On November 10, 1975, the UN General Assembly adopted G.A. Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism to be “a form of racism and racial discrimnation.” The resolution also cited the political declaration adopted at the Conference of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Non-Aligned Countries held at Lima, Peru, on August 25–30, 1975, which had condemned Zionism “as a threat to world peace” and a “racist and imperialist ideology.”
This resolution—most commonly referred to as the “Zionism is racism” resolution— came onto the scene against the backdrop of the Cold War. At that time, the United Nations was a forum in which countries often vied for the approval of, and were aligned with, one of the two great powers. Beginning in the 1960s, following the June 1967 Six-Day War, the Soviet Union began promoting the concept of “Zionism-equals-racism” as a way to strengthen its relations with, and support for, the Arab countries in their ongoing conflict with the State of Israel. The very essence of Zion- ism as the Jewish movement of national liberation and self-determination, which created the only democratic society in the Middle East where Jews and Arabs could live alongside one another, was deliberately distorted into its own antithesis. According to Israel’s enemies, which after 1967 included almost all of the Communist states and many of the so-called non-aligned countries, any manifestation of Jewish national rights was deemed hostile to Arab claims to the entirety of the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Thus, anti-Zionism became a staple of foreign policy not just for Arab and Communist governments, but also for those countries that wanted to burnish their so-called “anti-imperialist” credentials. This process accelerated as Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, began moving away from the Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East. In 1973, the UN General Assembly passed an anti-apartheid resolution that condemned “the unholy alliance between Portuguese colonialism, South African racism, Zionism and Israeli imperialism.”
Such corrosive atmospherics had their effect. To give only one example: at a workshop on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism at the sixth plenary assembly of the World Jewish Congress, held in Jerusalem in February of 1975, several delegates from Latin America reported that “anti-Zionist pressure, foremost by certain groups sympathizing with the Third World, was so strong that many Jews, especially at the universities, preferred to dissociate themselves from Zionism.” That same WJC plenary assembly adopted a resolution that drew “attention to the fact that anti-Semitism today frequently appears under the cloak of anti-Zionism” and urged “all people to oppose anti-Semitism, whether appearing openly or in the guise of anti-Zionism.”
In fact, Resolution 3379 can be said to have been born at the “World Conference of the International Women’s Year,” held in Mexico City on June 19–July 2, 1975. I represented WIZO, the Women’s International Zionist Organization, at this conference. I was WIZO’s representative at the United Nations at that time and recall how Marc Schreiber, the director of the UN Division of Human Rights, approached the Israeli delegation with the draft of the final declaration of Mexico, which included an insertion, in pencil, of Zionism among the “isms” deemed to constitute the ills of the world. We all dismissed this as inconsequential, but by the next morning, the term had been typed into an official UN document— the “Declaration of Mexico on the Equality of Women and Their Contribution to Development and Peace”— with Article 24 calling for “the elimination of colonialism and neo-colonialism, foreign occupation, zionism [sic], apartheid, and racial discrimination in all its forms.” From then on, Zionism was always listed among the great evils of the world.
Another seminal moment on this road came less than one month be- fore the resolution was passed, at a meeting of the UN’s Social Humanitarian and Cultural Committee, or Third Committee, which had convened to decide whether to advance a Zionism-equals-racism resolution to the General Assembly. While many of the Arab, Communist, and other supporters of the resolution purported to praise Judaism as a religion, they in effect rejected, and often slandered, the Jewish people’s national aspirations. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador Jamil Baroody declared that for Jews to claim to be “a single people . . . was a feeling of exclusivity very much akin to racism.” The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) representative was even more offensive when he likened Zionism to Nazism.
