How to Keep Antisemitism Away From Turtle Bay
by David May and Richard Goldberg
Another antisemite has turned up in the ranks of senior UN officials — this time in the body’s human rights arm, no less. Craig Mokhiber heads the New York section of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which oversees the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
On Twitter, Mokhiber has falsely accused the Jewish state of “genocidal cruelty” and of committing “ongoing genocide,” “race-based slaughter,” “apartheid,” and “ethnic cleansing.” But that’s just par for the course. Mokhiber is currently in the spotlight because UN Watch — an NGO dedicated to accountability at Turtle Bay — issued a report showing that Mokhiber wants to block the UN from endorsing a widely-used definition of antisemitism, a key step in the process of rooting out antisemitism at the UN.
The Biden administration is a bit player in this drama, which is part of the problem. It promised that deeper and more consistent engagement with UN bodies would promote reform, but that hasn’t happened. The Mokhiber affair suggests it is past time for the Biden administration and Congress to threaten to withhold US funding from any UN body found to be engaging in antisemitism.
Thirty-six countries, including the United States, plus the European Union have endorsed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. IHRA’s examples of antisemitism include: “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” “Applying double standards” to Israel, and comparing Israel to Nazi Germany.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres, former UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, and the UN’s lead in monitoring antisemitism, Miguel Moratinos, have voiced support for the IHRA definition.
But not Mokhiber. He’s repeatedly attacked the IHRA definition and claimed that accusations of antisemitism are techniques used to silence human rights defenders. Mokhiber accused the IHRA definition of being politicized and has claimed that defending Palestinian human rights caused him to be “smeared as an antisemite.” Evoking anti-Jewish tropes, Mokhiber cast accusations of antisemitism as “a tired old trick” by “desperate defenders of oppression” to avoid revealing “the evil of their position.”
No one should mistake Mokhiber for a bad apple in a good barrel. He’s just the latest antisemitic official in a UN system structured to ensure the Jewish state gets held to a double standard.
A subsidiary body of Mokhiber’s employer, the UN Human Rights Council, uses the state of Israel as a scapegoat and a way to deflect attention away from the terrible human rights records of the dictatorships that sit on the council. Accordingly, the UNHRC maintains a special agenda item that ensures the scrutinizing of Israel at every session, something no other country faces.
Roughly half of UNHRC resolutions condemning a specific country have targeted Israel — as compared to zero for China, Cuba, and others. Nine out of 35 UNHRC special sessions have targeted Israel. And the UNHRC passed a resolution in 2016 calling for a blacklist of companies operating in Israeli-controlled territories, something the council has not done for any other disputed region.
The UNHRC also maintains a special rapporteur dedicated to scrutinizing alleged Israeli crimes but not Palestinian ones. Only this UNHRC special rapporteur has an open-ended mandate.
In February 2023, the current rapporteur, Francesca Albanese, blamed Israel for a Palestinian terrorist attack that left six Israelis and one Ukrainian dead. In 2014, prior to her appointment, Albanese described the United States as “subjugated by the Jewish lobby.” Top US officials recently condemned these remarks.
In a separate post from 2014, Albanese claimed that the “Israeli lobby,” directed by “Israel’s greed,” skewed media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Albanese has also compared Israel to the Nazis, declared Israel to be a racist endeavor, and repeatedly voiced opposition to the IHRA working definition of antisemitism.
Other structures and personnel within the council spew antisemitism as well. In May 2021, the UNHRC voted to launch a commission of inquiry designed to delegitimize Israel with the false accusations of apartheid. The three panelists who lead the commission are well-suited to their role. In an interview published in July 2022, panelist Miloon Kothari expressed his resentment of “the social media that is controlled largely by — whether it is the Jewish lobby or specific NGOs” and the money they throw around. US ambassadors and envoys criticized the “antisemitic, anti-Israel comments.”
Panelist Navi Pillay lashed out at those allegedly taking Kothari’s words “out of context,” not at the antisemitism of her colleague. In 2008, as the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, Pillay castigated “certain lobby groups focused on single issues,” a coded reference to Jewish organizations. The final panelist, Chris Sidoti, complained that Jews and Israel toss out accusations of antisemitism “like rice at a wedding.”
But UN antisemitism stretches well beyond the UNHRC. Double standards are pervasive. The UN General Assembly has passed more country-specific resolutions condemning Israel than against all other countries combined. The UN’s cultural and education arm, UNESCO, refers to the Temple Mount only by its Muslim name, erasing the Jewish connection to Judaism’s holiest site. And the World Health Organization’s only country-specific permanent agenda item is dedicated to scrutinizing Israel. In 2021, amid a global pandemic, this agenda item consumed a full day of the organization’s eight-day conference.
The UN even maintains a refugee agency dedicated exclusively to the Palestinians. It is the only such organization that operates independently from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which oversees all other refugees in the world.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) — the body for Palestinian refugees — has per capita budget and staffing levels that far outstrip those of UNHCR. UNRWA also helps perpetuate the Palestinian refugee issue by maintaining a uniquely expansive definition of who is a refugee, and by opposing resettlement as a solution. Numerous UNRWA teachers have been documented praising Hitler, supporting the murder of Jews, and spouting antisemitic conspiracies.
Beyond UNRWA, the UN maintains several bodies devoted exclusively to the Palestinians, which ensures heightened scrutiny of and discrimination against Israel. The Division for Palestinian Rights (DPR), the only UN division devoted to a specific nation or group of people, serves as the secretariat for the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP). The CEIRPP oversees the UN Information System on the Question of Palestine (UNISPAL), which operates as a UN-funded Palestinian propaganda arm. These entities also organize the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Speakers at solidarity day events have promoted blood libels against Israel; compared Israel’s actions to those of the Nazis; and advocated a “free Palestine from the river to the sea,” which is a call to ethnically cleanse the land of Jews. The UN also maintains a Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices, created in 1968, with a mandate solely focused on investigating purported Israeli abuses.
While the UN’s antisemitism’s recent growth is worrisome, it isn’t new. On November 10, 1975, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) voted to declare Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, to be a form of racism. Jewish groups faced harassment, pressure, and exclusion for decades because of the UN’s declaration. In 1991, amid the Soviet Union’s collapse and the blossoming of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the UNGA revoked its prior resolution, erasing a stain on the international body’s legacy.
But just 10 years later, in September 2001, the UN again devolved into open antisemitism. The World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) “disintegrated into an anti-American, anti-Israeli circus,” according to Holocaust survivor Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), who was in attendance. Attendees at the parallel NGO forum praised Hitler, equated Zionism with Nazism, and spread blood libels regarding Israel.
This Jew-hating venom remains in the UN’s blood. Mokhiber’s hostile comments against Israel, some of which can be classified as antisemitic, are trivial compared to the UN’s structural anti-Israel bias. By holding the Jewish state to a double standard, the world’s largest intergovernmental body is promoting antisemitism — as are those officials peddling centuries-old antisemitic tropes.
Every year, the president requests and Congress appropriates upwards of a billion dollars to the United Nations and its various agencies and operations. That money should not be handed over as a blank check. Instead, conditions should be added to tie US funding to any UN organization on whether that organization or its officials engage in antisemitism. American taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize the world’s oldest hatred.
The new chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that controls US foreign assistance recently pledged to get aggressive in reviewing American funding for the UN. Ending UN antisemitism is one area where Congress can move the needle.
David May is a research manager at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Richard Goldberg is a senior adviser. Follow the authors on Twitter @rich_goldberg and @DavidSamuelMay.