As the United Nations prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its founding in San Francisco, the occasion is bittersweet for Jewish observers.
It was the United Nations that sanctioned the State of Israel’s birth in 1948, but it gave the Jewish state the status of an ugly stepchild — constantly singling out Israel for condemnation and excluding Israel, alone among U.N. member states, from full membership in the regional groupings that apportion key positions at the world body.
That said, Israel recently has made strides at the United Nations.
In the past year, the U.N. Department of Public Information convened a daylong conference on anti-Semitism, devoting more time to the topic than the United Nations ever before had.
In commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, the U.N. General Assembly held a special session and a Holocaust exhibit in the lobby of U.N. headquarters was launched with the playing of Israel’s national anthem and the recitation of a Jewish mourning prayer.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also attended the opening of the new Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, the first time a secretary-general had traveled to Israel.
This month, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group of 52 Jewish organizations, reported a very friendly meeting with Annan.
And last week, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Dan Gillerman, became one of 21 General Assembly vice presidents, the first time Israel has held the position in more than half a century.
“All these things, beyond their symbolic importance, are also things that herald a totally new treatment of Israel at the U.N. — and for Israel, a symbolism in this very difficult and hostile environment is also very important,” Gillerman told JTA.
The recent Jewish achievements and the 60th anniversary of the United Nations — founded on June 26, 1945 — come as Annan strives to push through a package of reforms for the world body.
Jewish officials praise Annan for backing some critical Jewish initiatives, but say a test of the secretary-general’s strength is the extent to which he makes fair treatment of Israel a part of his reform plans.
Annan’s reform package doesn’t explicitly cite fairer treatment of Israel, but Jewish officials believe that steps he is demanding to streamline the organization bode well for Israel. For example, Annan’s idea to make the U.N. Commission on Human Rights into a smaller council — not populated by serial human rights violators — could change that body’s agenda.
In addition, Annan plans to review any committee that has existed for more than five years. That would include special committees devoted exclusively to the plight of the Palestinians that Israel and Jewish officials view as propaganda organs and are eager to close.
“The singling out of Israel is the elephant in the room of the whole U.N. reform debate,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch in Geneva. The anti-Israel agenda “is not a small issue. It’s a material issue. It dominates and monopolizes so many U.N. bodies.”
As examples, Neuer cited the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which issues more resolutions against Israel than against any other country, and the World Health Organization, which last month held a special session on the alleged damage Israel causes to Palestinians’ health and condemned Israel in a resolution opposed by only a handful of countries.
Furthermore, Annan’s supportive statements, while positive, need to reach beyond the Jewish community, Neuer said.
For example, in his Jerusalem speech, Annan pressed for Israel’s full participation in the Western European and Others Group. Israel has full membership in the regional group at U.N. headquarters in New York, but not at U.N. offices in Geneva, Nairobi or Vienna.
But when he spoke in April to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Annan “didn’t mention a word of it — and that’s where the change has to happen,” Neuer said.
On the other hand, Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights, praised the fact that Annan told the Human Rights Commission it was not credible and needed to be replaced.
“Kofi Annan has been courageous and has broken with past secretaries-general in reflecting honestly on the U.N.’s failings when it has come to Israel and anti-Semitism, but he still needs to do more,” she said, pointing to entrenched bias at the institution.
“We’re finally beginning to get these issues out from the shadows. We finally have the straight talk about anti-Semitism from the front office. What we don’t have is it coming from the political bodies,” she said. “I would like to see the secretary-general’s leadership mirrored by others who serve as top officials of the U.N.”
Amy Goldstein, director of U.N. affairs for B’nai B’rith International, had sharper words.
Ever since the United Nations fulfilled the Jewish right to self-determination by granting Israel statehood, it has tried to erode those rights, she said.
“After 60 years, we need to reform the United Nations to return it to the original ideas of the framers and to make it a place where all peoples, including the Jewish people, are treated equally,” Goldstein said.
Others feel more optimistic.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, said the recent meeting with Annan was a success.
The meeting addressed many issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, anti-Semitism, Iran’s nuclear program, the ongoing killings in Darfur and Israel’s full membership in its regional grouping.
“He was actually pretty responsive to everything,” Hoenlein said of Annan.
Hoenlein noted that Annan “indicated support for the idea of pursuing the ‘road map'” — an internationally backed peace plan — and not backing the Palestinian demand to jump immediately to final-status negotiations before the two sides have met their commitments in intermediate stages.
For his part, Gillerman views the recent advancements as irreversible.
A new world view is taking shape among member states after Sept. 11, Gillerman said, pointing to shifting politics in the Middle East, from Israel’s Gaza withdrawal plan to the potential reignition of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Syria’s withdrawal of troops from Lebanon.
Israel lobbied diplomats for six months to attain a vice presidency of the General Assembly, where Gillerman said he will try to steer the agenda away from the usual slew of anti-Israel resolutions.
Israel now is working for a coveted seat on the 15-member Security Council, the only U.N. body with binding authority.
“Nothing is impossible for Israel anymore, and whatever position is available, we will fight for,” Gillerman said. “The sky’s the limit.”