Last week's celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the U.N. Charter-signing in San Francisco offered both a toast to its successes and a roast for its failures.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Morris Abram charged the international body with failing to live up to its mission.
"The U.N. is too important to be ignored, but some things have to be changed," said Abram, who chairs U.N. Watch, based in Geneva. "Bearing in mind that the U.N. was primarily designed to save succeeding generations of mankind from the scourge of war, you have to say the United Nations did not succeed in its original purpose."
Abram discussed "The U.N. at 50: A Jewish Perspective" Saturday evening at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre, during the 103rd annual Conference of the American Jewish Historical Society.
U.C. Berkeley Professor emeritus William Zev Brinner and U.C. Davis Professor emeritus Morton Rothstein also addressed the event, which was co-sponsored by the Western Jewish History Center of the Judah L. Magnes Museum. Stephen Dobbs, president and CEO of Marin Community Foundation, served as emcee.
It was a war against the Axis powers that united the body's original 26 states, said Abram, who as a major in the U.S. Air Force Intelligence Service stood outside Herbst Theatre when the delegates signed the U.N. charter.
The former counsel to the U.S. prosecution staff at the Nuremberg Trials repeated the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, "Peace, like war, can only succeed when there is a will to enforce it…and the United Nations must have the authority to act."
Abram said the U.N. Security Council was supposed to be like the police, able to respond to aggression. But it "has never had any substance whatsoever." Notable exceptions were the Korean War, the Gulf War and interventions in Somalia and Haiti, he added.
Abram blamed several forces for the United Nation's breakdown, starting with the atomic bomb. The bomb ignited distrust among the member states, he said. Referring to the Cold War, he said it was not easy for two warring nations — the United States and the former Soviet Union — to resolve their differences when 181 other states stood on the sidelines offering their opinions.
He also said the United Nations has fared poorly in finding a solution to Arab-Israeli tensions.
"Look at the Mideast peace process," he said. "The United Nations has no role in it," because neither Israel nor the Arab states desire its involvement.
Israel, he observed, has its reasons. Abram winced as he recalled a 1972 incident at the U.N. General Assembly: "Idi Amin, the monster president of Uganda, stood up in that lofty place and said Israel should be expelled from the U.N., and it should be destroyed, and received a standing ovation in the Parliament of Man."
Abram had served on the U.N.'s subcommittee on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities and the U.N. Committee on Human Rights. During the '60s, he served as president of the American Jewish Committee.
During his talk, Brinner noted that since Israel became a member of the United Nations in May of 1949, no bloc of nations ever accepted it, especially in its own region, the Middle East.
"Israel was increasingly isolated in the U.N.," said Brinner, who was director of the Overseas Study Center of the University of California at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He also headed the Center for Arabic Studies at the American University in Cairo.
"It was only the development of a close relationship with the United States under certain administrations and at certain times under those administrations, and the U.S. veto of certain votes in the Security Council that saved Israel from U.N. sanctions and even from expulsion."
Brinner added: "I won't go through the various wars that Israel had to fight and the way in which the U.N. reacted to these wars. Let's just remember that the 1973 Yom Kippur War really saw the further isolation of Israel, the further withdrawal of diplomatic recognition, and in November of 1974, [Palestine Liberation Organization chairman] Yasser Arafat was invited to address the General Assembly and all of us have that vision of him waving his pistol at the General Assembly."
Referring to the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism, which the General Assembly repealed four years ago, Abram noted that racism is a crime under an international convention. So Zionism, "from 1975 to 1991, was officially stamped by the legislature of the United Nations a crime."
Brinner said while Israeli opinion in 1947 "deeply believed the U.N. to be an objective, moral arbiter in international affairs, [the Jewish state] became disenchanted in the '50s, defiant in the '60s, sought as the enemy in the '70s and early '80s."
As a result, Israel's reaction to the United Nations today is a "shrug of the shoulders," he added.
Brinner, who attended several U.N. sessions half a century ago, when the delegates were in San Francisco, also disputed the notion that the United Nations was responsible for creating the Jewish state.
Israel was not established until three years after the United Nations was founded, he said, and "it's clear the U.N. partition resolution [carving up Palestine between the Arabs and Jews] simply provided an opening, part of a chain of events that brought the state into being."