The UN-Date

When we first moved to New Jersey, my husband and I agreed on a schedule that included a weekly date night and a monthly cultural experience in New York City. I don’t know how to explain the ambitiousness of this plan, given that our children were 4 and 5 at the time. Some combination of sleep deprivation, wishful thinking, and love must have impaired our judgment. Today, with the benefit of experience, I am sure that we could set a more realistic schedule, but when will we find the time to get together and discuss our calendars?

Last week, we defied the odds, and enjoyed a “date night” during the day. Our days off coincided, and, at the last minute, we decided to go into New York City and take a tour of the United Nations.

IMG_6601(1)Perhaps I lighted on the U.N. for our (too rare) cultural outing because I had recently attended a superb interfaith program co-sponsored by the New York Board of Rabbis and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. The subject was violence against children and human trafficking.

The International Labour Organization (ILO, a U.N. agency) estimates the number of children enslaved today at 5.5 million. Other experts place the number as high as 9.5 million. Since children are often hidden away in sweat shops, brothels, private homes, remote farms, fishing boats, and quarries, numbers are hard to pin down.

UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, officially renamed the United Nation Children’s Fund) addresses everyday emergencies such as human trafficking and extreme poverty, as well as sudden crises precipitated by war and natural disasters. In 2014, UNICEF responded to nearly 300 emergency situations in 98 countries. It reunified 11,981 children with their families. By widely promoting birth registration, it hindered traffickers and helped schools and social service agencies – now and in the future.

Among the inspiring speakers was Sang Silano, Managing Director of Global Programs and Field Engagement at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. For 20 years, she has lived and breathed child protection. As she presented professionally and passionately about forced marriage, child soldiers, domestic violence, and slavery, she described herself, tongue-in-cheek, as “a lot of fun at dinner parties.” Facing horror in her daily work, Sang has managed not to go numb to it. She showed a short video about a UNICEF counseling center in Guatemala, featuring a 7-year-old girl who had been raped by her step-father. (Link to it at Though Sang had seen the video many times, she cried.

Learning from Sang, I felt good about all those pennies I collected for UNICEF as a kid.

I had very different feelings about the U.N. and its work, however, after the date with my husband.

As we approached the main entrance of the U.N.’s New York headquarters, we saw, among a few announcements, a large sign advertising an exhibit entitled “Palestinian Children: Overcoming Tragedies with Hope, Dreams, Resilience, and Dignity.” Knowing the U.N. record on Israel, both my husband and I flinched.

Of course, Palestinian children do overcome tragedy – and tragedy befalls them brutally and often. Worse, some Palestinian children never recover.

The exhibit is utterly without context. The photos, sourced from three U.N. agencies, including UNICEF, feature bombed-out houses and brave children. Captions provide the children’s names and locations and describe their varied, admirable aspirations. Caption after caption – written by the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian people – mentions that the children’s homes were destroyed in 2014. No explanation is given as to why.

The only reality presented is bombed-out homes – and so the bombers, presumably, must be entirely responsible. Corrupt Palestinian leadership, terror tunnels, rockets launched from Palestinian territories into Israel all go unmentioned and undepicted, as, of course, does the suffering of Israeli children.

Troubled by both by the suffering of the Palestinians and the bias of the exhibit, I was not sorry to turn away, after looking carefully at each caption and photo. Across the hall was a series of posters summarizing, by decade, the U.N.’s 70-year history. The poster titled “1970s” noted that Kurt Waldheim was the Secretary-General from 1972-1981. It brought to mind – but did not mention – the subsequent revelation that he was a Nazi intelligence officer responsible for the deaths of thousands.

As Secretary-General, Waldheim refused to comment when Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator, sent him (and Yasser Arafat and Golda Meir!) a telegram praising the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games and recommending the expulsion of Israel from the U.N. and the deportation of all Israeli Jews to Britain. However, a few years later, when Israel raided the Entebbe, Uganda airport to save Jewish hostages held there by terrorists, Waldheim called the rescue mission a “serious violation of the national sovereignty of a United Nations member state.”

The same 1970s poster listed a dozen or so “UN Highlights” of those years, including the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, assistance to Southeast Asian refugees, and South Africa’s suspension due to Apartheid. Among the select, proud achievements was: “General Assembly recognizes Palestine Liberation Organization as “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” in 1974. At that time, the PLO was unquestionably a terrorist organization. The opposite wall featured a photograph of Yasser Arafat, speaking about olive branches while wearing a gun holster at the General Assembly on November 13, 1974. Arafat arranged and/or approved terror attacks against Israeli civilians, including children, both before and after that speech.

In 2013, Ban Ki-Moon, the U.N. Secretary-General, admitted in a frank exchange with Israeli students that “Israel has been criticized and has been suffering from bias and sometimes discrimination” in the United Nations.

Since the United Nations Human Rights Council was created in 2006, Israel has been condemned 61 times. To put that in context, the total number of condemnation of all other countries was 55 – six fewer than for Israel alone. The next highest number of condemnations to a single country is 15 – for Syria.

At the U.N., I saw bias wherever I turned.

I also saw Jews and “the Jewish question” everywhere. There was an exhibit on the Holocaust that our tour passed by quickly to reach a chamber where the topic was the “The Holy See and the 50th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate.” Popularly known as Vatican II, Nostra Aetate’s central focus was Catholic-Jewish relations.

On the day we visited, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks testified via video to the Economic and Social Council about the oppression of Christians in the Muslim world. In the minute that it took our tour group to walk in silence across the back of the chamber, he noted that over the last twenty years, the Christian minority in Muslim Arab countries has declined from 20% to 4% – the “religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing.” He also noted that Muslims suffer far more than Jews or Christians under Muslim extremism.

I saw many employees wearing kippot. Next year, they can take Yom Kippur off as a U.N. holiday. Just last week, after years of lobbying by Israel, the U.N. added our holiest day to Christmas, Good Friday, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha to its list of official holidays, when votes are not taken and employees are not docked vacation days.

The only place where Jews were not highlighted in one way or another was the General Assembly, where a speaker talked about improving internet access in the developing world.

My husband and I left the U.N. – and our worst “date” ever – dejected. At the exit, we saw a man, frustrated and fiddling with his phone. He asked if he could use my phone to call his wife, explaining, “I keep trying to call her, but I can’t get this damn phone to work. I’m at the conference on technology, and I need to tell her where we will meet.” After the gentleman used my phone and we walked away, my husband and I couldn’t help laughing.

The U.N. is such a grand idea. It has so much promise – and prejudice. If only the technology experts could get their damn phones to work.

About the Author
Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, NJ, is an acclaimed teacher, author, and scholar-in-residence. She is editor of Lifecycles 1:Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones and Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life (Jewish Lights). A seventh generation rabbi, she was in the first rabbinical class at The Jewish Theological Seminary to include women. She earned a Certificate in Positive Psychology and teaches online. Visit to learn more.
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