Chaim Herzog, Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, who would later go on to serve as the country’s sixth president, was eloquent in his denunciation of the resolution, but that was to be expected. As American Jews, we were gratified and heartened by the strong support we received from our government. Leonard Garment, counselor to the US Mission at the United Nations, denounced the resolution as an “obscene act.” He said that the language of the resolution:
distorts and perverts. It changes words with precise meanings into purveyors of confusion. It destroys the moral force of the concept of racism, making it nothing more than an epithet to be flung arbitrarily at one’s adversary Zionism is a movement which has as its contemporary thrust the preservation of the small remnant of the Jewish people that survived the horrors of a racial holocaust. By equating Zionism with racism, this resolution discredits the good faith of our joint efforts to fight actual racism. It discredits these efforts morally and it cripples them politically.
The World Jewish Congress was one of the first Jewish groups to sound the alarm about this attempt to demonize Zionism. Following the Third Committee’s initial approval of the resolution, WJC President Nahum Goldmann condemned it as “a travesty of historical facts and a defamation of the national liberation movement of a people that for two millennia was deprived of a national existence and the right of self-determination, and was subjected to most cruel persecution.” Dr. Gerhart M. Riegner recalled in his memoirs:
We had to mobilize all the forces of goodwill against the draft resolution as we tried to prevent its adoption by the General Assembly itself. On October 23, as WJC secretary-general, I sent a circular letter to all our affiliates urging them to do everything in their power to convince their governments to oppose the draft resolution.
The WJC then mobilized the other Jewish organizations with consultative status at the United Nations to submit a joint protest to the president of the General Assembly.
The vote breakdown on the resolution in the General Assembly reflected the frightening hostility to Israel at the United Nations. While the United States, Canada, Australia, Western and Northern European countries, and a handful of Latin American, African, and other countries opposed the resolution, the Soviet Union and virtually all Communist nations voted for it, as did the Arab and Islamic states, as well as many African countries. To our great disappointment, with the additional sup- port of Brazil and Mexico, the resolution passed 72–35. Thirty-two countries chose to abstain, including several from Latin America, and three did not vote.
Two speeches during the General Assembly debate captured the revulsion we all felt at the “Zionism is racism” resolution. “I do not come to this rostrum to defend the moral and historical values of the Jewish people,” declared Herzog. He continued:
They do not need to be defended. They speak for themselves. They have given to mankind much of what is great and eternal. I come here to denounce the two great evils which menace society in general and a society of nations in particular. These two evils are hatred and ignorance. These two evils are the motivating force behind the proponents of this resolution and their supporters. These two evils characterize those who would drag this world organization, the ideals of which were first conceived by the prophets of Israel, to the depths to which it has been dragged today To question the Jewish people’s right to national existence and freedom is not only to deny to the Jewish people the right accorded to every other people on this globe, but it is also to deny the central precepts of the United Nations.
Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, was equally forceful. The United States, he said,
rises to declare before the General Assembly of the United Nations, and before the world, that it does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in, this infamous act. A great evil has been loosed upon the world. The abomination of anti-Semitism has been given the appearance of international sanction. The General Assembly today grants symbolic amnesty— and more— to the murderers of the six million European Jews. Evil enough in itself, but more ominous by far is the realization that now presses upon us—the realization that if there were no General Assembly, this could never have happened.
I also want to pay tribute here to Father Benjamin Núñez Vargas, Costa Rica’s UN Ambassador, who was one of the most eloquent opponents of Resolution 3397 and one of Israel’s best friends.
After the resolution was passed by the General Assembly, Nahum Goldmann issued another statement in which he expressed the sentiments of virtually the entire Jewish world:
The resolution of the UN General Assembly condemning Zionism is one of the worst and most immoral decisions that the UN has unfortunately indulged in the last few years. To define Zionism as “racist” is an absurd distortion of the basic facts and a denial of the right of the Jewish people to have its own homeland and its own state, which was established by overwhelming decision of the same United Nations It is the duty of the Jewish people to react in the most decisive manner against this resolution, by identifying itself with the Zionist ideal and giving its full solidarity to the State of Israel.
Goldmann’s call proved prescient as “Zionist” increasingly became a term of abuse in some circles. Although a cursory glance at the vote tally shattered any illusions of a quick turnaround and repeal, it was now clear that the United Nations had become a critical front in the fight against anti-Semitism and delegitimization of the State of Israel.
