For the first time, the United Nations has recognized a Jewish holiday — Yom Kippur — as an official U.N. holiday.
Until last week, the U.N. had recognized 10 official holidays, including Christmas and Eid Al Fitr. Adding Yom Kippur means that no official meetings will take place that day and Jewish U.N. employees may observe the holiday without having to take the day off.
In an interview with The Jewish Week Tuesday, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Danny Danon, hailed the recognition, saying: “Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people, and the U.N. should have recognized this holiday many years ago. Finally an official place for the Jewish religion in the world’s parliament.”
Israel’s Mission to the U.N. has been seeking this recognition for the past two years. Danon said it was one of the first items he tackled and that it was not easy because it required such things as union approval. He noted that it was achieved with the help of the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power. That partnership convinced the organization to add Yom Kippur without the need for a resolution from its member states.
“The American-Israeli partnership at the U.N. stands for good versus bad and right versus wrong,” Danon said. “The value of justice, anchored in Jewish tradition and thought, will finally find its place in the family of nations, and be a part of the U.N.’s history.”
The move comes amid years-long criticism of Israel in the 193-nation world body, and systematic bias against Israel by several U.N. bodies — despite the U.N. Charter’s guarantee of equal treatment for all member nations.
Bias against Israel at the U.N. has been pervasive since Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians soured with the failure of the Oslo Accords, which was meant to produce a final-status settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. According to its Declaration of Principles signed Sept. 13, 1993, Israel and the Palestinians were to negotiate and conclude a settlement in no later than three years.
In the months after the Oslo Accords were signed, the atmosphere in the U.N. towards Israel changed radically. An article in The Jewish Week in January 1995 referred to the “growing acceptance of the Jewish state at the world body.”
“For years,” the article observed, “Israel had been viewed at the U.N. as a pariah state. But during the General Assembly that ended last month, Israeli representatives addressed the U.N. 11 times on a variety of issues, ranging from the 50th anniversary of the U.N. to the emergence of new democracies.”
“Israel used to make two speeches — one on the situation in the Middle East and the other on the question of the Palestinians,” Israel’s then-U.N. ambassador, Gad Yaacobi, told The Jewish Week.
He added that delivering 11 speeches, mostly on subjects unrelated to Israel, was an “important expression of our willingness to be a partner rather than a client” at the U.N.
Another barometer of that shift was that Israel was asked by a variety of other nations — including Argentina, Sweden and Australia — to co-sponsor 45 of their resolutions, compared with only seven requests the year before. Such requests, said Yaacobi, “means legitimization.” He noted also that Israel had been asked by the U.N. to participate in a new peacekeeping force in Haiti, and he said he had begun developing friendships with many ambassadors that would not have been possible before Oslo.
But Oslo’s failure renewed the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and the U.N. doormat, which had been graciously rolled out for Israel, was now rolled back. Israel was once again a pariah state. Things got so bad that in his opening speech to the 61st session of the General Assembly in September 2006, then-Secretary-General Kofi Anan felt compelled to acknowledge that the world body had often unfairly judged Israel.
“On one side, supporters of Israel feel that it is harshly judged by standards that are not applied to its enemies,” Annan said. “And too often this is true, particularly in some U.N. bodies.”
In fact, Israel is condemned more than any other country, routinely singled out in one-sided resolutions that criticize it in the General Assembly, the Security Council and in various U.N. agencies, most particularly the U.N. Human Rights Council. Helping to fuel the antagonism is a powerful 56-nation bloc of Arab and Muslim nations bent on isolating and demonizing the Jewish state.
Last March, in a speech marking the U.N.’s 70th anniversary, then-Israeli U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor pointed out that the world body was intended “to be a temple of peace” but has “been overrun by the repressive regimes that violate human rights and undermine international security.”
He noted that fewer than half of the U.N. member states are democracies and complained that the “very nations that deny democratic rights to their people abuse the United Nations’ democratic forums to advance their interests. The largest of these groups comprises members from the 120-member-strong bloc known as the Non-Aligned Movement. Since 2012, the bloc has been chaired by Iran, which has used its position to bolster its allies and marginalize Israel.”
Danon told The Jewish Week that he knew what to expect following his appointment last August, but that it was still a jolt.
“I knew it would not be easy, but I was not aware Israel would be such a focus of the U.N.,” he said. “In every committee and every discussion group they discuss Israel. There were 21 [anti-Israel] resolutions regarding Israel and not one on Syria, on the millions displaced and the thousands killed — they were not able to condemn what is happening in Syria.”
Asked about his relationship with ambassadors from other countries, Danon said: “I meet many ambassadors, even those not supportive of Israel. Privately they want to get to know Israel. It’s very interesting to see the public announcements and the private conversation.”
In addition, earlier this month the U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution introduced by Israel urging member states and other relevant organizations to increase efforts to help developing countries improve agricultural yields through new technologies. According to the Israeli mission to the U.N., the resolution was adopted with 146 votes in favor and 36 abstentions — despite opposition from the Arab bloc “simply because it was submitted by Israel.”
Danon also noted a statement made Monday at his request by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in which he said the firing of rockets from Southern Lebanon towards Israel was “a serious violation” of the 2006 ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah.
Three rockets had been fired from Southern Lebanon towards Israel, which retaliated with eight rounds of 120mm mortar. No casualties were reported on either side.
“I knew I was coming here to fight on behalf of Israel,” Danon added. “That is what we are doing on many fronts, and one is here at the U.N.”