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Standing up, speaking out

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Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism, by Gil Troy, Oxford, 368 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER

Daniel Patrick Moynihan is one of my heroes, so I’m glad he’s held in esteem by historian Gil Troy.

Moynihan’s Moment refers to the late professor and senator’s seven months as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and particularly his ringing denunciation of U.N. Resolution 3379, declaring Zionism to be racism, on Nov. 10, 1975.

After its passage, Moynihan rose to call it a “terrible lie” and declare — twice — that the United States “does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.”

His passionate eloquence endeared him to Jews, but not to the State Department or its secretary, Henry Kissinger.

Troy, a McGill University history professor, is familiar to readers of the Jerusalem Post opinion pages. His generally laudatory book doesn’t overlook Moynihan’s faults and occasional missteps as a government official and presidential adviser, nor sharply negative statements by Moynihan critics. He was sworn in on June 30, 1975, by President Gerald Ford, who backed his assertiveness despite Kissinger’s complaints.

Moynihan blamed the Soviet Union as the real source of the resolution, Troy says. For the USSR, propagandizing Zionism as racism served several purposes: discrediting the United States, Israel’s supporter; currying favor and influence with Arab and African countries; indulging historic Russian anti-Semitism, and supporting Soviet boasts as world bastion of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism — despite its control of nations within its borders and in Eastern Europe.

The racism resolution “fused long-standing anti-Semitism with anti-Americanism,” Troy says. “Criminalizing Zionism turned David into Goliath, deeming Israel the Middle East’s perpetual villain with the Palestinians the perennial victims.”

Equating Zionism with racism led to equating Israel with apartheid South Africa. Although U.S. pressure led in 1991 to revoking 3379’s determination that Zionism is racism, both lies remain popular.

Troy says Moynihan believed that 3379 was wrong in asserting a racism that didn’t exist and wrongheaded in condemning Israel with a vile label negating its legitimacy. The U.S. public — already fed up with America as world punching bag — largely agreed, Troy says. Moynihan was catapulted to celebrity and Americans’ support for the U.N. plummeted.

Troy provides so much about Moynihan’s opposition to 3379 that I can’t imagine a more thorough account that would be readable. Particularly interesting is the relationship between Moynihan and Kissinger, Moynihan’s superior even though the U.N. post also was a cabinet position. Neither man was short on self-esteem, and Moynihan’s flamboyance — that on Oct. 3, he’d called Uganda’s Idi Amin a racist murderer — clashed with a secretary more inclined to private maneuvering and adjustment of objectives to his reading of realism.

But Americans’ “fury against U.N. hypocrisy, Third World ingratitude, Arab aggression, Soviet manipulation and American impotence had been building for years,” Troy says. Moynihan “stoked these fires expertly, bringing to diplomatic life the cinematic role of the plain-speaking American mastered by Henry Fonda and James Stewart: the lone man speaking truth to power in a corrupt institution.”

The cost was high. “Hypersensitive to criticism,” Moynihan keenly felt attacks against him and called a news conference on Nov. 21, 1975, to announce his resignation. Ten minutes before the start, Ford and Kissinger called, begging him to stay. Moynihan resigned for good on Jan. 31, 1976, returning to Harvard. Riding a wave of fame and approval, he was elected that November to the first of four terms as a U.S. senator from New York.

Moynihan’s Moment appears exhaustively researched and has an index, photos and a helpful chronology. But Troy’s thoroughness and clear writing are undermined by the penny-wise, pound-foolish ways of Oxford (University Press): uncomfortably small type and no subheads within chapters, creating 269 text pages of intimidating grayness.

Troy also provides insightful analysis of the 1970s and its discomforting societal changes and apologetic foreign policy ripe for Moynihan’s “politics of patriotic indignation.” Troy says: “Although he often approached his diplomatic post as a forum for staging performance art, Moynihan nonetheless believed he was fighting a civilizational conflict.” Moynihan was disturbed by “the obsession with America’s shortcomings and an inability to see America as a force for good.”


Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.

(American Jewish World, 1.4.13)


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