Ahmadinejad’s anti-semitism at the UN….
and the ‘deafening silence’ among Western elites

Published: 18 April 2009
Briefing Number 239

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Summary: The speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the UN General Assembly on 23 September 2008 went further than condemning Israel.  It contained flagrant, anti-semitic themes, proclaimed to a global audience. 

In the words of British politician and former Minister for Europe Denis McShane, Ahmadinejad’s address was “probably the most consistently anti-semitic speech by any leader since the end of the Third Reich…”
This Briefing highlights what the Iranian President said, in his own words. And we also show how the speech was greeted with what was described as a “deafening silence” among political and media elites in the West.

Key messages:  

Iran’s nuclear and strategic ambitions, together with the Jew-hatred and demonisation of Israel which are fomented by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, constitute a threat not only to Israel but also to the international community. 

But if the Jew-hatred is downplayed, then people misunderstand the nature of the Iranian threat.  And they also misunderstand the nature of Israel’s response. 

Background:  On 23 September 2008, as part of the 63rd ‘general session’ of the UN General Assembly on global problems and challenges, many Heads of State addressed the General Assembly.  Among them was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Here are word-for-word extracts from his long speech (a copy of which is available from the following official Iranian website, run by its UN mission -  www.un.int/iran/statement/generalassembly):-

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech at the UN, September 2008 - extracts

The Zionist murderers kill the true owners of the land

“….. In Palestine, sixty years of carnage and invasion is still going on at the hands of some criminal and occupying Zionists. They have forged a regime through collecting people from various parts of the world and bringing them to other people’s land by displacing, detaining and killing the true owners of that land. With advance notice, they invade, assassinate and maintain food and security blockades, while some hegemonic and bullying powers support them.  The Security Council cannot do anything and sometimes, under pressure from a few bullying powers, even paves the way for supporting these Zionist murderers.  It is natural that some UN resolutions that have addressed the plight of the Palestinian people have been relegated to the archives unnoticed…”

Domination of the US and European media and politics by deceitful Zionists

“….The dignity, integrity and rights of the American and European people are being played with by a small but deceitful number of people called Zionists.  Although they are a miniscule minority, they have been dominating an important portion of the financial and monetary centers as well as the political decision-making centers of some European countries and the US in a deceitful, complex and furtive manner.  It is deeply disastrous to witness that some presidential or premier nominees in some big countries have to visit these people, take part in their gatherings, swear some allegiance and commitment to their interests in order to attain financial or media support…..”

The threatening and invasive Zionist network

“…..This means that the great people of America and various nations of Europe need to obey the demands and wishes of a small number of acquisitive and invasive people.  These nations are spending their dignity and resources on the crimes and occupations and the threats of the Zionist network, against their will…..”

… Friends and colleagues, all these are due to the manner in which the immoral and the powerful view the world, humankind, freedom, obeisance to God, and justice….
….. The thoughts and deeds of those who think they are superior to others and consider others to be second-class and inferior; who intend to remain out of the divine circle, to be absolute slaves of their materialistic and selfish desires, who intend to expand their aggressive and domineering natures, constitutes the roots of today’s problems in human societies….”

Zionists and international instability

“… The lives, properties and rights of the people of Georgia and Ossetia and Abkhazia are victims of tendencies and provocations of NATO and certain western powers, military agreements and the underhanded actions of the Zionists….”

The Zionist regime is a cesspool, and on a definite slope of collapse

“….Today, the Zionist regime is on a definite slope of collapse, and there is no way for it to get out of the cesspool created by itself and its supporters…..”

Applause for Ahmadinejad by the audience, and praise by the president of the UN session, Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann  

Far from condemning the speech, the atmosphere in the General Assembly that day was one of congratulation.

Ahmadinejad’s speech was applauded by the General Assembly audience.

The President of the UN General Assembly, Father Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, thanked Ahmadinejad there and then for his “excellent speech”.  Brockmann reportedly rushed down the stairs towards the podium and “warmly hugged and kissed” Ahmadinejad when he finished (Jerusalem Post, 21 October 2008). 