In 1982, the WJC commissioned and published a study detailing the damage done in the years that followed Resolution 3379. The study found that the word “Zionist” had, in some parts of the world, become a catch-all word for nefarious behavior. “International Zionism,” a self-contained contradiction and fiction, became a popular object of denunciation for regional Middle East leaders— often in the context of something with which Israel had nothing to do. For example, the study noted that during the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein accused Iran of being party to an international Zionist conspiracy. In turn, Iran accused Saddam of “being entirely in the hands of international Zionism.”
Although the WJC boycotted a UN anti-racism conference in 1978 because of its targeting of Israel and Zionism, it did not disengage from the United Nations or decelerate its efforts to convince countries, particularly those that had abstained in the 1975 UN vote, to rescind the “Zionism/racism” resolution. The early 1980s saw various efforts to fight off new resolutions, build important relationships, and ultimately advocate the repeal of Resolution 3379. The rhetoric of Herzog and Moynihan gave way to the concrete efforts of hundreds of community leaders and activists around the world.
On June 25, 1982, WJC President Edgar M. Bronfman told the UN Special Session on Disarmament, “The charge that Zionism is racism is an abomination,” and that “world peace cannot tolerate the denial of the legitimacy of Israel or any other nation-state.” In October of that year, Dr. Riegner and other senior WJC officials met with the president of the UN General Assembly Ambassador Imre Hollai of Hungary to discuss, among other things, the continued negative effects of the “Zionism is racism” resolution, as well as efforts to expel Israel from the world body. In September 1984, Bronfman protested a resolution planned for a meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union that would have reiterated the Zionism-equals-racism claim. The resolution was eventually withdrawn. And in December 1984, the WJC, together with the World Zionist Organization and B’nai B’rith International, organized a conference in Washington, DC, hosted by the State Department, entitled “Zionism is Racism: An Assault on Human Rights.”
A critical turning point in the US posture toward the United Nations and Zionism-equals-racism was reached in 1985. In July of that year, the US Senate unanimously adopted its own resolution in which it “soundly denounces and condemns any linkage between Zionism and racism,” and called Resolution 3379 “a permanent smear on the reputation of the United Nations.” In July of that year, I was one of the delegates to the conference in Nairobi, Kenya, which marked the end of the UN Decade for Women. The US delegation was headed by Maureen Reagan, President Ronald Reagan’s daughter, who declared publicly that if Zionism were again to be included among the ills of the world, the American delegation would walk out of the conference. I was chosen to address the conference on behalf of all the Jewish non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in attendance, including the WJC, WIZO, and the International Council of Jewish Women, but when the time came to do so, I was informed that the Algerian chair of that particular session would not call on a Zionist representative to speak. Later the same evening, however, the overall chair of the conference, Margaret Kenyatta of Kenya, did call on me during the closing plenary. In my statement, I told the assembled delegates that:
Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and probably the world’s oldest liberation movement, is intrinsically an anti-racist movement of a people that, historically and continuously, has been the victim of many brutal forms of racism and racial discrimination. We note with great sorrow that the branding of Zionism as racist . . . contravened the most basic principles of the United Nations charter and fueled the dangerous flames of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world.
As it turned out, Nairobi proved to be the first substantive milestone on the road to the repeal of Resolution 3379. In contrast to Mexico City ten years earlier, the Zionism/racism equation did not appear in the Nairobi declaration.
A few months later, on November 10— the ten-year anniversary of the resolution— President Reagan sent a message to the Conference on Israel, Zionism and the United Nations (held at the United Nations despite a formal protest to the UN Secretary-General by Arab states) in which he pledged his “support for the removal of this blot from the United Nations record." Throughout this period, the WJC, together with other major Jewish organizations, continued its fight against Resolution 3379. In August 1985, the WJC’S Latin American office held a meeting with the World Council of Churches, where the latter’s opposition to the resolution was “reaffirmed.” Shortly before the tenth anniversary of the UN resolution, Bronfman, together with Bernice Tannenbaum, president of the World Zionist Organization-American Section, and Gerald Kraft, president of B’nai B’rith International, called on Jewish communities around the world to urge their governments to support the repeal of the resolution.
