Moynihan’s Moment, with a Minnesota twist

Having read Suzanne Garment’s column “With words we govern men,” inspired by Gil Troy’s new book on Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the American opposition to the UN’s 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution, I invited Professor Troy to write something for us following up on his book. He has graciously obliged with a column that highlights the local Minnesota connection to the story. Professor Troy writes:

With President Obama’s announcement that he intends to visit Israel next month, many pundits are speculating about how America’s newly reelected President will get along with Israel’s newly reelected Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu – especially after their first-term tensions. Personal chemistry between two leaders is important, but the bond uniting the United States and Israel is strong and enduring, cemented by common interests and common principles.

This bond’s depth and meaning was never clearer than in November 1975, when the United Nations General Assembly singled out Jewish nationalism (Zionism) for condemnation as racism. America’s ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, declared that the United States “does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.” In forging his moment of greatness, then Ambassador Moynihan championed American principles against a world bullying America’s ally only six months after the fall of South Vietnam. But Moynihan felt lonely when he spoke. His State Department colleagues, fellow Harvard academics, and leading editorialists were urging him to be more “diplomatic,” to “tone down” his outrage.

As he finished his speech in the General Assembly, spent, “tired,” and “depressed,” he recalled, Moynihan treasured the presence of one American leader, who left behind his business in Washington to support the members of the US mission to the United Nations during this stressful time. Moynihan would write in his memoirs: “There, sitting in our row, unannounced, unabashed, outraged, bearing witness,” was Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey. The former vice president and presidential candidate offered a living bridge to the optimistic liberalism of the postwar years, when American faith in the UN and liberal support for Israel were normative. Humphrey bore silent but eloquent witness to the UN’s fall, to the anger that Moynihan articulated. The UN had endured a grievous, self-inflicted blow, from which it has yet to recover.

After the session, despite the late hour, Moynihan, one of the congressional delegates to the US Mission to the UN, Donald M. Fraser of Minnesota, the US representative to the Human Rights Commission Leonard Garment, and Clarence Mitchell, a NAACP lobbyist and UN delegate, held a press conference. The words said there were important, as Fraser, a liberal Democrat who was president of the Americans for Democratic Action, threatened congressional retaliation against the UN.

But most significant was the patriotic tableau they composed (and Moynihan loved), with Moynihan the-Irish-Catholic-New-Yorker, Fraser-the-WASP-Minnesotan, Garment-the-Brooklyn-Jew, and Mitchell-the Black-Protestant-Marylander, all sitting together in front of the UN’s symbol—defending American ideals. The diplomats then retired to their favorite hangout, the Palm, the legendary Second Avenue steakhouse, pleased with themselves. Moynihan’s assistant at the time, Suzanne Weaver Garment, would later recall: “They knew they had found what we used to call a rock to stand on.”

Americans from across the country cheered this act of courageous leadership. At a moment of national despair, Moynihan and his allies reaffirmed American ideals, American pride, American patriotism. And together, they made history.

In fact, never before in history had the citizens of a superpower stood together in such revulsion against an act of anti-Semitism. November 10, 1975, marked a remarkable moment of American support for the Jewish people, for the State of Israel, and for American principles. It reflects the organic ties, the grassroots support, linking Israel and the United States – not Astroturf cultivated by some lobby. November 10, 1975, was also, for many Americans, the day the UN died, the day they realized that this great hope of humanity had become the Third World dictators’ debating society.

Nearly four decades later, that institution’s credibility remains tarnished – and has been repeatedly jeopardized by the UN’s one-sided stand supporting the Palestinians while demonizing Israel. Still, the lessons of Moynihan’s Moment remain: about the importance of individuals standing for what they believe, and of the core ideals Americans must remember to defend, which include opposing bigotry and supporting Israel, the country which remains America’s most steadfast and reliable ally in the Middle East.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and an Engaging Israel Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Center in Jerusalem. Oxford University Press has just published his latest book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism.

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