Review: No Enchanted Palace

A history of the origins and formation of the United Nations shows how its ideals were compromised from the start

By Adam Lebor, April 8, 2010
Justice Richard Goldstone: his report was welcomed in UN circles but mainly repudiated in Israeli ones

Justice Richard Goldstone: his report was welcomed in UN circles but mainly repudiated in Israeli ones

By Mark Mazower
Princeton University Press, £16.95

For Israeli governments and their supporters, the United Nations is only slightly less malevolent than the devil incarnate.

Numerous UN bodies, whose memberships are dominated by the developing and Islamic worlds, are obsessed with Israel. Bashing the Jewish state provides a useful distraction from those decrepit regimes' failures to provide basic freedoms and services for their citizens.

The recent UN report by Justice Richard Goldstone on Israel's war in Gaza in January 2009 dispelled any lingering doubts Israel's supporters may have had over the UN's anti-Israel bias. The report, which strongly condemned Israel's conduct but also criticised Hamas, was presented to the UN's Human Rights Council in Geneva, where it was met with predictable delight.

The council's operations are a dark farce. Its current membership includes such bastions of freedom as Egypt, Bolivia and Indonesia. The hundreds of thousands displaced in Sudan or Sri Lanka are of no concern in comparison to Israel's actions.

Yet for all the hysterical accusations of bias the report triggered, many of Goldstone's concerns were shared by Israeli civil rights organisations. And earlier this year Israel agreed in principle to pay around $10 million compensation to the UN for damages caused to its premises during the fighting.

In No Enchanted Palace, his fascinating and revealing study of the intellectual origins of the United Nations, Mark Mazower, a British historian now teaching at Columbia University in New York, focuses on the ideas and ideologies that shaped the international body before and during its inception.

He shows how the relationship between the UN and Israel, and with diaspora Jewry, is far more complex than is generally realised. Although the UN is now the focus of a sustained campaign to de-legitimise the Jewish state, it was the UN that gave birth to Israel when, in November 1947, the General Assembly passed Resolution 181, dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.

Jewish figures were also important in shaping the UN's founding ideals, none more so than Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer credited with coining the term "genocide" to describe the Nazi annihilation of the Jews, leading to the 1948 Convention on Genocide.

Joseph Schechtman, a revisionist Zionist ideologue, lobbied hard against the idea of collective minority rights (such as for the Palestinians) and, when the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights was drawn up, it did not mention minorities at all.

The UN's preferred narrative of its birth is one of humanitarian idealism, where superpowers united to make the world a better place. But, as Mazower shows, superpower interests and cynical realpolitik reigned supreme long before the UN came into existence. The preamble to the United Nations Charter, calling for peace, human rights and justice, was partly written by Jan Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa.

If one of the architects of apartheid helped draft the United Nations' founding documents, then the United Nations Human Rights Council is merely the latest manifestation of absurdity and hypocrisy that has characterised the organisation since its birth.

Adam LeBor is the author of 'Complicity with Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide' (Yale University Press)

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011