An Irish-American Zionist in the Age of Anti-Zionism – By James Loeffler

James Loeffler on Gil Troy’s Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism

Gil Troy, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, Oxford University Press, 2012, 368 pp., $29.95
Gil Troy, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, Oxford University Press, 2012, 368 pp., $29.95

Only one of the thousands of UN resolutions issued by the General Assembly has ever been formally revoked: the infamous GA Resolution 3379, passed on November 10, 1975. Voted through by a Cold War coalition of Soviet satellites and Arab and Asian states, the statement’s tortuous logic led to the declaration that, “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” By linking the Jewish national movement to the sins of colonialism, the racial supremacy of South African Apartheid, and, by implication, German Nazism, the document officially endorsed a potent new anti-Semitic myth.

Though the resolution was rescinded in 1991, the scandalous slur has lived on. It continues to surface at the UN and at protests around the world, both as part of ideological attempts to delegitimize Israel in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict and as part of naked displays of vicious anti-Semitism. Thanks in part to this resolution, the thin line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, between philosophical opposition to Jewish nationalism and pure Jew-hatred, is dangerously blurred.

For these reasons, the story of the “Zionism is Racism” Resolution at the United Nations is typically regarded as a political tragedy: the collapse of the UN’s moral authority, the dawn of a new era of global anti-Semitism, an example of the devastating and cynical politicization of human rights, and a failure of Jewish diplomacy. Historian Gil Troy offers a very different reading in his new book Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism. A well-known scholar of presidential history and author of a sympathetic biography of Ronald Reagan, Troy is also an increasingly vocal defender of centrist Zionism in the realm of American Jewish public affairs. But here he is less interested in Israel advocacy or the UN blame-game than in recovering a forgotten moment of American heroism by the late politician Daniel Moynihan.

Then newly appointed as US Ambassador to the UN, Moynihan excoriated the UN resolution. “The [United States] does not acknowledge, it will not abide by it, will never acquiesce in this infamous act,” Moynihan thundered. “A great evil has been loosed upon the world.” These words proved futile in stopping the resolution’s passage. Nevertheless, Moynihan’s jeremiad electrified broad segments of the American public. His words became a clarion call for those who urged America’s political leadership not to capitulate to the moral compromises of realpolitik and détente. They emboldened a US foreign policy in search of a proper response to the rising current of anti-Westernism, one that equated American power with Western neo-colonialism.

Troy recovers the episode deftly, showing how logically flawed the anti-Zionist argument was then (as it is now). He reconstructs the bitter rivalry between Moynihan, the hard-boiled idealist and conservative Democrat, and Henry Kissinger, dean of Republican realism, along with the bit players at the State Department, the UN, the White House, the Israeli government, and the American Jewish establishment. Troy identifies the oft-forgotten strain of the sensible center in American foreign policy and the longing for American assertion of confidence in its values and their universal import. But his real passion seems to be for the incident’s self-revealing character as a turning point in an American rejection of 1970s malaise and a move towards the optimism and assertiveness that would mark the Reagan Revolution a few years later.

This is an intriguing claim. On many levels it makes sense, despite the slight time gap involved and Moynihan’s uneasy political fit with other aspects of the Reagan Revolution. Moynihan was part of the cluster of liberals who questioned the tilt towards leftist radicalism and defeatism in American domestic and foreign affairs. Though tagged by some as a neo-conservative, he rejected the label. One of the virtues of Troy’s book is that he wastes little time rehashing the current debates about neo-conservatism. Instead, he wisely focuses on Moynihan’s political iconoclasm, which borrowed from Left and Right but bowed to neither.

Just as Troy stresses Moynihan’s political independence, he is also concerned to defeat the assertion that political opportunism dictated the showcase speech. He takes pains to show that Moynihan’s response was not predicated on any particular bias in favor of Jewish political interests or Israel. In Troy’s reading, it was Moynihan’s ingrained political instinct for protecting liberal democracies and resisting ideological cant in diplomatic circles that drew him to Israel, not the other way around. If anything, Moynihan was skeptical of American Jewish arguments on behalf of Israel: “he did not take the UN job to woo Jews or run for office, as later critics charged … Jews were not on Moynihan’s mind.”

He decided to take a hard line at the UN in 1975 when he realized that the US could not remain on the defensive when it came to attacks on its foreign policy and its political allies. And he faced some of his stiffest criticism from Kissinger, a German Jewish Holocaust refugee, who nevertheless feared, to the point of absurdity, overexposing Jewish concerns in American foreign policy. Kissinger worried Moynihan would become Israel’s UN lackey — and upstage him.

Troy’s careful analysis of Moynihan’s motivations is one of the strengths of this book, if a bit redundant at times. In an era when both critics and advocates of the American-Israeli alliance often blithely assert that domestic politics drive US foreign policy (be it Jewish lobbying or Christian Zionist votes), it is an important lesson to remember that Israel often functions as much as a symbolic proxy for American identity in foreign affairs as a strategic ally or special interest issue. “In defending Zionism,” writes Troy, “Moynihan was combating what he saw as an ideological assault on Western values and American power.”

At times, Troy’s astute political narrative slips into a slightly breathless style of hagiography. Moynihan is half whiskey-swilling “Irish pol,” half “Harvard professor.” He is “the ultimate Warrior-Diplomat, elegant, intellectual, witty, charming but also blunt, blustery, explosive and aggressive.” We read too many times about the nefarious motives of the Saudis and other anti-Israel forces. And the last two chapters of the book recycle earlier observations in guise of how this turning point offers lasting lessons about Moynihan’s political trajectory and the larger arc of Reagan-era U.S. foreign policy.

Moynihan’s Moment is nonetheless an important act of historical recovery. As Troy reminds us, it was Moynihan’s unflinching “moral authority” that led to his moment at the UN and his successful rise in politics. Even as the “Zionism as Racism” charge still lingers, and even as UN leaders have themselves acknowledged the organization’s anti-Israel bias (most recently in a speech by Ban Ki Moon to Israeli students), the graver problem Troy diagnoses is the weakness of American moral vision and courage in foreign affairs. Forty years after the Moynihan moment at the UN, there is no shortage of anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism in the world. But there are fewer and fewer Moynihans rising to the challenge.