My early twenties are often hazy, but I remember one evening pretty well. A woman friend came over, and we watched the 1975 UN debate on the notorious Zionism=Racism resolution on TV. I felt the Arab charges against Israel were completely outrageous, an inversion of truth quite literally Orwellian in magnitude. U.S. Ambassador Daniel Moynihan was eloquent in rebutting them, reading a speech (I later learned) partially drafted by Norman Podhoretz. Next year when Moynihan ran for Senate, I remember pulling the lever for him (in the Democratic primary, v. Bella Abzug) with more conviction than I’ve mustered in a voting booth before or since.
Moynihan and Norman Podhoretz eventually drifted apart, but I’m sure the senator never regretted the words he spoke on that night. Once, many years later, when he came to the NY Post editorial page offices, he told a story–I don’t recall the subject–in which he described a politician as “the most enthusiastic Zionist you could imagine, you’ve never seen such a Zionist” in tones which may, or may not, have exuded a whiff of mockery, you couldn’t be sure. In any case, in those days the idea that Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, a phrase central to the speech, could be defined racist was about as absurd, and obscene, a thought as one could possibly imagine. At least so we thought.
I recalled that night while watching on streaming web TV yesterday’s vote to recognize Palestine as an observer state, which passed 138-9, over the votes of the U.S. and Canada and a handful of small island countries. Unlike the 1975 vote, this wasn’t close: then Israel had on its side the entire Western world, the Third World was split, only the Communist bloc and Arab countries and much of Africa was in favor; despite its passage with 70 votes, there was no question that the free and economically productive part of the world was on Israel’s side.
Yesterday’s vote on Palestine was a different matter: it certainly didn’t disavow Zionism or Israel the way the 1975 vote did. Every speaker I saw explicitly recognized Israel and wished for its well being, free and secure with a Palestinian state alongside it, a phrase repeated ad nauseam during the debate.
But of course, 37 years later, Israel is different. The very day of the vote, one reads debate about a new bus line on the West Bank, for Palestinians, because the Israeli settlers (whom Israel has illegally settled on Palestinian land) can’t bear to see Palestinians riding on the same buses they do. One reads recently of Israeli laws expressing a national angst that a small population of Arabs remained in 1948–so there are rabbinic admonitions to landlords proscribing renting to Arabs. Recently Israeli youth have gone on violent rampages in Jerusalem, targeting Palestinians or random immigrants. Videos of young Americans imbibing the atmosphere in Israel reveal a mindset evocative of Mississippi in the early 1960s. Rather eerily, it seems almost as if the notorious Zionism=Racism canard anticipated what Israel would become, once it had the freedom and security to grow into its true self.
And yet Israel has won. There is no state in the world unwilling to recognize it, provided it makes peace with the Palestinians. If you compared the international atmosphere now with that of 40 years ago, you would have to conclude the Israelis had achieved everything they wanted: a durable peace with Egypt; no hostile superpower to arm its enemies; an oft-repeated readiness in the Arab world to recognize it, trade ambassadors, give it a place in the region. It has an international legitimacy that its founders–and the Israeli diplomats of 1975–would have delighted in.
But of course Israel doesn’t feel that way at all. Like some sort of compulsive eater, it has been unable to keep itself from gobbling up and settling Arab territory, especially East Jerusalem and the West Bank. As a result, it now finds itself losing the votes not only of the Arab world, but of France and Spain and Norway and Sweden and Denmark, and no longer has the support of Britain and Germany. This isolation Israel has chosen freely for itself–as a democracy, Israelis can’t even blame their rulers. Of course, Israel has enough influence over the U.S. Congress to generate resolutions in the Senate about protecting “our ally”; it actually seems possible that body may soon vote to exclude the United States from the United Nations in order to preserve Israel’s control over “Judea” and “Samaria.”
One can’t compare last night’s vote with the one in 1975 without feeling sadness and an enormous sense of missed opportunity.