In 1975 Chaim Herzog gave a firebrand speech to the UN General Assembly vehemently rejecting its resolution that equated Zionism with racism. Today, 40 years later, prizewinning historian Simon Sebag Montefiore describes the address as “one of the great speeches of the 20th century.”
He speaks from knowledge: A 2013 book Sebag Montefiore edited, “Speeches That Changed the World,” features Herzog and his speech, alongside figures ranging from Jesus to Churchill.
1975’s infamous UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 had been promoted by the Soviet and Arab blocs as part of a diplomatic campaign to isolate Israel. Although the anti-Israel resolution was denounced by the Western, democratic states which opposed it, it was adopted on November 10, 1975, by a vote of 72 to 35 (with 32 abstentions) following a furious debate.
Herzog, who refused to be put on the defensive during the debate, declared, “For us, the Jewish people, this is but a passing episode in a rich and an event-filled history.” He further stated that the resolution’s supporters were motivated by the “two great evils” of “hatred and ignorance.”
In a feat of rhetorical gymnastics, Herzog’s speech spanned the breadth of the history of anti-Semitism, quoted from the Bible and contemporary media, and described the “tragic fate” of other religious minorities in the Middle East.
“Over the centuries it has fallen to the lot of my people to be the testing agent of human decency, the touchstone of civilization, the crucible in which enduring human values are to be tested. A nation’s level of humanity could invariably be judged by its behavior towards its Jewish population. It always began with the Jews but never ended with them,” warned Herzog.
Forty years after the ratification of the resolution, Sebag Montefiore was asked in a recent interview why he thought Herzog’s address ranked as one of history’s great speeches.
“The first reason is that simply as an example of oratory, superb rhetoric, it deserves a place there among the great speeches, certainly the great speeches of the 20th century. First of all, just as a matter of literary and aesthetic appreciation of the choice of words, the simplicity, the message, the clarity,” said Sebag Montefiore.
“But the second thing is it’s a very important speech which really burns with an argument against anti-Semitism and against racism. So I think this speech really makes a brilliant stand and a brilliant argument against the pervasive anti-Semitism that is constantly growing even in the world after World War II,” said the historian.
‘Once again, Herzog’s speech is utterly relevant and even urgent’
“The third reason is about our own times today. It just happens, as we speak in 2016, that this speech has never been more relevant. Around us we do see attempts to delegitimize Israel, a sort of secret, hidden anti-Semitism growing in many countries, often on the right but also on the left. And once again, Herzog’s speech is utterly relevant and even urgent,” he said.
In his speech, Herzog told the UN delegates that it was they who would be judged by history for their vote on the issue of “anti-Semitic racism and anti-Judaism.” It was, declared Herzog, the future of the UN which was at stake, having been “dragged to its lowest point of discredit by a coalition of despots and racists.”
“For us, the Jewish people,” he concluded, “this is no more than a piece of paper, and we shall treat it as such,” before tearing the draft resolution in two.
At the time, the resolution deeply divided the UN. The British ambassador Ivor Richard described it as “capriciously introduced and wantonly pursued,” while US ambassador Patrick Moynihan declared that the US “does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.”
Sixteen years later, the General Assembly voted under UN General Assembly Resolution 46/86 to repeal the 1975 resolution – only the second such case in its history.
Belfast-born Herzog served as Israel’s sixth president from 1983 to 1993. He spoke at the UN with the moral authority of one who had personally liberated Nazi concentration camps, having served as a combat intelligence officer in the British army as it fought its way through Europe.
‘I am deeply troubled by a growing but also hidden, poisonous creed that is spreading through our culture in the West’
According to Sebag Montefiore, whose books on Stalin and Jerusalem have topped bestseller lists and scooped prestigious awards, the lessons of Herzog’s speech are now more relevant than ever.
“I am deeply troubled by a growing but also hidden, poisonous creed that is spreading through our culture in the West. Often it’s a sort of anti-Semitism concealed in anti-Zionism and this is exactly what Herzog’s talking about,” said Sebag Montefiore.
In November, the Permanent Mission of Israel to the UN, together with the Yad Chaim Herzog Association and American Jewish Committee, held an event to mark the 40th anniversary of the UN resolution. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State John Kerry attended and spoke, along with Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog. Brig. Gen. (Res.) Michael Herzog, the chairman of the Chaim Herzog Memorial Council and a son of Chaim, also attended.
Sebag Montefiore said he welcomed the high-profile efforts to mark the anniversary of Herzog’s speech.
“I’m very delighted that [the speech] has been celebrated by the Secretary General of the United Nations and I want to do all I can to make sure it’s extremely widely read today,” said Sebag Montefiore.