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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Moral Relativism of the United Nations

Filed under: Antisemitism, Israel
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

No 118, 3 Shvat 5776

  • Moral relativists justify immoral practices. Such justifications can lead to extreme implementations of moral relativism, for example, equating the values of the Nazis with those of the Allies, indirectly justifying the Holocaust, or justifying it by stating that the Holocaust was understandable in the context of German culture at the time.
  • UN member states are legally committed to the idea of universal equality. The United Nations, its affiliated organizations, and its representatives have, however, become a repeat abuser of moral relativism. This key tool to undermine human values is particularly used in actions against Israel.
  • Instead of looking inward and ending their own abuses, UN member states, led by the Arab bloc, use the United Nations as a global forum to demonize the lone democracy in the Middle East, applying a radically different moral standard to Israel than they do to their own policies and actions.
  • The UN General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and UNESCO all extensively apply moral relativism to Israel. The superfluous existence of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) embodies moral relativism. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon implements different standards for Israel than for other countries.

The United Nations, its affiliated organizations, and its representatives pervasively and recurrently employ moral relativism to attack Israel. Moral relativism is a key tool used to undermine human values. According to a Stanford University definition, moral relativism “is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to the moral standard of some person or group of persons.”1 Philosopher James Velleman defines moral relativity as occurring when: “There is no universally valid morality, only moralities plural, each having merely local validity.”2

Many use moral relativism to accuse Israel of alleged “crimes.” States often do so while whitewashing their own behavior, which is often similar in nature to their accusations against Israel or even far worse. They frequently also ignore or whitewash elements of the huge criminality inherent in large parts of the Muslim world. This may include mass murders, racial and other discrimination, extreme abuse of women including honor killings, as well as slavery, incitement, and other major violence.

Once one accepts the principle of moral relativism as legitimate, one is on the road to structurally undermining democracy and core human values. The application of double standards is a broader concept than that of moral relativism. Whereas the latter strongly emphasizes values, the use of double standards does not necessarily focus on them.3

Moral relativists justify immoral practices. Such justifications can lead to extreme implementations of moral relativism, for example, equating the values of the Nazis with those of the Allies, indirectly justifying the Holocaust, or justifying it by stating that the Holocaust was understandable in the context of German culture at the time.

The United Nations Charter, the organization’s founding document, was ratified in June 1945, only a month after the Allies declared victory over the Nazis in Europe. The second paragraph of the Charter’s preamble proclaims, “We the people of the United Nations determined … to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”4 Similarly, article 2 of “Chapter I: Purposes and Principles” of the Charter states, “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.”5 Yet, in the case of Israel, this founding principle seems to not apply.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. Article 1 of the UDHR asserts, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”6

The UDHR laid the groundwork and established the principles of international human rights law and the United Nations. A watershed of human rights legislation, the UDHR was intended to prevent a second Holocaust by affirming the equality of all people and nations.

Yet, although UN member states are legally committed to the idea of universal and sovereign equality, in practice this has not been the case. Instead the United Nations has become a repeat abuser of moral relativism, particularly in actions regarding Israel. The employment of moral relativism toward Israel has permeated the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). It was constantly used to demonize Israel in the UNHRC’s commissioned reports on Gaza conflicts in 2009 and 2014.

Moral relativism has also been employed frequently by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, elected in part to uphold the organization’s founding universal values, has also been guilty of using moral relativism when comparing Israel to its enemies, and particularly to terror groups among them.

The General Assembly

In December 2014 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on Israel to withdraw to the pre-1967 borders on the “Syrian Golan.”7 It asserted that peace could not be achieved without Israel’s serious commitment to the withdrawal. What the resolution did not say was that even if Israel were sufficiently suicidal to withdraw from the Golan, it would not make any significant contribution to peace and could well trigger even more violence.

At that time it was clear to all those voting on behalf of their country that Israel was at most a marginal player in the murderous Syrian civil war. By that time over 200,000 Syrians had been killed by other Syrians – a figure that has since increased substantially. Another 3.2 million Syrians had fled abroad.8 Many more millions were displaced within the country itself.9 The resolution also ignored the extraordinary criminality of Assad’s government, which included the use of chemical weapons. Regardless, 162 states supported this resolution, and only Israel opposed it; 15 states abstained from voting.10

The General Assembly’s moral relativism becomes even clearer in light of the numerical support for another resolution from December 2014, which demanded the end of human rights violations in Syria. Only 127 members voted in favor of the resolution, with 13 votes against and 48 abstentions.11 

The General Assembly, the main UN body, was originally established to represent all member states on an equal basis. It has become one of the consistent abusers of moral relativism at the UN in all that concerns Israel.

