jewish people ever declared. 

Listen, it’s hard to deny that the supranational organization has an uneasy relationship with the world’s only Jewish state — an animus that significantly predates the 1967 war; the occupation, or “the occupation,” of the West Bank and Gaza; or any of the other controversies we see splashed across the headlines on a regular basis in 2021. The UN General Assembly has condemned Israel 17 times in the 75 years that the state has existed. To put that in context, they have condemned other countries, that are not Israel, only 6 times, TOTAL. 17 to 6. It’s almost laughable. In fact, Israeli politician Abba Eban once remarked dryly, “If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel has flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions.”

It’s funny, but there’s a grain of truth in it. 

And this is not a partisan discussion. Whether you’re Susan Rice (Democrat), Samantha Power (Democrat), John Bolton (Republican) or Nikki Haley (Republican), you’re kinda disappointed with how the UN deals with Israel.

So let’s rewind the clock, it’s November of 1975, and there’s a lot going on. The Vietnam War just ended. Israeli society is still healing from the devastation of the Yom Kippur War two years before. The G6 economic summit has its first session. The USSR and the USA still hate each other. And in New York, the United Nations “Determines that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”

How did this happen? And, why was this moment viewed as a deathblow to secular Zionism?

And to many of us, that sounds kinda crazy. But let’s take a step back. To even approach this conversation, I think we have to ask ourselves, well, what is Zionism, anyway? And if you’re googling the definition of Zionism in 2021, you’ll get all sorts of fun results. But Zionism has meant a lot of different things to different people. Just think of the Zionism of Theodore Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, Hayyim Nachman Bialik, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, heck, Maimonides, over 800 years ago!

Don’t go all nerd corner on me and tell me the movement of Zionism didn’t start until the late 19th century. We all know the yearning to return to the land of Israel has always been the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people for quite the while. And there are important elements of all of these Zionisms. But I think this is my basic understanding, one that, I think, I hope, all of these different people, and the schools of thought that emerged from them, would agree on. Yes, the State of Israel has something called the Law of Return, which gives every Jew the right to move to Israel (it’s a safe haven, make sure to watch our video which is in the show notes) and yes, Israel is indeed a Jewish country (but not in a religiously domineering way and has quite the mosaic of peoples and religions there represented in all forms of government, hello Naftali Bennett and Mansour Abbas). Does Israel struggle with racial inequalities like any other country? Sure. 

But let’s move past this for now and define Zionism. Here’s how I see Zionism. Zionism is the national liberation project of the Jewish people, through autonomy in their ancient homeland. Of course, I’m making it seem so simple, and it’s not, and it’s morphed, and could be debated until the end of time. But let’s use this as a working definition of Zionism.

So… what gives, U.N.? Is Jewish self-determination racist?

In what has become a long-standing theme of this podcast, and of Israeli history generally, there’s a lot more to the story. And I think, to understand the passing of UN Resolution 3379 – Zionism is Racism – there are three major players we need to understand. The first is the USSR. Remember, it’s 1975. We are smack in the middle of the Cold War, and it won’t be over for 16 bitter years. The second is the Arab world, which is relishing its economic power in the wake of its oil embargo in 1973 and 74. And finally, the third is African states. In 1975, we’re at the tail end of decolonization, and African states throwing off the yoke of Europe — which had surprising implications for Israel.

But first things first. Let’s start with the Soviets. The U.S.S.R was initially sympathetic to the fledgling Jewish state, excited by its socialist aspirations and especially its establishment of kibbutzim. In 1949, the head of the Israeli Workers’ Party, Mapam, even reportedly said during a debate in the Knesset: “For us, the Soviet Union is the fortress of world socialism, it is our second homeland, the socialist one.”

