This month, something positive and unusual happened at the United Nations, a body that was a source of hope for many Jews after the Holocaust and helped give rise to the revival of the Jewish homeland, but has since often been passive about, and sometimes complicit in, hostility globally to the Jewish people and their only nation-state.
This month, a person of stature within the U.N. system -- and within the notoriously wayward human rights apparatus at that -- took the initiative to prepare and deliver a report to the General Assembly on the problem of anti-Semitism.
Moreover, he adopted an exclusive focus on that problem, and on the whole did so thoroughly, seriously and professionally. And that author originally hails from a majority-Muslim country, where he previously had served as foreign minister.
Ahmed Shaheed prepared his report -- under the rubric of the "promotion and protection of human rights," specifically the "elimination of all forms of religious intolerance" -- in his current capacity as special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. While the especially politicized Human Rights Council and its designated experts are typically better known for animus to Israel -- Michael Lynk, the latest partisan rapporteur on Palestinian rights, a position whose very mandate testifies to the overt one-sidedness of the U.N. on the conflict with Israel, just affirmed a call to single out Jewish civilian communities in Palestinian-claimed territory for economic warfare -- Shaheed also previously served as special rapporteur on Iran. His reputation in the Islamic Republic was such that Tehran dismissed Shaheed, a diplomat and politician from the Maldives, as an agent "for the Zionist regime and also the CIA."
Shaheed's report on anti-Semitism, though surely not without omission or flaw, is largely unprecedented at the U.N. -- and especially important at a time when anti-Jewish bigotry, discrimination and persecution have again surged in many parts of the world, uniting extreme rightists and leftists, and those motivated by ideologies rooted in politics, religion and racial theory alike.
In his report, to which B'nai B'rith made contributions and in which we joined in advance consultation, Shaheed referenced these realities in considerable detail. After a period of soliciting input from Jewish communities, U.N. member states and others, he described antisemitic tropes, domestic and regional trends in antisemitic rhetoric and violence, the broadcasting of anti-Semitism on online platforms, various government measures that curtail Jews' religious rights and current "best practices" in monitoring and combating anti-Jewish hate. He added some of his own recommendations to states, civil society, the media and the U.N. system.
Critically, he explicitly framed Jewish rights as human rights, established anti-Semitism as a concern worthy of U.N. action and signaled that unchecked anti-Semitism bodes ill for society as a whole.
As B'nai B'rith did in a recent private meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Shaheed urged the designation of a high-level U.N. point person on the scourge of anti-Jewish prejudice -- and, vitally, he urged adoption by yet more parties of the indispensable working definition of antiSemitism of the intergovernmental International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). That definition encompasses the virulent and defamatory anti-Zionism that is likely the most prevalent contemporary form of lethal anti-Semitism.
While Shaheed noted the disingenuous assertion of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that it is merely anti-Israel but not antisemitic, and he wrote that boycotts can be lawful, he "stresse[d] that expression which draws upon antisemitic tropes or stereotypes, rejects the right of Israel to exist, or advocates discrimination against Jewish individuals because of their religion should be condemned." BDS leaders routinely engage in all three, especially the latter two.
Regrettably, Shaheed did write at one point that claims that Israel's very existence is racist, requirements of Israel not applied to other democracies and the equating of Israeli policy with that of the Nazis are "not designate[d] as examples of speech that are ipso facto antisemitic" under the IHRA definition, when IHRA specifically does include those among examples that would be considered antisemitic under the working definition. This discrepancy, all the more so considering Shaheed's endorsement of the IHRA definition and his prior listing of the very examples mentioned, is confusing and might perhaps yet be remedied.
Additionally, Shaheed's not having called out by name various especially prominent international traffickers in crude anti-Semitism (merged frequently with anti-Israelism) is unfortunate. These might include Malaysia's self-described anti-Semitic Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, American-based Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, many ranking Iranian officials and their proxies in Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas and especially Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as Yemen's Houthis, whose very flag reads "Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam." Sadly, international surveys have found shockingly ubiquitous antisemitic attitudes in many predominantly Muslim societies -- not just animus to Israel but to Jews.
This said, such a reality makes Shaheed's nearly 20-page report, with meaningful and accurate information far outnumbering the errors, all the more significant. His sincere and comprehensive treatment of anti-Semitism, including unreserved discussion and condemnation of anti-Israel extremists, reflects a moderate and pluralistic component of the Muslim world, one with deep roots that deserve cultivation. It also resists the broader tendency to obscure the pandemic of modern anti-Semitism, especially as manifested in hate for Israel or "Zionists," in the face of so much intercommunal strife and social upheaval globally.
Finally, Shaheed builds upon the notably positive example set by current U.N. chief Guterres -- a former prime minister of Portugal, with its history of devastating Catholic anti-Semitism, who has repeatedly not just deplored anti-Semitism but recognized the delegitimization of Israel as antisemitic. Guterres also recently launched efforts to combat hate speech and protect places of worship. His initiatives, though requiring further development and additional actions -- including, but not limited to, existing U.N. Holocaust commemoration and a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) program for addressing anti-Semitism through education -- cannot be taken for granted.
Good next steps could include having the Alliance of Civilizations, referenced by Shaheed, not only build selective bridges between the "East" and "West" but not exclude Israeli Jews in the process. Israelis should finally be hired for senior positions in the world body and be given the chance to make the immense contributions of which they are capable. Now that, following the efforts of B'nai B'rith and our partners, the U.N. gave some recognition to one major Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, on its staff calendar (beginning in 2015), it could do more to avoid important international meetings, particularly those related to the Middle East, on such holy days.
And especially -- despite any political pushback -- U.N. leaders must more vocally and persistently call out the anti-Israel discrimination that makes the Middle East's only democracy the beleaguered sole Jewish member of the family of nations. Palestinian political narratives and goals should not be favored over those of Israelis through: a rapporteur on Palestinian rights alone; an international day of solidarity with Palestinians; exceptional, standing bodies such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices, the Division for Palestinian Rights and the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People; an unparalleled would-be blacklist marginalizing only companies deemed associated with Israeli Jewish settlements; World Health Organization motions obscenely criticizing Israel (alone); a permanent agenda item at the Human Rights Council, Item 7, scrutinizing Israel (alone); and more condemnatory resolutions, "emergency" sessions, "fact-finding" missions and other measures targeting Israel than all other 192 U.N. member states combined. UNESCO resolutions should never again be allowed to whitewash or minimize Jews' eternal connection to their most sacred places in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Fanatic terrorists attacking Israelis should be, as others are at the U.N., described and combated as such.
In a word, the lives of Jews -- even when they are Israelis, even when they are Zionists -- should be valued like those of any other people. This alone can be the basis of any credible and effective effort to say no to anti-Semitism.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
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