Probably the most extreme case of moral relativism toward Israel in the General Assembly was the “Zionism is Racism” resolution of 1975. This concept had been promoted in the previous decade after a failed attempt to expel Israel from the United Nations. It served to justify the refusal of the Soviet Union to condemn anti-Semitism, and was part of a move for greater Soviet influence in the Middle East aiming at turning Arab states into Soviet allies. Zionism had already been defamed with its inclusion as one of a group of extreme reprehensible movements. For example, a 1973 General Assembly resolution mentioned “the unholy alliance between Portuguese colonialism, South African racism, Zionism and Israeli imperialism.”12

Canadian legal expert Prof. Anne Bayefsky noted that the General Assembly had gone beyond moral relativism and was forthrightly anti-Semitic. In various National Review articles she pointed to serial offenses on the topic. These included providing Holocaust-denying former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a platform to spew anti-Semitic hatred,13 as well as granting observer status to the terrorist-funding Islamic Development Bank.14 The General Assembly has also established a UN Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Its past ceremonies have displayed maps where the state of Israel has been erased, and even devoted moments of silence to suicide bombers.15

Israel also faced absurd scrutiny in the General Assembly in 1997 when it called an emergency session on Israeli construction at Har Homa, then a barren hill between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Dore Gold, currently director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was then ambassador to the United Nations. As he noted:

In the entire UN history, perhaps nine or ten Emergency Special Sessions have been convened. Sometimes the same session was reconvened a number of times. Almost all dealt with the Middle East and Israel. I was ambassador at the UN in 1997, when the aforementioned Emergency Special Session convened to discuss Israeli building at Har Homa.

The emergency session recommended that the High Contracting Parties of the Fourth Geneva Convention, that is, the signatories of the 1949 Convention that deals with the protection of civilians in times of war, be convened to take measures addressing Israeli violations of it.

Gold added that the General Assembly did not call on the High Contracting Parties to convene during any other major conflicts, several of which involved major casualties such as the Soviet invasions of Afghanistan and Czechoslovakia, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, India’s invasion of Pakistani territory, and the Moroccan invasion of the Western Sahara.

The use of moral relativism toward Israel while ignoring the far worse human rights records of many other UN member states has been pervasive since the first years of the United Nations. In 1952 Israel put forward a resolution for a ceasefire in the Korean War. This resolution encountered serious opposition, only to pass easily once Norway replaced Israel as sponsor. In response, Israeli ambassador Abba Eban said, “If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions.”16

Gold saw moral relativism as “an inevitable by-product of the UN’s work; often the attacker was not treated very differently from the victim of aggression.”17 In other words, the General Assembly, the main UN body intended to represent all member states on an equal basis, is an extreme abuser of moral relativism with regard to Israel.

The UN Human Rights Council

One of several UN agencies that regularly practice the abuse of moral relativism against Israel is the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). In 2006 this body succeeded the UN Commission on Human Rights. The extreme perversion of values occurring in UN bodies often results from the concerted policies of various Muslim states. These are then also supported by others, whether Muslim states or non-Muslim allies. In view of the many readily available examples from the UNHRC, a separate essay would be required to do justice to this subject. In this context, however, one recent example may serve to illustrate the issue.

In the summer of 2014 the UNHRC held a debate on the “Occupied Arab Territories.” This session included a heartfelt plea by Rachel Frankel, the mother of Naftali, one of three Israeli boys who had been kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists. The session was largely used, however, to blame Israel for “occupying” Palestine.

Representatives of various other states that hold, have held, are at war or have warred over disputed territory were in attendance and criticized Israel. Ethiopia declared that Israel was guilty of occupation.18 Yet, after this statement, no UNHRC members mentioned the 1998-2000 Ethiopian-Eritrean war in which an estimated 70,000-120,000 civilians and soldiers were killed. This war was started because of Ethiopia’s occupation of the Eritrean Badame region.19

Russia, for its part, spoke of the “indivisibility” of Palestinian territory.20 Yet it is currently involved in numerous territorial disputes, including those with UN member states Japan,21Ukraine,22 and Georgia.23 Morocco and Algeria, which have both occupied the disputed Western Sahara region over the past 45 years, also made statements condemning Israel for its occupation of the Palestinian territories.24 25

Although the territorial disputes and occupations maintained by these states have exacted a far greater death toll, Israel’s actions were deemed intolerable according to these moral relativists. During rebuttals, no mention was made of the territorial disputes of the states that hypocritically attacked Israel, except for an argument between the Moroccan and Algerian representatives over who really had a claim to Western Sahara.26

These and other UNHRC member states claim that Israel is morally corrupt in its mistakenly termed “occupation of Palestine.” These, however, are “disputed territories” according to international law and not “occupied areas.” At the same time, these states’ own illegal occupations of territory are overlooked for the sake of condemning Israel.

Overall, the sheer volume of resolutions against Israel in the UNHRC is a major indicator of this body’s extreme moral relativism. There have been more UNHRC resolutions against Israel than against all other 191 countries in the world combined.

Although the UN Charter claims that it advocates for “the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity, and non-selectivity,” the “Muslim and allies”-dominated UNHRC does little to stop the worst abuses within the Muslim world. Principles of universality were challenged by the UNHRC in 2008 when the mandate of freedom of expression, one of the tenets of the UDHR, was overturned by the Muslim-dominated council in a motion to protect Islamic sensitivities. Now, anyone who “abuses” this freedom and dares to “say something deemed offensive to Islamic sensitivities” must be reported to the council.28

Gaza Reports

Another extreme example of the moral relativism enacted by UN agencies can be found in the UNHRC reports on violent conflicts in Gaza. The first was the Goldstone Report, chaired by the South African human rights judge Richard Goldstone, on Israel’s 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead. This report, to which Israel refused to contribute,29 was largely compiled from Gazan testimonies taken at Gaza City’s UNRWA headquarters. These sources were chosen despite the existence of significant additional information from other sources that would have proved illuminating.30

Moral relativism is blatantly evident in the selectivity applied to the choice of information used. This selectivity sometimes goes even beyond moral relativism – for instance, when it demonstrates improper inquiry and lack of investigative integrity. This often characterizes UN reporting relating to Israel. The 452-page Goldstone Report makes no mention, for example, of the Hamas Charter, which calls for genocide against the Jews.31 The report also fails to mention Hamas’s use of private houses and civilian areas as rocket-launching pads, or its deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians.32 The report’s authors even disputed a statement made by Fathi Hammad, a high-ranking Hamas member, a month after the operation ended. Hammad described Hamas’s strategy as “death seeking” in its use of civilians, particularly women and children, as human shields to fight “the Zionist bombing machine.”33 The commission wrote that this was not indicative of Hamas strategy and that Hammad’s words did not “constitute evidence” of the use of human shields.