But those two crazy kids just couldn’t make it work. By the 1950s, the U.S.S.R — never a particularly friendly place to its Jews — is like, totally over Zionism. The government soon launched a propaganda campaign linking Judaism, Zionism, and all the world’s evils. According to one Ukranian broadcast in 1959,  “Judaic sermons are the sermons of bourgeois evils!” In 1961, a newspaper article declared that “the character of the Jewish religion serves the political aims of the Zionists.” And what are those aims, you might ask? A 1963 article clarified: “Zionism is inseparably linked to Judaism… rooted in the idea of the exclusiveness of the Jewish people.” One 1967 article literally compared Zionism to “an international Cosa Nostra.” Cosa Nostra is Italian for “our thing.” Better known by its English name: the Mafia. 

See, the Soviets really didn’t like that Jews had “a thing.” They thought there was something problematic and “exclusive” about this shared Jewish identity that transcended borders, languages, and cultures. But it gets worse. It’s not just that the Soviet Union tried to erase all traces of a specifically Jewish identity. And it’s not just that they thought they were being real slick by replacing the word “Jews” with the word “Zionist” in their demented conspiracy theories. They even published screeds with titles like “Beware! Zionism!”, which contained such nuggets as:

“Zionist leaders had never viewed the creation of a “Jewish state” as an end in itself, but as a means for attaining other, bigger goals—the re-establishment of control over the Jewish people, the greatest possible enrichment for the sake of power and parasitical prosperity, and the defence and consolidation of imperialism.”

Charming.

And it gets even better, because the U.S.S.R wasn’t content to peddle this kind of stuff within its own borders. Nope, they actually set up a program that exported anti-Semitism around the world. A 1952 article in the JTA states that the U.S.S.R. exported Nazi films to Arab countries “to strengthen anti-Israel feeling in the Arab countries and to arouse Arab opinion against the West German-Israel restitution agreement.”

The animosity got worse after the Six Day War in 1967. In the words of historian Howard M. Sachar — “The Arab debacle was at once an economic, diplomatic, and political defeat for the Soviet Union itself. Fully $2 billion in Soviet military equipment was destroyed or captured by the Israeli armed forces.”

And the U.S.S.R really didn’t like being made to look foolish in front of its own satellite states. The Kremlin’s propaganda campaign against Jews was swift and vicious. Clearly, the Jews were acting with the aid of an “all-powerful international force.”  It’s not a particularly interesting or original anti-Semitic canard, as far as those go, but boy, was it effective — especially the part about how all the Jews wanted was “to subordinate the entire Islamic world.” The KGB chairman Yuri Andropov was explicit about the U.S.S.R’s aims: “We needed to instill a Nazi-style hatred for the Jews throughout the Islamic world, and to turn this weapon of the emotions into a terrorist bloodbath against Israel and its main supporter, the United States.” 

Not that the Arab states needed much encouragement. And that brings us to our second group of players – the Arab states. After Israel’s decisive victory in the Six Day War, eight Arab states — Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, Kuwait and Sudan — met in Khartoum to solidify what would become known as the three “No”s: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel. Ironically, the resolution itself was signed in a country that now recognizes Israel by three countries that maintain diplomatic ties with Israel. Miracles happen!

But in 1975, Israel’s neighbors had yet to make nice. They were riding the high of the Yom Kippur War, in which they had taken the young country by surprise and put it through its paces. And, at the same time, the Arab world was feeling itself — it had even managed to bring the world economy to its knees with its 1973 oil embargo. See, OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) didn’t like that the US — as well as other countries — supported Israel. So they cut oil production, and prices skyrocketed. And though the ban was lifted in 1974, in the wake of Israel’s pullout from the Sinai and the Golan Heights, the Arab nations were still very happy to denigrate Israel on the world stage. So the U.S.S.R’s anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic propaganda was basically preaching to the choir — not to mention that the Soviets were sending monthly cash payments of $200k to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. That probably helped too. 

Okay, so the Soviets are angry with Israel, as are the Arabs. But the third ally in the creation of UN Resolution 3379, the African states, might seem surprising. After all, why should the African nations care about the Jewish state?

Well, if you didn’t listen to our episode on Entebbe, go back and listen to it. If you did, you probably remember that actually, they cared a lot. African and Asian countries spent the 50s, 60s, and 70s throwing off the yoke of the metropole. But there was one African state whose native inhabitants spent 46 years under a brutally segregationist regime.

