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U.N. Ambassador Addresses Rabbis, Who Sing

Susan Rice stands up for the United Nations

Marc Tracy
March 05, 2012

The United Nations is probably not the easiest sell at the AIPAC Conference, given the institution’s long record of ganging up on the Jewish state in the General Assembly. The list of outrages might include Durban, the Goldstone Report, and untold dozens of smaller resolutions that would seem to hold Israel to, let’s say, an unusually stringent standard. This afternoon, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice addressed AIPAC’s Synagogue Delegation: a room full of about 400, mostly men, the majority wearing kippot, the plurality apparently Orthodox and up (and a few others, including AIPAC President Lee Rosenberg, like Rice a longtime backer of President Obama). Before them, her best defense was, to quote her predecessor, the late Richard Holbrooke: “Blaming the U.N. when things go wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly.” It’s individual countries using the U.N. for nefarious purposes, rather, and her case was that the U.N. can and has been also used for good.

Buying it? The rabbis may have: by the end of the speech, they were all standing, clapping, and singing, “Hinei Ma’Tov,” which Rice quoted at the beginning of her speech, adding a rough English translation: “How good it is when we come together.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld of the Rabbinical Assembly introduced Rice, prasing her as someone “willing to cast the lone no vote and be willing to exercise the veto,” and citing Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., who recently said (she said), “Susan Rice has been fantastic—just great.”

Rice entered to a standing ovation, though there was only tepid applause when she dreamed for a day when “the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael can at last find peace.” She was received more enthusiastically when she declared, “We still face leaders who deny the plain truths of history. Who deny their people basic rights. Who deny the right of their neighbors to exist,” and added, “We remain determined to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”

She also namechked “the brave people of Syria” and “a secure, Jewish and democratic state of Israel liv[ing] side-by-side with a viable Palestinian state established in direct negotiations: two states for two peoples living in peace and security.”

She told a funny story of then-U.N. ambassador Adlai Stevenson defending the Bay of Pigs operation at the General Assembly, stumbling over his text, and somehow saying, “Castro has circumcised the freedoms of the Catholics of Cuba.” This, the story went, prompted an Israeli diplomat to whisper to his Irish colleague, “I always knew that somehow we would be blamed for this.”

Then it was back to defending the president:

Not a day goes by—not one—when my colleagues and I don’t work hard to defend Israel’s security and legitimacy at the United Nations. Last fall, when the Palestinians prematurely sought U.N. membership, we stood firm on principle and rallied others to ensure no further obstacles were placed in the path to peace. President Obama went before the General Assembly and said, :There is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades. Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.” As he noted yesterday, that was not a big applause line. But it was the right thing to say. And for those who may still seek such a short cut, the vote count in the Security Council has not improved this year.

She also cited the Palestinian resolution condemning settlements that the administration vetoed, though she elided the staunch rhetorical criticism of the settlement enterprise that she herself hurled at Israel at the time.

She closed with something of a paean to the U.N.:

I know that you’re profoundly frustrated by the treatment Israel all too often endures at the U.N., and I am too. But I hope we never let that very justified frustration blind us from the very real good the U.N. does, from imposing critical sanctions on Iran and North Korea, to saving thousands of civilians in Libya, to protecting victims of genocide in Darfur. Some people suggest giving up. But for all the U.N.’s flaws, doing so would deeply harm American security and American values. And it would leave Israel alone to get bashed. It is not in our interest to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But it is very much in our interest to have the U.N. keep the peace in conflict zones at a fraction of the cost of sending U.S. troops to do the job, to save the lives of desperate refugees and starving children, to support fledgling democracies.

“How good it is when we come together,” she concluded. And then came the singing.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.