Moynihan’s Moment: New Book Traces Late Senator’s Great Zionist Romance

Daniel P. MoynihanNot all of America’s most eminent public personae are memorialized in public places. But when Pennsylvania Station is finally brought into the contemporary age, Daniel Patrick Moynihan will be, having been so honored in at least two other locations. Pat was still alive but barely out of office when the first of these buildings, the 27-story Moynihan Courthouse at Foley Square (which was named for “Big Tom” Foley, a Tammany Hall pol), was dedicated in his name. (Senior citizens among The Observer’s readers may recall that this is where the Smith Act prosecution of the Communist Party leadership and the trial of Judith Coplon for Soviet espionage took place.)

Moynihan Station will testify to the senator’s fidelity to both the commonplace functionality of public transportation and the grand aspirations of civic architecture. He rescued not only this railroad hub, but also the national capital’s Union Station. Nothing was too slight for this very big man’s attentions, neither the Smithsonian Institution nor this city’s Botanical Gardens nor Cooperstown, where he believably feigned an interest in baseball. 

Moynihan’s Moment, the new book by the deep and graceful historian Gil Troy ($29.95; Oxford University Press), is about Pat’s singular struggle against the rancid anti-Semitism embedded in the United Nations, once thought of as the world’s “last best hope for peace.” Alas, that world is no longer Eleanor Roosevelt’s universe of good intentions. Factually and structurally, the U.N. is now set up in two ways for grand fibbing. The Security Council is governed by the veto privilege of its five permanent members.

Do you want to know why nothing ever was done against the genocide in Sudan or, for that matter, in any other African country? Any measure that could have curbed the slaughter would have been nullified by a Russian or Chinese veto, probably both. The General Assembly, on the other hand, is a mob scene, like the Durban conferences convened by the U.N. Human Rights Council and its equally mendacious predecessor. It is, in effect, just another venue for the Nonaligned Movement, which has 120 members, all of them represented in the U.N. and almost all of them voting as one. Mohamed Morsi was last year’s chairperson of the NAM; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is this year’s. Chairperson, shmairperson: no woman has ever served.

The November 10, 1975, vote of the General Assembly declaring that “Zionism is racism” was a foregone conclusion. So foregone that, as Mr. Troy explains, it led the Soviet bloc and its odd alliance of some 50 Muslim states—monarchies, “revolutionary republics” and just plain klepto-murderous gangs—to contemplate throwing Israel out of the U.N. altogether. Ultimately, they settled for their umpteenth rhetorical triumph, which accomplished literally nothing for the miserable Palestinians. Of course, the Palestinians have counted for nearly zero in the calculations of their Muslim brothers, and for less than zero in the arbitrage of their mischievous comrades, whose game was less to punish Israel than to encircle the United States with the anger of its beneficiaries and putative clients.

Mr. Moynihan understood this convoluted chess game, and he trounced the Arabs and their cynical Communist patrons with the straightforward eloquence for which he was beloved. Mr. Troy captures nearly every moment of the intra-bureaucratic American struggle for Ronald Reagan’s soul. Henry Kissinger, who clearly did not like Mr. Moynihan, connived against him.

And many others, like J. William Fulbright, actually an embittered but haughty anti-black racist, New York Timesman James Reston and a large cohort of diplomat-professors like Columbia’s Richard Gardner and Princeton’s Richard Falk, an anti-Semitic Jew now in the career service of the Human Rights Council, all of whom did not especially like Mr. Kissinger either—he was a pushy Jew, an arrogant intellectual and, oh, yes, Vietnam and Chile—came down on Mr. Moynihan from the internationalist left. (In 1969, I went to see Mr. Fulbright and his wife in the Senate dining room on behalf of the children of Biafra. He came directly to the point: “Why, for God’s sake, are you interested in these pickaninnies?”)

In any case, no one had really gauged the deep and abiding racism of those governments and societies that were so eager to accuse Israel of racism. As it happens, there was hardly a government in the anti-Israel swarm that was not deeply racist. And they are sanguinely racist still: Russia, China, each and every one of the Arab countries, and most of Asia and Africa. This was the prosecution, and this is the prosecution still.

U.N. Resolution 3379 was ultimately revoked 16 years later. But the bitter fact is that the repudiation of the libel was little more than symbolic. Condemnation of Israel is still a reflex, sometimes noticed, sometimes not. Palestinian “victories” in the Assembly bring no political or economic relief to these orphan Arabs. Those who fight for them on New York’s East River are indifferent to their fate, the anger mustered against the Jews a disguise of their disdain and heedlessness.

So Palestine is now a United Nations non-member state, comparable only to the Vatican. Moreover, the fratricide in Syria, the civil war in Egypt, the coming erosion of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, the ongoing inter-sectarian murder in Iraq, the escalating carnage in Yemen, the breakup of Lebanon and the religious wars in Africa are all portents of the evaporation of the Muslim center. It may be disguised by oil wealth. But not for long. And, let’s face it, the petro-monarchs do not govern integral societies. Their wealth is not at home but in London, New York and Beijing.

This book is a highly sophisticated intellectual history of liberal America in the last decades of the 20th century. Mr. Moynihan was a major actor in this history, as well as one of its great interpreters. So, too, was that epitome of complicated honesty, Nathan Glazer, who was Pat’s partner in the writing of Beyond the Melting Pot, a disturbing narrative picture of race and ethnicity in America. Resentment against the truths in this book spilled over into the hatred that the mere mention of Mr. Moynihan’s name sometimes provoked in the self-defined thought capitols of the country.

But Pat was intrepid, knowing when he was stepping into a shitstorm. Like when he ran against Bella Abzug, Paul O’Dwyer (Mayor Bill O’Dwyer’s deep-lefty brother) and Ramsey Clark (LBJ’s attorney general), who was just then entering his nutsy period, pronouncing America as guilty of trying at once to rule and destroy the world. Mr. Moynihan was adept in the political arena. He was a brilliant teacher. He was also a diplomat who, with his wife Liz, charmed India and virtually single-handedly persuaded New Delhi that a better destiny lay with the democracies.

As for the Jews and the Jewish state, Pat grasped the romance of Zionism, its unprecedented revival of Hebrew as a living language, its pioneering esprit, its treacherous experience with Arabs, its transformation of a dispersed people into a modern and democratic polity. Some aspects of the rancor Israel provokes are envy, incompetence and historical hatred, much of it located in the church to which he was faithful. But nothing matches Islam’s hatred of Zion, and Gil Troy captures its resentment at its sad and self-defeating worst.

Marty Peretz is the former editor in chief of The New Republic.