You’re listening to a podcast about Israeli history, so it’s unfortunately pretty likely you’ve heard the word “apartheid” thrown around casually — and maybe we’ll do a deep dive on the differences between apartheid South Africa and the democratic State of Israel. But for right now, what you need to know is that South Africa would continue its pitiless system of racial segregation — in which the country’s Black majority was continually subjugated, abused, and segregated by the white minority — until 1994, despite increasing international pressure throughout the 70s.

In 1973, the U.N.’s Special Committee on Apartheid released a report condemning South Africa’s government in the harshest terms and lambasting “States which, by their continued political, military, economic, and other collaboration with the South African regime, encourage it to persist in its inhuman and criminal policies.” 

The Arab states, sensing an opportunity, accused Israel of an “unholy alliance” with the apartheid regime, drawing a further parallel between Zionism as an instrument of imperialism and racial exclusion.

Of course, the term racism is going to ruffle some feathers, and of course the African bloc had a concrete reason to vote against racism. And if you’ve been hearing, over and over, that a tiny country thousands of miles away is founded on racial particularism and exclusion, financed by global imperialists, embroiled in an “unholy alliance” with an apartheid state — well, wouldn’t you also vote to condemn that country’s nationalist ideology as “racism”? Or, thinking more cynically — if you knew that the tide was turning against racist ideologies, wouldn’t you vote for every single resolution that condemned racism in the harshest terms, even if it maybe also included some inaccurate information? After all, you could imagine reasoning, isn’t any opportunity to condemn racism and bigotry critical to drawing attention to the very worthy cause of ending South African apartheid?

Not that every African country played this game, mind you. Liberia, for example, voted against the resolution. Its delegate explains why: “Anxiously, I waited in vain for a definition of Zionism as it relates to racism, but no definition was given.” I hear you, buddy, I’m waiting too.

Yet despite this courageous rebuttal, the resolution passed by a vote of 72-35 with 32 abstentions. And honestly, the text of the resolution itself is pretty boring. It reminds us that racism is bad, okay, good to know. And then ends with, “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Doesn’t define Zionism, doesn’t define racism, doesn’t give a reasoning at all. But that’s it. Resolution over.

Israelis and Jews across the world feel deflated, dejected and dismissed. Of all the world’s national movements, how and why could Zionism be singled out as racist?

For secular Zionism, this was a death blow. The whole ethos of Zionism went something like this. Anti-semitism persisted simply because the Jews were different than everyone else. If you give the Jewish people a state, then, well, the argument goes, they would become normal and treated like everyone else. And, poof, we’ll stop being demonized. 

I hope I did not come off as too sardonic saying it like that, but looking back on it, not sure Herzl got that prophecy perfectly accurate. 

As they say in Israel, chai baseret. In 1975, this idea was put to bed. Zionism, to quote Yossi Klein Halevi, “had been turned against itself: the very means for freeing the Jews from the ghetto had become the pretext for their renewed ghettoization.”

But, what happens in the halls of the U.N. doesn’t necessarily reflect popular sentiment. After the resolution was adopted, over 100,000 protesters flooded the streets of midtown Manhattan, decrying the UN’s racism and lamenting the very real impact of such a resolution on the Jews of the Soviet Union. And President Ford praised the protestors: “Your gathering here today is a reaffirmation of the American belief in justice and basic human values. I salute you for the depths of your conviction… We strongly deplore the linkage of Zionism and racism.” 

Meanwhile, Chaim Herzog — Israel’s ambassador to the UN, took the political theater a step further, tearing up the text of the resolution in front of a cheering crowd. Here’s a speech he gave criticizing the resolution right before it went to a vote, reminding the U.N. of the definition of Zionism, and of the fact that Israel was founded because of a UN vote

“Zionism, as a political movement, was the revolt of an oppressed nation against the depredations and the wicked discrimination and oppression of the countries in which Zionism [anti-Semitism] flourished. It is indeed no coincidence at all, and not surprising, that the cosponsors and supporters of this resolution include countries who are guilty of the horrible crime of anti-Semitism and discrimination to this very day. Support for the aim of Zionism was written into the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, and was again endorsed by the United Nations in 1947, when the General Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority for the restoration of Jewish independence in our ancient land.” 

