When foreign dignitaries arrive in New York City for the annual gathering of the UN General Assembly, it’s often difficult to determine which world leaders are rolling past in which dark limousines. But one country’s representatives typically stand out. It’s the country whose embassy and consulate on Second Avenue are enclosed within a double row of metal barriers. A solid line of NYPD squad cars occupies every inch of surrounding curb; a white police booth stands guard at the entrance to the building. That country is Israel, and on a recent September morning I made my way through all of these obstacles to meet the man behind the fencing: Ambassador Ron Prosor.
The latest General Assembly session, which opens this week, may be more preoccupied than usual with the Jewish state, given the Gaza war over the summer. Perhaps even more importantly, this summer’s other crises—in Syria, in Iraq, in Ukraine, in the South China Sea—provide much that many nations are anxious not to talk about. The Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Group of 77, even the European Union: All can project unity if, and only if, the topic is Israel. In this respect, the Jewish state performs for the world community the same service that the weather or the dogs perform for a troubled family: a safe diversion from awkward disagreements.
In many ways, and on many days, it feels as if the whole UN system is concerned with the monitoring and critiquing of one small member nation. The world is full of regional conflicts and displaced refugees. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has given rise to two sole-purpose bureaucracies: an independent refugee agency and a specialized commission on Palestinian rights, known in UN-speak as UNRWA and UNISPAL. It counts as a victory at the UN when Israel manages to introduce and pass a resolution in favor of environmentally sustainable agricultural technology, though even such an anodyne measure provokes controversy. As the ambassador from Iraq explained regarding the resolution on agriculture, on behalf of the Arab bloc, “Israel had no credibility because … as an occupying Power, it routinely violated and rejected United Nations resolutions and, showing such disdain for the Organization, was unqualified to submit a resolution to it.” Anti-Israel sentiment often mixes with virulent displays of anti-Semitism, as has been the case in a series of UN conferences on racism that began in Durban, South Africa in 2001.
Scan UN General Assembly and Security Council resolutions on the subject of Israel over the decades, and you’ll see that some, like one declaring the “permanent sovereignty of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem” are adopted and re-adopted so often as to constitute an annual ritual on the UN calendar. No other problem or conflict on earth has generated so much UN activity. Here’s one stark way to visualize the disparity: Since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, the UN General Assembly has adopted four resolutions on one of the deadliest explosions of violence since 1945. In that same period, the General Assembly has adopted eight resolutions calling on Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syrian rule.
In much of the developed world, the UN has lost considerable importance since the romantic days of the 1940s and 1950s. It’s inconceivable now that a former U.S. presidential nominee would accept the UN ambassadorship as an appropriate position, as Adlai Stevenson did under President Kennedy. The role is instead seen as a stepping stone to a higher rank; President Obama’s first UN ambassador, Susan Rice, now serves as his national security advisor. In some less-developed countries, the UN job offers a profitable capstone to a political career—a chance for a former foreign minister or even head of government to live in New York with a staff, a car, and a driver.
For Israeli diplomats, meanwhile, the mission to the UN is a role second only to the mission to the United States. Because Israel is so central to the UN, the UN is inescapably central to Israel. The Washington job, however, is carried out among mostly friendly people. The UN ambassador must work under adverse and even hostile conditions to achieve even a small measure of the recognition that every other country enjoys as a matter of right.
Since 2011, this job has fallen to the genial but adamantly tough Ron Prosor, a career diplomat whose grandparents got out of Germany just in the nick of time. His toughness was on display in August, when 45 UN peacekeepers from Fiji were taken prisoner near the Golan Heights by anti-regime fighters in Syria. Israel’s UN representative was called to a UN Peacekeeping office, where he was asked if the Israelis could help find the Fijians. Prosor pointed out that the UN has repeatedly demanded that Israel cease its aerial surveillance of Syria and Lebanon, publicly condemning overflights in Lebanon as recently as May 2013. Where would the UN be now, he demanded, if Israel had heeded the organization’s demands? Israel nevertheless aided the rescue mission, and the peacekeepers were released on September 11.
Prosor’s primary task over the UN’s fall session will be to work with friendly governments—notably the U.S., U.K., and rotating member Australia—to avert a one-sided or punitive Security Council resolution on the Gaza war. But Prosor is not a diplomat who remains on defense. On the day I spent with him at the UN, he was instead on the offensive—campaigning on an issue that might at first seem obscure: the UN holiday calendar. The institution observes 10 holidays. Six reflect the fact that the UN is based in New York and most of its employees accordingly send their children to schools closed on major American holidays: New Year’s Day, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving. The four other holidays are major religious festivals of significance to UN member nations: the Christian holy days of Good Friday and Christmas, and the Muslim holy days of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
Since arriving at the UN in 2011, Prosor has sought to force some institutional acceptance of Judaism as a religion, distinct from the Israeli-Palestinian context. The United States and most EU member states, along with Australia, Canada, Uruguay, and other liberal democracies, have joined with Israel to formally request that the UN add the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur as an 11th officially recognized holiday. The proposal has split the so-called Group of 77 (a bloc of less-developed countries that by now numbers more than 77), with predominantly Christian nations approving it and predominantly Muslim nations resisting. At the UN, resistance takes amorphous shapes: The proposal is premature. … It distracts from more urgent UN business. … What about Hindu or Chinese holidays? During my visit, I observed a senior diplomat from a friendly country take Prosor aside to warn him that he might forfeit goodwill by pressing too hard on the Yom Kippur matter.
Yet little by little, the resistance seems to be yielding. Not in 2014, but perhaps in 2015 or 2016, the UN may observe a Jewish holiday on equal terms with the holidays of the other great monotheisms. As other nations in the Middle East appear to be dissolving and collapsing, Prosor and his team at Turtle Bay are working to fulfill the promise that Jews will someday live as other peoples do—as full and normal members of the community of nations.
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