Only 20 pages of the report focus on Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians. Eight of these deal with rocket attacks on unrecognized Bedouin and recognized “Palestinian” villages in southern Israel. The report claims that the dearth of information on Hamas’s targeting of Israeli civilians was due to the Israeli government’s refusal to cooperate with the investigation.34 However, this did not prevent the commission from giving exhaustive descriptions of Israel’s treatment of Arab-Israeli citizens.

Former Israeli President Shimon Peres pointed out the moral relativism in the Goldstone Report. He said that it “makes a mockery of history” and “does not distinguish between the aggressor and the defender. War is crime and the attacker is the criminal. The defender has no choice. The Hamas terror organization is the one who started the war and also carried out other awful crimes. Hamas has used terrorism for years against Israeli children.”35 In 2011 Goldstone wrote that he regretted the report’s demonization of Israel. He also admitted that the mission could have investigated the situation more thoroughly.36 He did not, however, refer to the report’s structural moral relativism, something that, as a judge with considerable experience, he must have been aware of while it was being prepared.

Moral relativism was also frequently employed in the 2015 UNHRC-commissioned report on the 2014 Protective Edge campaign in Gaza. The statement announcing the commission proclaimed its purpose was “to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military operations conducted since 13 June 2014, whether before, during or after.”37 It was clear that the compilers of this report intended to judge Israel by a different moral standard than the Palestinians, as Hamas crimes against both Israelis and its own people were not to be investigated.

Initially the commission was headed by William Schabas, a human rights attorney who in the past called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stand trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Court. According to Netanyahu, “The committee chairman has already decided that Hamas is not a terrorist organization. Therefore, they have nothing to look for here. They should visit Damascus, Baghdad and Tripoli. They should go see ISIS, the Syrian army and Hamas. There they will find war crimes, not here.”38

This report, released in June 2015, starts with the demonization of Israel for not cooperating with UN researchers. The report goes on to thank “The State of Palestine” for its cooperation.  Israel is not once termed “The State of Israel” in the report, but the term “The State of Palestine” is consistently used throughout, even though both are recognized as states by the United Nations. The commission also thanks “authorities” in Gaza for their cooperation. As Gaza is ruled by Hamas terrorists, these “authorities” were probably Hamas members.

The report blames Israel, without evidence, for intentionally planning attacks during Ramadan meals or when families were asleep. It also implies that notwithstanding Israel’s warnings, it is still Israel’s fault that Palestinians did not leave their homes in time because they did not understand those warnings – the “knock on the roof” alert of an imminent strike on a building, or the leaflets and radio announcements in Arabic telling Gazans to evacuate. The report claims further that Israel did not take into account “the fact that many places considered safe were already overcrowded; and the poor conditions in shelters, which themselves came under attack.”39 The poor conditions of shelters in southern Israel are not considered worthy of mention. Mention of Hamas rocket attacks on the Jewish fast day Tisha B’Av, the same day a 72-hour ceasefire was supposed to go into effect,40is also absent.

The report adds, “In some instances, Palestinian armed groups in Gaza reportedly attempted to warn civilians in Israel of imminent attacks. For instance, on 20 August 2014, the Al-Qassam Brigades warned communities near Gaza to avoid returning home or to remain inside shelters.” It does not mention, however, whether these “warnings” reached Israel, or were in Hebrew;41 all Israeli warnings are professionally translated into Arabic.42 The Israeli warnings were systematic; the pro-Hamas authors of the UNHRC Gaza report only mentioned one Gazan warning.

Within the broader framework of the widespread UN moral relativism that targets Israel, the two Gaza reports are among the most extreme examples of the agency’s double standards concerning values.


The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), in its activities and very existence, is at the forefront of the United Nations’ corruption of moral values. This UN agency was established in 1949 to provide services to 750,000 displaced Palestinian refugees. Two years later the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was founded to “protect refugees and solve refugee problems worldwide.”43 It would have been commonsense to incorporate UNRWA into this new body, which looks after all other refugees throughout the world.44 The survival of UNWRA more than six decades later, while UNHCR deals with far larger numbers of refugees from all other countries, thus constitutes an instance of extreme moral relativism.