And, to top it off, he wanted to remind them that November 10th was a date Jewish people across the world would never forget. This resolution was being passed on the calamitous day commemorating Kristallnacht, the night of broken Glass. 

The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Daniel Patrick Moynihan, echoes Herzog’s outrage in his own speech. For nearly half an hour, he railed against the hypocrisy of the move, marshalling references as varied as the US’s own history, the Oxford English dictionary, and Alice in Wonderland. Here’s a particularly stirring moment from the speech: “What we have here is a lie — a political lie of a variety well known to the twentieth century, and scarcely exceeded in all that annal of untruth and outrage. The lie is that Zionism is a form of racism. The overwhelmingly clear truth is that it is not.”

Notwithstanding the support of the United States, Israel felt alienated and isolated. 

To Jews across the world, Bilam’s prophecy in the 23rd chapter of Bamidbar proved to be right on the mark. Sorry Herzl, but it appears like Bilaam is more adept at the whole prophecy thing, considering that he declared: “the Jewish people are nation that dwells alone, not to be reckoned amongst the nations.” Damn, Bilaam, you’re good, and that’s from 3300 years ago.  

Indeed, the resolution passed. And for 16 years, it remained.

But something curious happened in 1991 — just a few days before the fall of the Soviet Union.

For only the second time in the UN’s history, a resolution was repealed. Seeing the writing on the wall, the United States had agitated to “consign one of the last relics of the Cold War to the dustbin of history.” In September of 1991, President George H.W. Bush gave a stirring speech to the U.N. General Assembly, insisting that “To equate Zionism with racism is to reject Israel itself — a member in good standing of the United Nations.” 

Even the Soviets agreed. According to a 1991 article in the Washington Post, Soviet foreign minister Boris Pankin “told the assembly that his government now considers the Zionism resolution as a ‘relic of the ice age.’”

Indeed, by the time the vote rolled around, 84 countries had joined the US as co-sponsors, and in December of 1991, 111 nations voted to repeal the mischaracterization of Zionism as racism. In an unexpected diplomatic coup for Israel, six Arab countries abstained rather than voting against. They included Egypt, with whom Israel had brokered a cold peace in 1979.

So that was the story of UN Resolution 3379, and here are your five fast facts:

  1. As America and Israel became closer, Soviet Russia began to spread propaganda about both Judaism and Zionism, as the cause of the world’s evils. After the Six Day War, and Israel’s victory over the USSR’s satellite states, the animosity got even worse.
  2. After the Yom Kippur War, in which they took Israel by surprise and made the country seriously doubt itself, and after the 1973 oil embargo, Arab nations were feeling pretty good about themselves, and they were very excited to make Israel look bad on the world stage.
  3. In a show of support for the subjugated Black majority of South Africa, just by virtue of the fact that UN Resolution 3379 was against racism, most African countries supported it, with few exceptions.
  4. America, and its citizens, Jew and non-Jew, were beside themselves at the ridiculousness of the resolution, with Americans flooding the streets, decrying the UN.
  5. In 1991, the resolution was finally repealed – with even many Arab countries abstaining, rather than voting against the revocation.

Those are the facts, but here’s one enduring lesson as I see it.

Yes, they retracted it, they took it back. But this pummeling that Israel has taken at the UN, that Israel continues to take at the UN – well, it’s going to have some consequences. Now, let me be clear.  There’s a phrase, “HURT PEOPLE HURT PEOPLE.” Being hurt is not an excuse to hurt others, no matter how much you’re hurt.  But when a bully continues to torment you, day after day, your friends might caution you, relax, don’t do anything, don’t make it worse, he’ll leave you alone – but what if he doesn’t leave you alone? Don’t you feel like, eventually, that little bullied kid is going to snap?

Let me tell you a story to show you what I mean, and this comes out of Yossi Klein Halevi’s excellent book, Like Dreamers. Halevi is writing about the origin of the Gush Emunim movement, which was dedicated to settling the West Bank after it was captured/liberated or whatever word works for you by Israel, from Jordan, in 1967. 

