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New UN secretary general sending positive signals
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New UN secretary general sending positive signals

Gabe Kahn is the editor of The New Jersey Jewish News.

New United Nations secretary General António Guterres pledged to be “on the front lines in the struggle against anti-Semitism” at the World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly on April 23. Photos Courtesy Getty Images
New United Nations secretary General António Guterres pledged to be “on the front lines in the struggle against anti-Semitism” at the World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly on April 23. Photos Courtesy Getty Images

Can you imagine a world in which the United Nations treated Israel as if it were just another member state?

Not to get all John Lennon on you, but really, take a moment to consider what that would mean. It’s reasonable to believe that with an unbiased and properly functioning international body, our world would look significantly different and, I dare say, better.

If Israel wasn’t absurdly singled out time and again for a plethora of so-called human rights violations while other nations, like Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China, Russia, and Syria, curiously skate free — UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO, counted 20 resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly targeting Israel in 2016, versus six resolutions combined for all other countries — perhaps the UN would have time to be more than a racist, inefficient organization. 

Could it become the world’s watchdog and champion of justice it was envisioned to be? Not likely, after decades of unchecked bigotry. But the new UN secretary general, António Guterres, made a favorable impression when he addressed the World Jewish Congress (WJC) Plenary Assembly in Manhattan this past weekend. The first secretary general to address an international gathering of Jewish leaders, according to WJC, he was forceful in his denunciation of anti-Semitism, and encouraging in voicing support of Israel. Speaking on the eve of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Guterres began his 15-minute speech focusing on the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews in World War II.“I feel that it is my duty to express to you my total solidarity in what we feel together in relation to what was the most hideous crime against humanity in the history of mankind,” he said. “And also to be able to tell very clearly that that was not the isolated act of a group of paranoid Nazis. It was the culmination of millennia of discrimination, millennia of persecution of the Jewish people all over the world.”

Anti-Semitism was an appropriate topic, as earlier in the day the Anti-Defamation League released a report indicating that incidents against Jewish institutions increased by 35 percent across the country between 2015 and 2016. The numbers in New Jersey were alarming as well, rising from 137 to 157, up 15 percent from the previous year; only New York and California had more than the Garden State’s 294 anti-Semitic incidents in 2015 and 2016. 

Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, acknowledged the culpability of his native land, which expelled the Jewish community in the 16th century. Not only was the forced exile unconscionable, he said, it was also “the most stupid mistake in the history of my country. It deprived Portugal of one of the most dynamic elements of its society, and it is largely due to that that we have seen the impoverishment of the country in the following centuries.” It was a wrong he tried to right, albeit centuries after the fact, as he compelled the Portuguese parliament to revoke the edict of expulsion in 1996.

And what about his views on Israel?

 “Here I am very clear,” he said. “As secretary general of the United Nations I consider that the State of Israel needs to be treated as any other state in exactly the same way…” The rest of his sentence was inaudible, as he was interrupted by raucous applause. 

Talk is cheap, but to his credit, Guterres has already proven in his short tenure that he’s willing to stand up for the Jewish state. In March, he called on Jordanian diplomat Rima Khalaf to withdraw a report for the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) that was especially critical of Israel, claiming Jerusalem was guilty of “apartheid.” Compare that to Guterres’ predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, who, after admitting that the UN has “created a disproportionate number of resolutions, reports, and committees against Israel,” penned an op-ed for The New York Times in which he implied Israel was responsible for Palestinian terrorism. “No one can deny that the everyday reality of occupation provokes anger and despair, which are major drivers of violence and extremism,” he wrote.

As Guterres spoke to the Jewish crowd, I admit I was listening for any misstatements or troublesome phrases like “the occupation.” My eyebrows rose, ever so slightly, when he said, “in the many contacts I have with members of the Jewish community in the United States and abroad, a feeling was conveyed to me, a perception was conveyed to me, that there is in the UN a certain bias against the State of Israel.” 

Your excellency, the UN’s bias against Israel is not a “perception”; it’s a stone-cold fact.

Besides Guterres, Israel has another in-house advocate in Nikki Haley, the new U.S. ambassador to the UN. Her unmitigated support has been a breath of fresh air, defending Israel and calling out its biased detractors. On Tuesday, Haley addressed the WJC Plenary Assembly and declared that it was “a new day for Israel at the United Nations.”

“The United States will no longer be silent as Israel is unfairly attacked at the United Nations,” she said. “Silence is not my thing anyway, but that’s especially true when it comes to standing up for America’s friends. And we have no better friend in the Middle East than Israel.” 

Haley’s support and Guterres’ words, and presence, were a welcome sign. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that they will transform the UN into the world’s honest broker that it ought to be. But maybe, just maybe, they can staunch the tide of hypocrisy that we’ve come to expect..

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