There are significant additional aspects to this issue. For every other category of refugees in the world, as dictated by the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, refugee status applies to each refugee personally and cannot be passed down to subsequent generations. Only Palestinian refugee status can be passed down from generation to generation. Because of this mandate, there are currently an estimated five million so-called “Palestinian refugees” worldwide.4546

Based on the UNHCR definition, the actual number of Palestinian refugees stands somewhere in the range of 30,000-50,000, at most only 1% of the figure currently touted by UNRWA. By implication, UNRWA’s 2014 budget of $1.4 billion, funded by voluntary contributions from UN members, could have been reduced by more than 95% if the organization were only required to support real refugees. Yet another unjustified exception to the UNHCR definition of refugees concerns 30% of the so-called “Palestinian refugees” in Jordan who were born after 1997. Despite being granted full Jordanian citizenship, these youngsters are still eligible for refugee status.47

Descendants of refugees of far worse conflicts do not receive any benefits from the United Nations. For instance, the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a 2014 UNHCR estimate, has given rise to over seven million refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people. The children of these refugees have not been deemed worthy of the status granted to the descendants of Palestinian refugees.48

Much effort has been made to “justify” the continued existence of UNRWA. In an interview with the Palestinians’ official Ma’an News Agency, UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness defended the agency’s need to exist as a separate entity and not be absorbed into UNHCR, saying this was due to the absence of a “negotiated conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” He added that only then could UNRWA’s powers be transferred to UNHCR.49

In the past, however, UNHCR has worked to assist numerous refugees in protracted conflicts, many with far higher death counts than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including those in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, and Somalia.50 The figures for surviving displaced refugees from these and other current conflicts far outnumber the combined number of approximately 30,000-50,000 genuine Palestinian refugees. The UNHCR figures also are larger if one includes their descendants, the “artificial” refugees who also hold UNRWA refugee status and inflate the numbers so greatly.

In December 2014, Bassem Eid, president of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, published an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post entitled, “Proud Palestinians must lead the fight to reform UNRWA.” Eid argued for ending “temporary” conditions in UNRWA resettlement camps and focusing on resettlement of refugees instead of the unrealistic goal of “right of return.” He remarked, “I’m saying this as a loyal Palestinian. I’m saying this because I am concerned about my people’s future.”51

The defense of UNRWA’s superfluous existence is frequently accompanied by vilification of Israel on the part of its proponents. In response to Eid’s suggestions, Gunness used his personal Twitter account to call for a boycott of The Jerusalem Post.52

This was yet one more aspect of UNRWA’s moral relativism. Gunness has granted interviews to the Ma’an News Agency in his position as the spokesperson of UNRWA.53 Unlike The Jerusalem Post, Ma’an does have a track record of publishing numerous, sizable fabrications and lies. In 2013, following International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Ma’an published an article declaring the Holocaust a myth.54 A 2012 Ma’an article asserted that Jews are “the root of conflict in the world,” cursed by Allah, and “outcasts in every corner of the earth.”55 Gunness, however, has not called for a boycott of Ma’an or any other media outlet apart from The Jerusalem Post.

UNRWA employees have also been caught disseminating anti-Semitic hatred. In October 2015 the UN Watch monitoring group submitted a report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UNRWA chief Pierre Krähenbühl, and U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power (whose government funds UNRWA to the tune of $400 million per annum). The report concerned UNRWA employees who were publicly abusing their official positions by inciting violence. One UNRWA employee wrote “Stab Zionist Dogs” on his personal Facebook page; others posted videos, messages, and pictures glorifying terrorists and called for a “Third Intifada.”

Mohammed Assaf, a Gazan Arab Idol winner and UNRWA “Youth Ambassador,” perhaps the agency’s most public representative after Gunness himself, has posted pictures glorifying “martyrs” who were shot for stabbing Israeli civilians.56

In response to UN Watch’s report, UNRWA gave a statement, buried deepwithin a UN transcript, condemning the social media activity of its employees. However, no official statement has been issued, and even in this transcript UNRWA denied the validity of some of these accusations of anti-Semitic activity and incitement by its employees. Gunness denied the facts on his Twitter account and instead launched a series of attacks against the existence of UN Watch.5758

The UN Secretary-General’s deputy spokesperson, Farhan Haq, explained that the offenders who were UNRWA employees had been disciplined with suspensions and loss of pay. However, no formal apology from UNRWA for its employees’ activities, or from Gunness for his baseless attacks on UN Watch, has been forthcoming.59


UNESCO was established in 1945, its purpose being “to respond to the firm belief of nations, forged by two world wars in less than a generation, that political and economic agreements are not enough to build a lasting peace. Peace must be established on the basis of humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity.”60

Israel has been an active and compliant member of UNESCO since 1999. It now has nine World Heritage Sites and 18 tentative sites awaiting approval.61Yet UNESCO has continually attacked Israel. The accusations by the agency not only concern what it falsely calls Israeli threats to cultural landmarks but also question Jewish claims to heritage in Israel.

In 2012 UNESCO inaugurated a sponsored Chair in Astronomy, Astrophysics and Space Sciences at the Islamic University of Gaza. The institution employs numerous Hamas engineers who have been known to manufacture explosives and bombs for use against Israeli civilians. According to a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official, this sponsorship of academic activities taking place within a terrorist environment was announced prior to any investigation of the university’s pursuits. Similar inaugurations of UNESCO-sponsored chairs at the Technion and at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya (IDC) were, however, “checked with a magnifying glass.”62

One common application of moral relativism by UNESCO has been its harsh judgment of how Israel manages holy sites. The agency has also denied the legitimacy of Jewish claims to these sites. UNESCO has applied no similar standards within the Arab world.

In 2014 UNESCO partnered with the Simon Wiesenthal Center to present an exhibition at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters entitled, “People, Book, Land – The 3,500Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land.” Its text was written by the late Robert Wistrich, a leading scholar of anti-Semitism.