In 1975, after the United Nations declared that Zionism was racism, there was widespread support across Israel – from left to right – to support what is described as the settler movement. Why? Halevi explains it so simply.

The resolution, initiated by the Arab nations and endorsed by the Soviet and Muslim blocs, was the culminating moment of the growing Arab success to isolate Israel…The state of the Jews, the Israeli political philosopher J.L. Talmon noted bitterly had become the Jew of the states…

Halevi explains the sentiment was something like this:

“Goyim were acting like goyim, now Jews needed to act like Jews, embrace their unavoidable uniqueness and fulfill their redemptive destiny, the world be damned. Increased settlement in all parts of the land is the only answer to the UN resolution, Gush Emunim declared. And many Israelis now agreed.”

See, while UN Resolution 3379 was a death blow to secular Zionism (at least temporarily, stay tuned for future episodes, where I will likely disagree with my own statement here), for religious Zionism, this resolution merely affirmed what they already knew – that Bilaam’s prophecy was dead on. That the Jewish people were ontologically always meant to go at it alone.

That Jewish people needed to embrace their uniqueness, to do whatever it needed to do to sustain themselves, not to rely on anyone else. 

The reality is that you listening to this might think the settlement project is problematic. Or, you might love the settlement project and think it’s perfectly legitimate. 

But bottom line is, a huge reason it even exists is because of the delegitimization Israel received, and receives, from the UN and international players. It’s like Israel is saying, we’ve been bullied and tormented and genocided for thousands of years, and now you’re telling us that the project of freeing ourselves is illegitimate? Enough already. 

In the mid 70’s, the predominant Zionist thinking went like this: We’re doing what we have to do, we’re taking matters into our own hands. You don’t like it? Tough, we’re doubling down. You don’t like us being Zionists? We’ll show you just how Zionist we really are. 

My good friend, Chloe Valdary, has reminded me many times of something Maya Angelou has said: “If you tell someone they’re nothing, they count for nothing, they’re less than nothing, they will say to you, oh you think I am nothing, I will show you where nothing is.” 

The world should pay close attention to the legacy of UN Resolution 3379.

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Thank you all for listening. If you haven’t yet, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And help us grow this podcast community, by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts.

Now it’s time for our final segment, Israel Nerd Talk, where we highlight one of you, our amazing listeners. We get the best emails from you guys, and we want to share them with the world. This week, I want to highlight a great letter we got from a listener named David. And this one is WILD:

Hey Noam, I hope you are doing well. I’m currently in the middle of the aliyah process from within Israel. I thought that you might like to know that you and your podcast had a lot to do with my final decision to make the big move. I grew up in NY and went to a wide range of schools across the orrthodox-jewish spectrum. I went to a Hasidic elementary school (teaching only in Yiddish), later switching to modern orthodox community school. However, given the wide spectrum, I had never had a fair and unbiased education of the state of Israel and its history. Thanks to your podcast, I not only gained a tremendous amount of information, but I have gained a tremendous respect for the many sects and sub-cultures within those sects as well as feeling like I belong here. Thank You!

This letter spoke to me because, like David, I also went to a few different types of schools, with different types of people. And some people come out of these places cynical, and I admit, I also have my moments. But mostly, what these institutions taught me is respect for all different types of Jews, and just as importantly, all different thoughts and opinions. And of course, the idea that we impacted David’s aliyah journey…well, it’s the cherry on top of this email. So thanks, David, for telling us your story. If you, listening, have thoughts, comments, suggestions, ruminations, whatever to share, don’t hesitate, be in touch! Email us at podcasts@jewishunpacked.com.

Unpacking Israeli History is a production of Unpacked, a division of OpenDor Media. Check out jewishunpacked.com for everything Unpacked-related, and subscribe to our other podcasts. Follow Unpacked at all the social media places, like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – just look for @JewishUnpacked. And again, write to us at podcasts@jewishunpacked.com – your email might even get on the show.

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