US policy regarding Resolution 3379 remained consistent in the administration of George H. W. Bush. Addressing the AIPAC annual policy conference in May 1989, Secretary of State James Baker said that Arab countries should “take concrete steps toward accommodation with Israel, not in place of the peace process but as a catalyst for it; end the economic boycott; stop the challenges to Israel’s standing in international organizations; repudiate the odious line that Zionism is racism.”
The WJC continued to press the case against the UN resolution in international forums and in meetings with diplomatic and government officials. In January 1990, Brazilian President-elect Fernando Collor de Mello told Bronfman that Brazil’s 1975 vote in support of the resolution had been “a mistake,” and that his country would not vote that way again. The following month, I was part of a group of WJC leaders who met Dr. Luis Alberto Lacalle, the newly elected President of Uruguay. When I asked Dr. Lacalle whether Uruguay, which had opposed the resolution in 1975, would lobby other Latin American countries to support repeal, he promised to do so, saying that “in Uruguay, the efforts against this resolution were originated by me.”
In July 1991, Bronfman met with French Prime Minister Edith Cresson and urged France to support rescinding the resolution. In the same year, the WJC achieved a crucial breakthrough. Mexico, which had voted in favor of the 1975 resolution, announced following a meeting with Bronfman that it no longer supported the principle that Zionism was akin to racism. Also in 1991, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari told Bronfman at a meeting in Mexico City that his country had reversed its position and now opposed equating Zionism with racism.
On September 24, 1991, President George H.W. Bush urged the repeal of Resolution 3379. “To equate Zionism with the intolerable sin of racism is to twist history and forget the terrible plight of Jews in World War II and, indeed, throughout history,” he told the UN General Assembly. “To equate Zionism with racism is to reject Israel itself. By repealing this resolution unconditionally the United Nations will enhance its credibility and serve the cause of peace.” That same day, Soviet Foreign Minister Boris Pankin followed suit, telling the General Assembly that the United Nations “should once and for all leave behind the legacy of the ice age, like the obnoxious resolution equating Zionism to racism.” And WJC Executive Director Elan Steinberg told the JTA that Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk also supported repeal of the resolution. As a result, we were all hopeful that the injustice perpetrated in 1975 would at long last be undone. But there remained one last bit of drama. President Bush’s Chief of Staff, John Sununu, was undermining efforts to rescind the resolution. On December 3, Bronfman asked the President directly why Thomas Pickering, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, had not received the necessary instructions to bring repeal to a vote. Bush replied that he had indeed authorized the vote, excused himself for a few minutes, and when he returned told Bronfman apologetically that “my now former chief-of-staff held things up.”
On December 16, UN General Assembly Resolution 46/86, which declared that the Assembly “decides to revoke the determination in its resolution 3379 of 10 November 1975,” was overwhelmingly adopted by a vote of 111–25, with thirteen nations abstaining and seventeen, including Egypt, Kuwait, and China, not voting. Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam were the only Communist countries that opposed repeal. India, Nigeria, Singapore, and the Philippines, which had voted for Resolution 3379 in 1975, now voted to repeal it. It was a distinct privilege for me to represent the WJC on the floor of the General Assembly at the historic vote, together with WJC Secretary-General Israel Singer and Executive Director Elan Steinberg. That evening, Bronfman was kind enough to call me on his way to Idaho to say, “We did it!” Following the vote, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy met privately with Bronfman to thank him both personally and on behalf of the government of Israel for what Levy called the “unparalleled efforts on the part of the WJC in helping realize this important diplomatic triumph.”
For the entire period from November 10, 1975, until December 16, 1991, the WJC representatives at the United Nations had to navigate tortuous roads to continue participating in positive UN programs that guaranteed human rights while at the same time fighting the delegitimization of the State of Israel and the condemnation of Zionism. I believe that the role played by the lay and professional leadership of the WJC brought great pride and honor to our organization.