UNESCO, however, postponed the opening of the exhibit, which had been set for January 2014, because of pressure from the 22 UN member states that form the Arab bloc. They offered a ludicrous explanation professing their “concern that the planned exhibition could impact negatively on the peace process and current negotiations underway in the Middle East.”63

Perhaps to avoid direct confrontation regarding its anti-Israelism, the official UNESCO statement announcing the postponement of the exhibit discussed various Holocaust-education and Yiddish-preservation activities conducted by its sponsors. It made no mention of any other past, current, or future activities involving Israel.64 The exhibit finally opened six months later, in June 2014, in part because of protests by the U.S., Israeli, French, and Canadian governments.65

In May 2015 the prospects for peace apparently remained unharmed when UNESCO’s Palestinian branch hosted a workshop to draft the “Palestinian Law on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.”66

UNESCO also employed harsh standards in a condemnation of Israel it issued in July 2015. It claimed that Israel was damaging the Temple Mount with “illegal excavations.” It referred to the Western Wall Plaza as the “Buraq Plaza.”67 The truth is that the Waqf, the Muslim authority in charge of the Temple Mount, has been damaging this site for decades with poorly-planned archeological explorations and attempts to remove any evidence of Jewish heritage from the place. There has been no UNESCO condemnation of this ongoing destruction of antiquities.68

A UNESCO statement claimed that the construction of the Jerusalem light rail was destroying the “visual integrity of the Old City.” This was nonsense as the light rail does not run in the Old City.

The destruction of the ancient city of Nimrud in March 2015 by the Islamic State movement was one of the most blatant acts against world cultural heritage in recent years. UNESCO condemned the event in a statement released by its Director-General Irina Bokova. She declared, “I appeal also to all cultural institutions, museums, journalists, professors, and scientists to share and explain the importance of this heritage and the Mesopotamian civilization… At stake is the survival of the Iraqi culture and society.”69

The Nimrud issue seems to indicate that according to UNESCO, artifacts and archeology of ancient peoples and of religions other than Islam are of great importance and must be protected. However, where Jerusalem’s holy sites are concerned, Islam is the only religion seen to be threatened by activities taking place, and the importance of Jerusalem’s Old City to Judaism and Christianity does not merit a mention in UNESCO’s statement on the subject.

UNESCO once again denied Jewish claims to the Old City during the 197th session of its executive board in October 2015. In a resolution passed on 21 October, it yet again condemned Israel for conducting archeological excavations near the Temple Mount, while ignoring the extensive, destructive, and unmonitored Waqf excavations at the site.

Additionally, in response to a recent outbreak of violence in the Old City that led Israel to limit access to the Temple Mount so as to prevent violence, the UNESCO resolution included a condemnation of Israel for “aggression and illegal measures taken against the freedom of worship and access of Muslims to Al-Aqsa Mosque and Israel’s attempts to break the status quo since 1967.”70 However, the resolution ignored the fact that the Temple Mount is under Muslimcontrol, and that the Waqf forbids even silent Jewish prayer at the site.

The most shocking clause was removed a day before 26 UNESCO representatives voted in favor of the resolution, 25 abstained, and 6 voted against it. This clause named the Western Wall as a Muslim religious site. A week before the resolution was brought to the vote, UNESCO issued a statement from Director-General Bokova in which “the Director-General appeals to the UNESCO Executive Board to take decisions that do not further inflame tensions on the ground and that encourage respect for the sanctity of the Holy Sites.”71 However, she made no mention whatsoever of the site’s importance to Jews, nor did she mention that the Western Wall holds no significance to the Muslim faith and that this resolution was purely anti-Semitic in nature and intent.

Although the clause proclaiming the Western Wall a Muslim site was stricken from the resolution, it still designated Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron as Muslim holy sites, despite the fact that both sites are shared spaces for Jewish and Muslim worship.

According to an official statement by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this resolution on holy sites constituted a deliberate attempt by the Muslim world to use UNESCO as a staging ground to exacerbate conflict. “The Executive Board has joined the pyromaniacs seeking to set fire to the most sensitive sites to humankind. The decision is an abuse of UNESCO’s mandate… Instead of striving to reduce tensions, the authors of the resolution are working to fuel the flames in the region, using irresponsible religious rhetoric and distorting history.”73

UNESCO differs from the UN General Assembly or UNHRC in that it operates as a specialized agency. It operates in contradiction to its founding principles of moral and intellectual solidarity and of collaboration among nations. It does not support the protection of non-Muslim cultural heritage within Israel, even though the country is the Middle East’s only democracy and UNESCO’s willing partner. Instead the agency uses Israel as a pawn to appease the Arab world.

UNESCO does not only apply double standards to Israel, it makes the conscious choice of giving precedence to terrorists and denies the Jewish people’s inalienable rights to its homeland.

Ban Ki-moon

In his implementation of disparate standards for different states, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon undermines the most basic values of the United Nations and as such undermines his own purpose as leader of the organization. Yet he often unjustifiably escapes the brunt of the criticism regarding bias that is leveled at this intergovernmental organization and several of its agencies.

As secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban should be the prime guardian of the universal values prescribed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He should thus have severely reprimanded bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council and UNESCO, which regularly employ moral relativism against Israel.The two Gaza reports prepared for the UNHRC, the Goldstone Report and the one investigating 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, are among the worst cases of the UN’s moral relativism.

