Moyni­han’s Moment: Amer­i­ca’s Fight Against Zion­ism as Racism

  • Review
By – March 19, 2013

Words mat­ter.” So the late Daniel Patrick Moyni­han believed and instruct­ed. The arc of Sen­a­tor Moynihan’s career as a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al and intel­lec­tu­al politi­cian was unique­ly shaped by his way with words. His own words some­times hurt him, as when the pol­i­cy catch­phras­es he coined caused out­sized crit­i­cal reactions.

Pro­fes­sor Gil Troy’s book focus­es on the high­light of Moynihan’s mere sev­en-month stint as US Ambas­sador to the Unit­ed Nations: his fierce oppo­si­tion to the three-word pro­pa­gan­da slo­gan, Zion­ism is racism,” adopt­ed by the UN Gen­er­al Assem­bly in Res­o­lu­tion 3379 in Novem­ber, 1975. Moyni­han under­stood how sim­ple and out­landish state­ments can insin­u­ate a cor­rupt idea into con­ven­tion­al discourse.

In a metic­u­lous, well-woven and read­able nar­ra­tive, Troy describes the emer­gence of the Zion­ism is Racism” cam­paign and the dra­mat­ic UN lob­by­ing on the vote. He shows how Moyni­han was fight­ing not only what he regard­ed as a Sovi­et-backed Cold War cam­paign aimed at the US as much as against Israel, but also State Depart­ment and Israeli gov­ern­ment indif­fer­ence verg­ing on cyn­i­cism toward a UN increas­ing­ly cap­tive to anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic, anti-West­ern sen­ti­ment and rhetoric.

The US and Israel lost the vote, but Moynihan’s alarums and ring­ing denun­ci­a­tions of the Res­o­lu­tion and its sup­port­ers made him a nation­al hero. Bet­ter than most would-be Moyni­han ana­lysts, Troy gets right the com­bi­na­tion of pro­fes­so­r­i­al assured­ness and outsider’s inse­cu­ri­ty that drove Moyni­han into occa­sion­al­ly over-charged behav­ior. Troy under­stands that Moyni­han was also dri­ven by stead­fast ide­al­ism: he tru­ly believed in democ­ra­cy and in the vision of human rights on which the UN was found­ed. Some thought he was attack­ing the UN; Troy shows that Moyni­han was try­ing to save it.

Troy is an his­to­ri­an of Ronald Reagan’s pres­i­den­cy and there is a drum­beat in the book that Moynihan’s stand-up moment was the anti­dote Amer­i­cans need­ed to get over their post-Viet­nam depres­sion and that it pre­saged Reagan’s re-awak­en­ing of patri­o­tism. These pas­sages seem more found­ed in ide­ol­o­gy than fact. It is unlike­ly that Moyni­han, who opposed much of Reagan’s for­eign and domes­tic poli­cies, would have agreed.

But this book calls much-need­ed atten­tion to an issue that rever­ber­ates still. Read­ers will find it fas­ci­nat­ing how over­whelm­ing­ly Amer­i­can civ­il rights and lib­er­al activists ral­lied in 1975 to Moynihan’s defense of Amer­i­can human rights lead­er­ship and Jew­ish nation­al­ism. To the extent that is sur­pris­ing today, Pro­fes­sor Troy’s his­to­ry of how three insid­i­ous words can mat­ter is as good an expla­na­tion as you can get. 

Robert A. Peck, an attor­ney who has been a Fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and com­mer­cial real estate exec­u­tive, served near­ly sev­en years on the staff of the late U.S. Sen­a­tor Daniel Patrick Moyni­han, includ­ing two years as his chief of staff.

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