United Nations

UN not antisemitic, says its point man on topic


During an event marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the United Nations last month, Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan ripped the global body for failing to tackle antisemitism.

“The UN was founded upon the ashes of the Holocaust. It was established to ensure such darkness would never be felt by humanity again,” the ambassador said, with UN Secretary-General António Guterres present. “Yet, when it comes to fighting antisemitism, sadly, the UN ignores its purpose.

“When it comes to anything related to Israel, this organization is very quick to respond and condemn. When it comes to Jew-hatred, the silence is deafening,” Erdan added. “The double standard is disgraceful.”

Leaders of an overwhelming number of Jewish global organizations, as well as former and current Israeli officials, take it for granted that the UN suffers from an antisemitic rot. It has declined to adopt any definition of antisemitism (let alone the widely accepted one), it remains hyperfocused on resolutions and statements that criticize Israel and its employees glorify Nazis and call for Jewish deaths.

Last Thursday, Ted Deutch, CEO of the American Jewish Committee and a former member of Congress, said at the UN that leaders of the body must break “through indifference among some diplomats and some UN personnel to what happens here sometimes in these halls.”

So what does the man assigned by the UN to tackle the problem think about it? For starters, he told JNS that he doesn’t believe that the UN is antisemitic.

“The Israeli government has played an important role in international relations and has been recognized by the UN,” Miguel Moratinos, UN point man on antisemitism, told JNS. “Israel and the Jewish people are integrated in the essence, in the soul of the UN So, how is the UN going to be antisemitic? I have to tell you, the UN is not antisemitic.”

Moratinos said that Erdan “should have been more positive,” citing several initiatives that he said made the case that the UN is not antisemitic, including a 2022 action plan to combat antisemitism and ongoing UNESCO educational work.

Erdan’s office told JNS that resolutions voted on by member states instructed the UN to establish the Holocaust and the UN Outreach Programme and hold specific ceremonies and that “these are not UN organizational actions.”

Israel’s mission to the UN and Jewish groups have also criticized Moratinos and other UN officials for failing to call out antisemitic comments from the UN special rapporteur for the Palestinians and members of the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry. Last July, Miloon Kothari, a member of the commission, told an anti-Israel website that “the Jewish lobby” largely controls social media companies. Kothari apologized, but Navi Pillay, commission chair, said the quote was taken out of context. (The full interview was published.)

At the time, Moratinos tweeted a broad condemnation of antisemitism, without any specific references to UN officials. 

The UN took no stance when it emerged in December that Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur to the Palestinians and a longtime anti-Israel activist, had made antisemitic remarks during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. She said that “America and Europe, one of them subjugated by the Jewish Lobby, and the other by the sense of guilt about the Holocaust, remain on the sidelines.”

Moratinos told JNS he denounced a recent Palestinian terror attack in Jerusalem publicly. He has also condemned numerous instances of antisemitic comments and actions outside the context of the UN, he said. But he first defended his lack of action when it came to Albanese’s quote by saying it dated back to 2014.

When JNS asked whether it was his position that a statute of limitations governs antisemitism, Moratinos said the special rapporteur, like members of the Commission of Inquiry, act independently of the UN and are “free to say whatever.”

Dan Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International, has met with Moratinos several times and believes Moratinos takes antisemitism seriously. Some 25 years ago, Moratinos made himself available to meet with Jewish groups as European Union representative for the Middle East peace process and as Spanish ambassador to Israel and foreign minister, according to Mariaschin.

“He’s also beginning to devote more attention to our issues,” Mariaschin told JNS, adding that there is a lot of work to be done. “They need to address this inside the UN, under the UN’s roof itself,” he said.

Moratinos told JNS that the pandemic held up his preferred timeline for developing a UN action and response plan for antisemitism, which is now not expected until June.

Most efforts to combat antisemitism focus on the Western world, but an analysis that Moratinos’s office conducted found a lack of education and awareness about hatred of Jews in Africa and India. A broader approach is necessary, he decided.

Moratinos told JNS the plan will have three parts. The UN’s global communications department will continue awareness initiatives, including those related to Holocaust remembrance. UNESCO will continue investing in educational programs, with increased focus on modern antisemitism. And the UN will establish an observatory mechanism for antisemitic attacks and for safeguarding synagogues and other Jewish sites.

“We want to really have a clear engagement to denounce any antisemitic attitude or feeling in the system,” Moratinos said. “Our plan is similar to the European strategy. We will be inspired by certain elements.”

Moratinos might have assumed the role was narrow or secondary and manageable with his UN Alliance of Civilizations job, according to Mariaschin. But special envoys, like Deborah Lipstadt’s State Department role monitoring and combating antisemitism, tend to be more proactive, he said.

“Whether he felt that he could do this on the side, I don’t know,” Mariaschin said. “Does he hear us? He certainly does. Does he understand it? I think he does. The question is, what more can be done within the UN itself to counter the antisemitism and anti-Israel bias within its own system?

“Who better to deal with problems of antisemitism within the UN itself than someone in a leadership position?” Mariaschin asked.

Moratinos remains adamant that his employer is not antisemitic. “What is clear, with fact, with action, is that the UN is not antisemitic,” he told JNS.

In response to questions from JNS about whether Guterres is pleased with the pace and manner in which Moratinos is addressing antisemitism, the office of the secretary-general said only, “Mr. Moratinos represents the secretary-general in these matters.”

As he and the UN develop a response plan to antisemitism, the disconnect between what Moratinos says he believes and what Israel and Jewish groups see as plain as day may prove exceedingly difficult to bridge.