US envoy says criticism of Israel at UN is ‘appalling’

Linda Thomas-Greenfield (Reuters)

Ali Harb

Middle East Eye  / June 16, 2021

Linda Thomas-Greenfield says some countries on UN Human Rights Council, including many in the Middle East, are antisemitic.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the Biden administration’s ambassador to the UN, has called the UN Human Rights Council’s frequent criticism of Israel “appalling”, asserting that “antisemitic” countries from the Middle East sit on the international body.

Testifying at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Thomas-Greenfield faced a barrage of pro-Israel questions and remarks from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

The envoy was particularly grilled over the US push to re-engage with UN agencies that former President Donald Trump had quit. 

The previous US administration withdrew from the Human Rights Council and the cultural body (UNESCO) over alleged bias against Israel. It also cut off funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

Thomas-Greenfield argued that Washington is better off working from the inside with “like-minded” nations to steer the Human Rights Council and other bodies away from focusing on Israeli abuses.

“It is also appalling that the Council has one standing agenda – and that’s Israel – when there’s so many other countries that are committing human rights violations, and we see it every day in the news,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

Later in the hearing, Republican Congressman Brian Mast asked the envoy whether she believes that the UN Human Rights Council is an antisemitic institution.

She responded: “I think that there are individual countries in the Human Rights Council that are antisemitic.”

When pressed to identify the countries, Thomas-Greenfield initially refused, but then added: “We’ve seen that countries that have put Israel on the agenda on a regular basis have expressed views that are antisemitic, and many of those countries are in the Middle East.”

However, she rejected calling the UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet an antisemite.

‘Failure of leadership’

Abed Ayoub, the legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said Thomas-Greenfield’s remarks on Middle Eastern countries on the council being antisemitic plays on “anti-Arab stereotypes”.

“That’s a failure of leadership coming from the Biden administration,” Ayoub told MEE. “It ignores the bigger problem in the region, and that’s the Israeli war crimes, the apartheid and the lack of accountability towards Israel.”

The US State Department did not respond to MEE’s request for comment by the time of publication.

The Human Rights Council consists of 47 states with seats allocated to different geographical areas. Of the three Middle Eastern countries currently serving on the Council – Libya, Sudan and Bahrain – the latter two have normalized relations with Israel.

Members are periodically elected by the UN General Assembly, which includes all officially recognized states in the world.

After Israel’s assault on Gaza last month, the council established a commission to investigate possible abuses in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem.

The Council also called on “all States to refrain from transferring arms when they assess, in accordance with applicable national procedures and international obligations and standards, that there is a clear risk that such arms might be used in the commission or facilitation of serious violations or abuses of international human rights law”.

Israeli air strikes had killed more than 256 Palestinians, including dozens of children, while rockets fired by Hamas and other groups killed 12 people in Israel.

The crisis started with still-ongoing Israeli efforts to forcibly remove Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Washington had blocked the UN Security Council statement that would have called for an immediate ceasefire during the fighting.

On Wednesday, however, Thomas-Greenfield lauded the US administration’s engagement at the UN during the war.

“We have worked tirelessly and multilaterally to bring an end to the conflict in Israel and Gaza,” she told lawmakers. 

“If you take anything away from my message today, it should be that the United Nations and the world need US leadership. When we leave a vacuum, others who do not share our values and priorities are eager to step in.”

Focus on Israel

Despite the global pandemic, climate crisis and global competition with Russia and China, numerous questions from several lawmakers focused on Israel, mirroring the pattern of when Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared in front of the committee earlier this month.

A day after Israeli far-right protesters marched through Jerusalem chanting “death to the Arabs” and other racist and Islamophobic slogans, two US legislators brought up “UNRWA books” that allegedly fuel incitement against Israelis. 

“I had said we resumed assistance that withholding assistance to provide health care and education to kids is not in our best interest, but I also expressed serious concern about transparency and accountability at UNRWA – concerns about UNRWA textbooks,” said Ted Deutch, a Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee on the Middle East.

UNRWA provides basic services to millions of displaced Palestinians across the region, including in the West Bank and Gaza.

Thomas-Greenfield said she has raised some of the concerns about “intolerance” in textbooks at UNRWA schools.

Earlier in the hearing, Brad Sherman, another staunchly pro-Israel Democrat, urged the envoy to press other countries to adopt the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition on antisemitism.

Palestinian rights advocates have long rejected the definition, which considers “applying double standards” to Israel and “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” to be antisemitic.

But Sherman stressed that denying Israel’s right to exist and calling for freedom across historic Palestine is a manifestation of antisemitism.

“There are those in this country who are shouting from the River to the Sea, Palestine should be free. They don’t exactly use that slogan; I gave it a bit of a German accent, but we know what they mean,” Sherman said.

Thomas-Greenfield had restated its commitment to protecting Israel from scrutiny at international bodies.

“We will fight against every effort wherever it takes place to undermine or diminish or question Israel’s right to exist,” she said. “And we have committed to fighting those efforts at the United Nations when unfair resolutions have been raised targeting Israel.”

Ali Harb is a writer based in Washington, DC; he reports on US foreign policy, Arab-American issues, civil rights and politics