Ban, however, does not admonish UN agencies that employ moral relativism. He apparently prefers to apply this discriminatory approach himself, implementing different standards for Israel than for other countries. Various critics have described the secretary-general’s frequent failure to treat Israel fairly. Taken together, some of their accounts present a picture of what is wrong with his behavior.

In 2013 Ban disingenuously stated that he does not believe the United Nations is biased against Israel. In his words: “The Israeli government maybe raised this issue that there’s some bias against Israel, but Israel is one of the 193 member states. Thus, Israel should have equal rights and opportunities without having any bias, any discrimination. That’s a fundamental principle of the United Nations charter. And thus, Israel should be fully given such rights.”74

Many member states, however, do not allow Israel to exercise these rights and the Jewish state is constantly demonized at the United Nations. Ban does the same himself. In August 2014, at the height of the Protective Edge campaign, Ban addressed an emergency meeting of the General Assembly on potential violations of international humanitarian law by Israeli officials, accusing Israel of disproportionality. Ron Prosor, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, has no qualms about exposing Ban’s moral relativism and does so frequently. In that session he said, “If the UN assembly had invested a tenth of the energy invested in investigating Israel, it would reveal horrific war crimes on the part of Hamas.”75

Another response to Ban’s statements at the General Assembly was that of former Israeli Ambassador to Canada Alan Baker and Nachi Eyal, director of the International Action Division and CEO of the Legal Forum for Israel. They wrote that they were dismayed that Ban and UN member states could accuse Israel of war crimes while remaining silent about the use of UNRWA facilities for stockpiling Hamas rockets. They added, “In permitting the storage of weapons, and in transferring such weapons into the hands of Hamas, the UN has in fact permitted itself to become accessory to the commission of war crimes.”76

Ban issued a statement in connection with the March 2015 democratic elections in Israel, declaring that Israel could only “remain a democratic state” if it stopped the construction of settlements. Prosor responded, “The United Nations may disagree with the policies of the Israeli government but there is one fact that cannot be disputed: that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. If the UN is so concerned about the future of the Palestinian people, [then] it should be asking why (PA) President (Mahmoud) Abbas is in the tenth year of a five-year presidential term.”77

Ban Ki-moon has never described the at least hundredfold exaggeration of the number of real Palestinian refugees as a barrier to peace. In November 2015, in a speech commemorating 20 years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Ban drew false moral equivalence between terrorism and settlements when stating, “terrorism, expanding settlements and halting progress in implementing Israeli-Palestinian agreements have repeatedly shattered hopes.”78

After a June 2015 report on children in armed conflict was issued in Ban’s name, he criticized Israel for causing suffering to children in Operation Protective Edge. This report was prepared by Leila Zerrougui of Algeria. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely responded, “At a time when ceaseless war rages in the Middle East and children are slaughtered on a daily basis, the UN decides to mention Israel in the same breath with states that since long ago have not had any basic human rights.” She also emphasized the efforts Israel had made to warn Gazan civilians of potential attacks, “while Hamas cynically uses children and civilian facilities and intentionally causes harm to the lives of people. The state of Israel will continue to wage its campaign to reveal the truth and will not harm its right to self-defense.”79

Ban added, “the unprecedented and unacceptable scale of the impact on children in 2014 raises grave concerns about Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law…(and) excessive use of force.” Prosor replied that Israel’s request to provide information for the UN report was refused. Instead the report’s author chose only to use sources from radical anti-Israel groups. Prosor pointed out that 10% of the report was devoted to Israel’s alleged aggression toward children, with only 2% allocated to Iraq and 6% to Syria.80

Prime Minister Netanyahu also responded to Ban’s statements, saying there is “no limit” to the United Nations’ hypocrisy: “Instead of highlighting the fact that Hamas made hostages of Gaza’s children when it fired at Israel from preschools, and dug tunnels towards Israeli preschools, the UN has again chosen to reproach Israel.”81

Ban has made many other biased statements against Israel. He often structurally omits Palestinian crimes. He once again demonstrated this in an address prepared for the International Conference on the Question of Jerusalem, convened in Jakarta, Indonesia, in December 2015 by the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In this speech, delivered on behalf of Ban by Douglas Broderick, UNDP (UN Development Programme) resident coordinator in Indonesia, he says, “The anger we are witnessing is bred from nearly five decades of Israeli occupation.  It is the result of fear, humiliation, frustration and mistrust.”82 Ban, however, does not mention that Israeli security services are reacting to terror. He furthermore says, “Demolitions of houses and other measures of collective punishment are in contravention of Israel’s obligation to protect civilians.”83 Ban, however, fails to mention that these demolitions are only directed at accused terrorists and their families.84

Alan Dershowitz put it succinctly: “Ban Ki-moon is part of the problem rather than part of the solution in the Middle East.”85 Indeed the secretary-general is supposed to strive to extinguish the fires destroying the UN’s universal values. Yet the above quotes concerning Israel show that he is actually an arsonist fanning the flames of moral relativism.


The moral relativism toward Israel employed by the United Nations and its affiliated agencies, utilized in its official reports, and espoused by its elected representatives has characterized this organization since its founding. The United Nations has failed to uphold the universal human values set forth in its own founding charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Instead of being a place of equality and a forum where all of the world’s countries are treated equally, it has become, particularly in the democratic General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council, a place where the Arab world largely determines the global agenda.

