The United Nations and Antisemitism: 2008-2017 Report Card
Antisemitism is a global scourge that requires a global response. With deadly attacks escalating worldwide over the past decade—from Kansas to Copenhagen, Mumbai to Toulouse—the United Nations has a unique role to play in combating hatred, incitement and violence against Jews.
Anti-racism is the defining ideology of the United Nations and its human rights mechanisms. Yet all too often, as documented in this report’s comprehensive examination of the actions of key UN officials, agencies and experts over the past decade, it seems that the UN sees racism everywhere, and antisemitism nowhere.
There are notable exceptions. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, like his predecessors Ban Ki- moon and Ko Annan, has made a series of positive statements about combating antisemitism. The General Assembly hosted an informal meeting on antisemitism in 2015. The UN’s Holocaust Outreach Program commemorates and teaches about the Holocaust, reaching broad audiences worldwide.
UNESCO recently released a publication with the OSCE aimed at assisting policymakers in addressing antisemitism through education. Notwithstanding its repeated adoption of one-sided resolutions condemning Israel and downplaying the ancient Jewish heritage of Jerusalem and Hebron, UNESCO also hosted, after an initial postponement, an exhibit on the 3,000-year-old connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.
Regrettably, however, the exceptions prove the rule. Over a decade when Jews were targeted for slaughter in India, France, Belgium, Denmark and elsewhere—whether in a Jewish school, museum, synagogue or supermarket—the UN’s primary agencies and officials for addressing discrimination have, for the most part, turned a blind eye to antisemitism.
UN plenaries like the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, which enact hundreds of resolutions a year, including on subjects related to racial and religious discrimination, failed to address the threat of antisemitism, other than in a few passing words included in general statements. Until 2010, both the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council adopted annual resolutions focused on the “defamation of Islam and Muslims,” mandating special reports, yet there was never one resolution to address anti-Jewish hatred and violence.
During the course of his tenure from 2006 to 2016, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued more than 100 condemnations of terror attacks worldwide. When the attack targeted religious worshippers, mosques or Christian clergy, his condemnations included strong language against the targeting of people for their religious beliefs.
By contrast, he refrained from employing similarly strong language regarding terrorist attacks against Jewish targets, many of which he did not condemn at all. In a decade marked by shocking antisemitic violence, Mr. Ban was often silent. While he proved quick to condemn an anti-Muslim film or statement by private parties, he failed to address pervasive, state-sanctioned incitement to antisemitism in the Middle East, including Iran’s Holocaust denial, Jewish conspiracy theories, and calls to commit genocide.
High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who served from 2008 to 2014, was likewise quick to condemn a film perceived as anti-Muslim, as well as “malicious” cartoons by Charlie Hebdo. Yet in the face of murderous physical attacks against Jews, such as the shooting at a Toulouse Jewish school, Pillay was typically silent. Worse, Pillay and her Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) repeatedly smeared Jewish organizations as “single-issue lobbyists” for seeking to prevent antisemitism from infecting the UN’s 2009 “Durban II” conference on racism, as it did in the original 2001 conference in Durban, South Africa.
Current High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has not only turned a blind eye to antisemitic incitement and violent attacks—even though he has addressed incitement against Muslims in Myanmar— but he has repeatedly engaged, as have other UN officials, in what Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt has called softcore Holocaust denial, through a series of statements that seek to de-Judaize the Holocaust.
The UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteurs on racism and freedom of religion ought to be the first UN experts to speak out against anti-Jewish discrimination and violence. However, as a rule, successive mandate-holders over the past decade have failed to comment on rising antisemitism, including the murderous incitement against Jews in the Arab and Muslim world, or deadly attacks in Europe and elsewhere. By contrast, they did speak out on behalf of other targeted groups.
Finally, expert bodies like the Human Rights Committee, which review country compliance with international treaties, should be affirmatively monitoring state parties for any antisemitic incitement or violence which puts Jews at risk, or infringes their rights to freely practice the Jewish religion. Yet an examination of the Human Rights Committee’s concluding observations for numerous state parties—including Arab and Muslim states where antisemitic incitement is rampant, as well as other states that have witnessed high levels of antisemitic incidents in the last ten years—reveals that antisemitism is of limited concern.
Similarly, our study of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) shows that its concluding observations for numerous countries—including Argentina, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, the UAE, Ukraine and Venezuela—rarely mentioned violent attacks on Jews or other forms of antisemitism, though it did devote attention to Islamophobia or discrimination against Roma.
Moreover, though antisemitic incitement from the Arab and Muslim world has inspired horrific antisemitic attacks worldwide, the CERD addressed hate speech in these countries only when the speech was directed at other groups—but never when the target was Jews.
In conclusion, this report finds, on the basis of overwhelming evidence over the past decade, that the primary United Nations officials and bodies that should be condemning and combating antisemtism are, with limited exceptions, failing to do so.
Now is a time for leadership. We call on Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and High Commissioner Zeid to acknowledge the demonstrable failure of the world body when it comes to antisemitism, and to set forth an action plan to mobilize key UN stakeholders, and in particular those within its human rights machinery, to exercise their responsibilities to confront bigotry, hate or violence targeting Jews worldwide.
The report was submitted in a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on 11 July 2018, two days after it was presented at a hearing in the Israeli Knesset.