Jeane Kirkpatrick experienced an epiphany shortly after Ronald Reagan appointed her America’s permanent representative at the UN in 1981 when Israel’s ambassador Yehuda Blum came to her office for his first official visit.
She had been appalled during the previous four years by what she regarded as the Carter administration’s contemptuous attitude toward the Jewish state, and particularly by the way that preceding UN ambassadors Andrew Young and Donald McHenry had, respectively, criticized the Jewish state as “stubborn and intransigent” (and met secretly with the PLO representative), and voted for Resolution 465 condemning Israel’s occupation of “Arab territories including Jerusalem.”
But she didn’t realize how deeply these attitudes had penetrated the US mission until she saw the way the career foreign service officers she inherited from the previous administration dismissively referred to Blum by his first name and rudely interrupted him on this first visit. She sternly pointed out to them that Blum was a Holocaust survivor who spoke nine languages, and angrily ordered them out of the room.
“You can see what it has been like for Israel here,” Blum told her after they sat down. Kirkpatrick replied, “It will be different now. No one will be treated better in this mission than Israel.”
And this was true. She and Blum cooperated on several initiatives and often escaped with key staff members for private strategy dinners at a small restaurant in Brooklyn they both favored. The personal relationship was political for Kirkpatrick. Seeing the hatred of Israel in her first days at the UN, she told her colleague Richard Schifter with a stricken look on her face, “I think the Holocaust is possible again. I didn’t think so before I came to the UN, but I think so now.”
She brought this feeling to president Reagan who agreed with her that the US had to stand against “the obsessive vilification of Israel.” Along with preventing the spread of Marxism-Leninism in Central America and driving a stake through the heart of the Soviet Union, this became Kirkpatrick’s chief objective during her time at the UN.
After the bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, she argued strenuously that the US should simply abstain from the resolution advanced by Iraq after the attack calling for sanctions against Israel but was overruled by the State Department.
She then worked behind the scenes to get the resolution watered down to a condemnation and made her feelings known when even this question was called by raising her hand reluctantly to half mast and allowing a look to cross her face of someone who has just detected a fecal odor in the room.
Kirkpatrick defended Israel by her unyielding critique of what it faced at the UN. Charging that diplomacy regarding the “Arab- Israeli conflict” at the world body “has nothing to do with peace, but is quite simply a continuation of war against Israel by other means,” she said that the UN, as a result, had become a place where “moral outrage was distributed like violence in a protection racket”; a place where Israel is regularly and routinely attacked for manufactured crimes amidst deafening silence “when 3 million Cambodians died in Pol Pot’s murderous utopia… when a quarter million Ugandans died at the hands of Idi Amin… and when thousand of Soviet citizens are denied equal rights, equal protection of the law; denied the right to think, write, publish, work freely or emigrate.”
She pointed out repeatedly that hatred of Israel deformed all aspects of UN operations: “A women’s conference is suddenly transformed into a forum for the denunciation of Israel” because of assertions that “the biggest obstacle to the realizations of women’s full enjoyment of equal rights in the world is Zionism….A meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency becomes so absorbed in negotiations and debate over a resolution to expel Israel that it almost forgets to worry about nuclear non proliferation.”
Kirkpatrick experienced this malign obsession personally when she headed a delegation to the International Conference on African Refugees in March 1981.
The day before it opened, the Arab States, led by Libya, moved to bar Israel’s delegate. Kirkpatrick announced that if this happened, the US would walk out and withdraw the $285 million it had pledged to the refugee problem. She dared the African countries and their Arab allies to choose between their “vile rhetoric” and money that could help their people.
They chose the money.
She saw clearly that isolating and stigmatizing Israel was the USSR’s “great project” at the UN, an effort undertaken with diabolical ingenuity by the accusation that the Jewish state was guilty of racism – the greatest of sins in the post-colonial period when newly minted states were regularly entering the world organization – and by making Israel morally equivalent to apartheid South Africa.
She presciently saw that this accusation would be justified not by facts or proof, but by “a systematic assault on language and meaning.”
She picked up on the first signs of this brazenly methodical effort to turn the narrative of the Holocaust inside-out by rebranding the Palestinians “the Jews of the Arab world” and the Israelis “ Nazis,” and she understood the likely consequences: “by successfully claiming that Israel was guilty of genocide, any attack against the state and people of Israel was justified.”
The moral outrage over the treatment of Israel at the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick carried with her until her death in 2006 has today been replaced by the cold friendship of the Obama administration, which has justly been compared to Jimmy Carter’s in its distant attitude toward Israel. But Carter’s treatment of Israel is often cited as one of the reasons Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, who immediately installed at the UN a woman who believed that “to defend Israel was to defend America and western civilization itself.” So perhaps the historical analogy carries with it a ray of hope after all.