Scott Lasensky
Scott Lasensky
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Jewish soft power and Yom Kippur at the United Nations

The story of how the world organization pegged the Jewish fast day as a holiday embodies the long history of the ‘shtadlan’s’ behind-the-scenes diplomacy

Since confessions are between Jews and the Holy One, I will instead call this a tale, an insider’s account of one of the most fascinating, yet largely forgotten diplomatic struggles of the Jewish people. It was not long ago that the United Nations, no easy place for Israel and World Jewry, adopted Yom Kippur as an official holiday.

Yes, you read correctly: Yom Kippur is a recognized UN holiday. I played a modest, behind-the-scenes role in this against-all-odds struggle.

It is a tale that brings into sharp relief two axioms of Jewish diplomacy.

First, quiet, back-channel advocacy can be incredibly potent.

After the Israeli representative, Ambassador Ron Prosor, initially floated the proposal for recognizing Yom Kippur – viewed as a moonshot if there ever was one – the idea languished for some time in bureaucratic channels.

From my perch in Foggy Bottom, I was confronted with questions. Would a US holiday need to be dropped? Would adopting Yom Kippur establish a precedent? Where would the votes come from given the world body’s reputation, at times, for unfair treatment of Israel and World Jewry? All legitimate questions.

Rather than issuing public appeals or gin up media attention, one well-placed Jewish community leader tried a more traditional, discrete approach. Acting in the classic role of the shtadlan – the primordial Jewish lobbyist, the Israelite diplomat of yore – this community leader quietly conveyed an appeal that was both rational and emotional.

The impact was discernible and contributed to a groundswell of top-level support, with none of the turbulence I witnessed in instances where community leaders chose blunter, often media-infused tactics as a first resort.

No one wants a return to the pre-modern absolutist and marginalized politics that gave birth to shtadlanut, a type of quiet and careful Jewish diplomacy that was a survival mechanism for Diaspora communities. Statecraft for the stateless, as described by the late Aharon Klieman. Today, American Jewry is confident, secure, and successful. It speaks truth to power. American Jewry practices a new Jewish politics, as JJ Goldberg detailed in his classic Jewish Power, a more calibrated and confident politics, no longer limited to whispers or shrouded advocacy.

Yet, as the battle for Yom Kippur demonstrated, the subtle, back-channel approach still has a place in the arsenal of Jewish power. Its potency may be underappreciated.

At the time, journalists such as Yair Rosenberg cited public appeals as the reason why the initiative “picked up additional steam,” but that’s not how it looked to someone in my position.

It was the quiet, out-of-public-view appeal that made the difference.

Chalk one up for the shtadlan.

Second, Israel’s Yom Kippur proposal spotlighted both the perils and the opportunities the Jewish people face on the world stage. Numerically at a disadvantage in nearly every setting across the UN system, Israel nevertheless can punch above its weight when it coordinates its moves and is in sync with the US.

Despite the moral force of Prosor’s appeal, which came in the form of a deftly drafted letter circulated to UN member states, the idea was as unlikely as the late Shimon Peres being elected UN Secretary-General.

Even when Israel does right, politics at the UN are all-too-often stacked against it, as Ambassador Samantha Power, who championed the Yom Kippur adoption, described recently in her Senate confirmation hearing to serve as President Biden’s USAID Administrator.

Yet Israel’s alliance with America changes everything, in nearly every forum, and not just in settings like the Security Council, where the US wields veto power.

In most other fora, like the obscure body that had to initially approve the Yom Kippur proposal, the US must draw on its influence and its standing, not on its raw power. In this case, with the support of Ambassador Power and the backing of Secretary of State John Kerry, what initially appeared impossible became possible.

Today, for the many Jewish employees at the world body, taking a day off for Yom Kippur is a recognized entitlement. But of much broader significance, and due to an Israeli-American tag-team, Judaism now has a status similar to that of Christianity, Islam and other world religions.

For the Jewish people, small as it is, not only is Israel seated among the nations, but the international community also recognizes its most revered day.

A seemingly mundane, if not obscure decision to the casual observer, the UN’s Yom Kippur adoption remains a powerful statement of belonging.

In these Days of Awe, I find myself reflecting not just on Jewish diplomacy and the influence a shtadlan can wield, but also on the critical importance of American leadership.

The UN battle over Yom Kippur may be long resolved, but it is not forgotten.

About the Author
Scott Lasensky teaches Israel studies and American Jewish politics at the University of Maryland and serves as a Senior Advisor to Enter: the Jewish Peoplehood Alliance. He served as a Senior Policy Advisor in the Obama Administration at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and at the U.S. Embassy in Israel.
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