Therefore, the United Nations, instead of being typified by universality, is instead characterized by constant, vitriolic hatred of Israel. This is an ongoing phenomenon. This year, 2015, has seen countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela, actual extreme abusers of human rights, acquire much-coveted seats on the UN Human Rights Council. They will manipulate these positions and continue to employ moral relativism toward Israel to whitewash their own crimes and those of Israel’s enemies.86 Instead of looking inward and ending their own abuses, UN member states, led by the Arab bloc, use the United Nations as a global forum to demonize the lone democracy in the Middle East, applying a radically different moral standard to Israel than they do to their own policies and actions.

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1 “Moral Relativism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 20 April 2015.

2 James Velleman, Foundations for Moral Relativism (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2013), 1.

3 Manfred Gerstenfeld, “Double Standards for Israel,” Journal for the Study of Antisemitism 4, 2 (2012): 613-638.

4 “Preamble,” Charter of the United Nations, United Nations, 26 June 1945.

5 “Chapter I: Purposes and Principles,” Charter of the United Nations, United Nations.

6 “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” United Nations, 1948.

7 “Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 5 December 2014: 69/94 The Occupied Syrian Golan,” United Nations, 16 December 2014.

8 “Syrian Refugees Inter-Agency Regional Update,” United Nations, 9 December 2014.

9 Adam Taylor, “200,000 dead? Why Syria’s rising death toll is so divisive,” The Washington Post, 3 December 2014.

10 “General Assembly: 64th Plenary Meeting,” United Nations, 5 December 2014, 10.

11 “Adopting 68 Texts Recommended by Third Committee, General Assembly Sends Strong Message towards Ending Impunity, Renewing Efforts to Protect Human Rights,” United Nations, 18 December 2014. 

12 Yohanan Manor, “The 1975 ‘Zionism Is Racism’ Resolution: The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of a Libel,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 97, 2 May 2010.

13 Anne Bayefsky, “Again,” National Review, 24 December 2008.

14 Anne Bayefsky, “Bank of the Intifada to Join the U.N.,” National Review, 26 March 2007.

15 Anne Bayefsky, “Forsaking Israel,” National Review, 5 December 2007.

16 Daniel Freedman, “The World’s Deadly Obsession with Israel,” Forbes, 24 June 2010.

17 Dore Gold, Tower of Babble (New York: Crown Forum, 2005), 38.

18 “Human Rights Council Holds General Debates on Occupied Arab Territories and on Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action,” UNOG – The United Nations Office at Geneva, 24 June 2014.

19 “Ethiopia-Eritrea (1998 – first combat deaths),” U.S. Department of Justice, February 2002.

20 “Human Rights Council Holds General Debates on Occupied Arab Territories and on Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action,” UNOG – The United Nations Office at Geneva, 24 June 2014.

21 “Kuril islands dispute between Russia and Japan,”BBC, 29 April 2013.

22 Michael Birnbaum and Karoun Demirjian, “A year after Crimean annexation, threat of conflict remains,” The Washington Post, 18 March 2015.

23 George Mchedlishvili, “Putin Slyly Redraws Georgia’s Borders,” Newsweek, 21 July 2015.

24 “Western Sahara Profile,” BBC, 7 January 2014.

25 “Human Rights Council Holds General Debates on Occupied Arab Territories and on Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action,” UNOG – The United Nations Office at Geneva, 24 June 2014.

26 Ibid.

27 Ido Aharoni, “How the United Nations Human Rights Council Unfairly Targets Israel,” Time, 30 July 2014. See also: Hillel Neuer, “The Demonization of Israel at the United Nations in Europe: Focus on the Human Rights Council and Specialized Agencies,” Palestinian Manipulation of the International Community, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2014.

28 “Human Rights Council,” UN Watch.

29 “Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories: Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict,” United Nations General Assembly, 25 September 2009.

30 Dore Gold, “Degrading International Institutions: The United Nations Goldstone Report,” Palestinian Manipulation of the International Community, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2014.

31 “Hamas Covenant 1988,” Yale Law School, 18 August 1988.

32 Jonathan D. Halevi, “Blocking the Truth of the Gaza War: How the Goldstone Commission Understated the Hamas Threat to Palestinian Civilians,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 18 September 2009.

33 “Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories: Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict,” United Nations General Assembly, 25 September 2009, 120.

34 “Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories: Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict,” United Nations General Assembly, 25 September 2009.

35 Roni Sofer, “Peres: Goldstone Report makes mockery of history,” Ynetnews, 16 September 2009.

36 Richard Goldstone, “Reconsidering the Goldstone Report on Israel and war crimes,” The Washington Post, 1 April 2011.

37 “Questions and Answers on the Report of the United Nations Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict,” United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 19 June 2015.

38 Marissa Newman, “Israel announces it won’t cooperate with UN Gaza probe,” The Times of Israel, 12 November 2014.

39 “Report of the independent commission of inquiry established pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution S-21/1,” United Nations General Assembly, 24 June 2015.

40 Yoav Zitun and Itay Blumenthal, “IDF withdraws from Gaza as 17 rockets fired at Israel,” Ynetnews, 5 August 2014.

41 “Report of the independent commission of inquiry established pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution S-21/1,” United Nations General Assembly, 24 June 2015.

