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February 7, 2013

Q&A: “Of course the Israelis are a pain in the neck; that’s because they are a democracy”

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Gil Troy

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel Program. His columns and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Jerusalem Post, Open Zion, History News Network and other major media outlets. He is the author of eight books, including Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980′s, Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady, and Why I am a Zionist.

Here he discusses his recently published and critically acclaimed book- Moynihan’s Moment (Oxford University Press)- which focuses on US ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s brave struggle against the UN’s 1975 ‘Zionism is Racism’ resolution.

 

For those who haven’t yet read the book: What was unique about the way in which Moynihan perceived Israel? In what way was it different from other people's perceptions?

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan became US Ambassador to the UN in 1975, he had no particularly deep tie to Israel. He would say, “I knew little of the place and now would come to its defense for reasons that had almost nothing to do with it…. Israel was not my religion.” He had never visited, he noted, never having received one of those fun freebie trips for academics.

But Moynihan saw the attack on Israel as an attack on democracy and decency.  He understood it as an attempt by the Soviet Union and the Arabs to humiliate the United States at a low moment for Americans, just six months after the fall of South Vietnam. And he saw the perversion of the truth – singling out one form of nationalism, Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism in a forum of 141 nationalisms – as typical of totalitarians who sacrifice all, their children, other’s children, the truth, to serve their nefarious goals. Unlike others in the 1970s, Moynihan decided he would take a stand and fight. “An Issue of Honor, of Morality was put before us,” he would say, “and not all of us ran.”

You dedicate a big part of the book to explaining the war of legitimacy waged against Israel in the Seventies - is the wave of delegitimization we see today a continuation of the same phenomenon, or is it a different wave of a different kind?

Moynihan and the Israeli ambassador to the UN at the time, Chaim Herzog, feared that what Moynihan called the “Big Red Lie”- claiming Zionism is racism- would set the ideological framework for attacking Israel – and they were right. You can draw a line from the Zionism is racism resolution of 1975 to the intellectual pogrom against Israel and Zionism at the Durban conference of 2001 to the continuing attacks on Israel both from Islamists and from authoritarian progressives, part of today’s inexplicable, hypocritical, reprehensible Red-Green alliance.

Even though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a national conflict, accusing Zionism of racism, and comparing Israel to South Africa’s reprehensible apartheid policies would justify ostracizing and demonizing the Jewish State. As Moynihan explained, all countries “were equally accepted as equally legitimate. Only regimes based on racism and racial discrimination were held to be unacceptable.” And, anticipating today, when despite the fall of the Soviet Union, and the repeal of the resolution, the assault on Israel’s existence, not just Israeli policies, continues, he warned:  “Whether Israel was responsible, Israel surely would be blamed: openly by some, privately by most. Israel would be regretted.” We can therefore understand the Zionism is racism resolution as the Rosetta Stone of the delegitimization movement, revealing its nasty, Communist origins.

One can't escape the many parallels between then and now: UN bias, Israel under attack of delegitimization, the US as the one ally on which Israel relies - but do you see a "Moynihan" defending Israel today with such efficiency?

That is the question I have been asked most frequently on my book tour – and the answer is depressing:  No, I don’t see someone of Moynihan’s stature and eloquence around. Now, Moynihan was unique as a scholar-statesman, the Thomas Jefferson of his day. George Will quipped that Pat wrote more books while serving in the Senate, than most Senators ever read. One of my book’s messages is we need a new Moynihan, we need that kind of passion, righteous indignation, and rhetorical power – defending Israel, defending America, defending human rights consistently.  

Moynihan wasn't Jewish, and today one feels at times that the job of defending Israel in liberal circles (Evangelical Christians definitely defend Israel on the right) falls mostly on Jewish shoulders. Is that a problem? Did Moynihan want to be visible because he understood how important it is for Israel to be supported by non-Jews?

Initially, Moynihan wanted to be visible because he wanted to teach Americans how to function in ‘the opposition,” in the UN and elsewhere. He wanted to remind Americans, after the humiliations of Watergate and Vietnam, of soaring crime and rampant inflation, to stand tall. He wanted to challenge liberals not to succumb to what we today call political correctness and identity politics. But as Moynihan’s career developed in the Senate, I believe he did take pride in his support for Israel. He became, he said, “preoccupied with the Soviet effort to delegitimate the state of Israel.” And he understood the importance of having a liberal Democratic Irish Catholic defending the Jewish state, especially as support for Israel on the totalitarian Left became unfashionable and Zionism became politically incorrect.

What would he say about the policies of the Obama administration vis-a-vis the UN and vis-a-vis Israel?

Moynihan would applaud the Obama Administration’s stands against the Palestinian “upgrade” in UN status, without real negotiations or progress, as well as America’s opposition to the delegitimization of Israel. But he would not approve of President Obama’s tendency to blame Israel disproportionately for the impasse nor would he have approved of Obama’s apologies to the Islamic world.  Many “believe that our assailants are motivated by what is wrong about us,” Moynihan explained. “They are wrong. We are assailed because of what is right about us. We are assailed because we are a democracy.” He also explained many of the world dynamics, especially in the UN as being fueled by “the politics of resentment and the economics of envy.”  He explained: “If you define [the] world as rich and poor –we are guilty; if you define [the] world as liberal and illiberal they are guilty.”  So he would urge Obama, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and the new Secretary of State John Kerry, to be more assertive in defending American values, not to fear the occasional burst of indignation at that which is outrageous, mixing anger with hope, remembering, as he said just months before he died, that “As we fight the war against evil, we must also wage peace.”  

And what would he say about the policies of the Netanyahu government concerning peace and settlements and vis-a-vis the Obama administration?

Moynihan believed that the relationship between the United States and Israel should be rock solid – for both countries’ sakes. So he would probably criticize both the President and the Prime Minister for not working on smoothing out their relationship. As to the question of peace and settlements, Moynihan understood that a deliberative democracy deliberates democratically, slowly, chaotically, whereas dictatorships dictate quickly.  He would appreciate the need for Israeli policy to evolve, rather than rushing the Israelis. 

In 1978, when American diplomats were criticizing Israel’s representatives as obstructionist “Polish lawyers” while hashing out the details of what became the Israel-Egyptian peace treaty, he noted that the President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat could just say yes, coming as he did “from a country where the only person who has to sign is himself.” But, he warned, “the record of authoritarian or totalitarian states keeping their agreements is not very impressive.” By contrast, Moynihan asked the negotiators impatient with Israelis:  “Did it ever occur to you that they want to know exactly what the agreement says because they mean to keep it?” Well aware of the ideological difference between totalitarian governments and democracies, he said: “Of course the Israelis are a pain in the neck; that’s because they are a democracy. That’s also why they’re durable…. When [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin goes, his agreements don’t go with him. The polity has committed itself.”

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