42 David Benjamin, “Israel, Gaza and Humanitarian Law: Efforts to Limit Civilian Casualties,” The Gaza War 2014: The War Israel Did Not Want and the Disaster It Averted, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2015.

43 “About Us,” UNHRC.

44 “Whither UNRWA,” The Jerusalem Post, 13 August 2014.

45 “Who We Are,” UNRWA.

46 Dore Gold, Tower of Babble (New York: Crown Forum, 2005), 38.

47 Ibid.

48 “2015 UNHCR country operations profile: Democratic Republic of the Congo,” UNHRC, 2015.

49 “Exploding the myths: UNRWA, UNHRC, and the Palestinian Refugees,” Ma’an News Agency, 27 June 2011.

50 Barry N. Stein, “Refugee Repatriation, Return, and Refoulement During Conflict,” USAID, 1997.

51 Bassem Eid, “Proud Palestinians must lead the fight to reform UNRWA,” The Jerusalem Post, 1 December 2014.

52 “UNRWA vs the ‘Post’,” The Jerusalem Post, 12 July 2015.

53 “Exploding the myths: UNRWA, UNHRC, and the Palestinian Refugees,” Ma’an News Agency, 27 June 2011.

54 “Blood Libels & BDS: NGO Monitor’s Report to the 2013 Global Forum on Anti-Semitism,” NGO Monitor, 27 May 2013.

55 Itamar Marcus and Nan Jacques Zilberdik, “Venomous Antisemitism published by Palestinian Ma’an News Agency,” Palestinian Media Watch, 30 January 2013.

56 “Report: UN Officials Inciting Murder of Jews, Call to ‘Stab Zionist Dogs’,” UN Watch, 19 October 2015.

57  Gunness tweeted: “Appeal 2 journalists: please don’t turn @UNWatch baseless allegation about anti-Semitism into a “he said she said” story. It is a non story.”

58 “UNRWA suspends employees after UN Watch exposed incitement to anti-Semitic violence,” UN Watch, 22 October 2015.

59 “UN ‘very regrettably’ admits employees suspended after UN Watch report exposing incitement to anti-Semitic violence,” UN Watch, 22 October 2015.

60 “Introducing UNESCO,” UNESCO.

61 “Israel,” UNESCO.

62 Barak Ravid, “Israel furious at UNESCO decision to back science chair at Islamic University of Gaza,” Haaretz, 12 July 2012.

63 “Information regarding the planned exhibition, ‘People, Book, Land – The 3,500Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land’,” UNESCO, 17 January 2014.

64 Ibid.

65 “UNESCO to SWC: ‘Exhibition will Open June 11, 2014’ – Major Victory over Arab Group at UNESCO,” Simon Wiesenthal Center.

66 “Workshop on the final revision of the draft ‘Palestinian Law on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage’,” 18 May 2015.

67 “Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage,” UNESCO, 28 June-8 July 2015.

68 Mark Ami-El, “The Destruction of the Temple Mount Antiquities,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 1 August 2002.

69 “UNESCO Director General condemns destruction of Nimrud in Iraq,” UNESCO, 6 March 2015.

70 Raoul Wootliff and Raphael Ahren, “UNESCO condemns Israeli ‘aggression’ on Temple Mount,” The Times of Israel, 21 October 2015.

71 “Statement by the Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova,” UNESCO, 20 October 2015.

72 Raoul Wootliff and Raphael Ahren, “UNESCO condemns Israeli ‘aggression’ on Temple Mount,” The Times of Israel, 21 October 2015. See also: Nadav Shragai, “Rachel’s Tomb, a Jewish Holy Place, Was Never a Mosque,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 14 August 2011.

73 “Israel rejects UNESCO Executive Board decision on ‘Occupied Palestine’,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 21 October 2015.

74 Maya Shwayder, “Ban Ki-moon: ‘I don’t think there is discrimination against Israel at UN’,” The Jerusalem Post, 19 August 2013.

75 “Ron Prosor Hits Back at UN ‘War Crimes’ Accusation,” Israel National News, 6 August 2014.

76 Alan Baker and Nachi Eyal, “A letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon,”The Jerusalem Post, 24 August 2014.

77 Hana Levi Julian, “UN’s Ban Ki-moon Advises Israel on ‘How to Stay a Democracy’,” The Jewish Press, 19 March 2015.

78 “Statement by the Secretary-General on the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin,” Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, 3 November 2015.

79 Hezki Ezra, “Hotovely: UN’s Ban is Showing His ‘Outrageous’ Anti-Israel Bias,” Israel National News, 18 June 2015.

80 Ibid.

81 “Netanyahu: No Limit to UN Hypocrisy on Gaza,” The Times of Israel, 19 June 2015.

82 “Secretary-General’s message to the meeting of the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on the Question of Jerusalem [delivered by Mr. Douglas Broderick, UNDP Resident Coordinator in Indonesia],” Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon, United Nations, 14 December 2015.

83 Ibid.

84 Chaim Levinson, “High Court Approves Demolition of Five Terrorists’ Houses,” Haaretz, 13 November 2015.

85 Lisa Barron, “Dershowitz: Israel Has to Respond to Rocket Attacks,” Newsmax, 14 March 2014.

86 Lucy Westcott, “Rights Group Criticizes Election of UAE, Venezuela and Kyrgyzstan to U.N. Human Rights Council,” Newsweek, 29 October 2015.

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Jamie Berk is a researcher working toward an MA in political science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.