These events prompted the following comment by experienced ‘UN-watcher’ Anne Bayevsky:- 

“Tuesday 23 September 2008 will go down in history as the day the United Nations General Assembly provided a platform for a head of state to spew unadulterated, vile anti-semitism – and the assembled nations of the world clapped….”

- Anne Bayevsky, The Hudson Institute, USA, writing in the National Review, 24 September 2008

The British-based Guardian newspaper: focusing on Iran as victim, and downplaying Ahmadinejad’s anti-semitism

The British-based Guardian newspaper prides itself on its stance against anti-semitism.  Yet here, when reporting on perhaps the worst single outburst of anti-semitism by a head of state since the Second World War, the Guardian failed to report this aspect of the speech. Its report of his speech stated that:-

“Ahmadinejad addressed the assembly a few hours after Bush, and accused the US of making illegal demands against what he called Iran’s ‘peaceful nuclear programme’.  He also effectively accused Israel of controlling the US presidential contest, saying “a small but deceitful minority of Zionists are playing with the American public….”

The Guardian focuses on Ahmadinejad’s perception of Iran as victim.  And also on how the “Israel lobby” is influencing the US presidential election (a view made respectable by American scholars John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their influential book ‘The Israel Lobby’).  No mention of the worst passages in the speech.    

Initial reports on the BBC website ignored the anti-semitism in the speech

The BBC website also focused on Ahmadinejad’s condemnation of Israel, but it made no mention of the anti-semitism in the speech.  Here is the immediate BBC report:-
“On Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used his address to the UN to lash out at Israel and the US, saying “the Zionist regime” was on the path to collapse.  He said Iran would resist “bullying powers” trying to thwart what he called its peaceful nuclear ambitions.  Iran supported dialogue, he said, but would not accept “illegal demands”….”

(- from BBC News website, 25 September 2008)

Once again, the underlying theme for the BBC is how Iran is being victimised.

Britain’s Channel 4 invites Ahmadinejad to give a Christmas TV message 

In December 2008, Britain’s Channel 4 broadcaster invited Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to deliver an ‘alternative’ Christmas message to its television viewers. 

Despite some protests from members of the public and some British politicians, the Channel 4 broadcast by Ahmadinejad took place on 25 December 2008.   

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper -  the naivety of American media

Two days after the speech, the doveish Haaretz newspaper in Israel was forced to comment on the naïve coverage of the speech in the West:

“Israel is justifiably concerned about the naivete with which Ahmadinejad was received by the American media, as well as the world’s growing tendency to view him as a legitimate leader, and cease efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear programme….”

- from Haaretz editorial, 25 September 2008  

Commentators try to explain the downplaying of the speech

Some commentators did highlight the ‘deafening silence’ which greeted the speech, in British media, and among Western circles, and tried to account for it. 

Here is Daniel Johnson, writing in the New York Sun, 25 September 2008 (www.nysun.com):-
“This time he went too far. If a western head of state had echoed Adolf Hitler, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did this week, would Europeans have shrugged their shoulders and dragged their feet over sanctions?

Yet it seems that the Iranian President is now licensed to blame ‘Zionists’ for everything from the economic crisis to the ‘whole world order’, to threaten Israel’s existence and to use words like ‘cesspool’ to describe its people.  There was a deafening silence in Britain. Prime Minister Brown was too preoccupied with his own survival, making yet another ‘life-or-death’ speech at his Labor Party conference.  The conservative leader David Cameron also ignored the scandal….

For the press, too, this was old news, and not even the intended victims raised much of a protest.  The Times of London, determined to impress its readers with the gravity of the story, ran the story accompanied by a fetching photograph of Carla Bruni….”

Johnson then argues that whereas the worst anti-semitic speeches of Heinrich Himmler at the time of the Third Reich were delivered in private, before invited audiences, here the Iranian President expressed himself publicly before a global audience.   And Johnson concludes:-

“The downplaying [in the media] of the scandalous nature of Iran’s open threat to destroy Israel is itself a scandal.  Only in America and Israel itself is the threat taken seriously…..”

Meanwhile, commentator Tim Rutten wrote as follows in the Los Angeles Times, in an article published on 1 October 2008, and headlined ‘Ahmadinejad’s evil words aren’t just talk’ (www.latimes.com):-
“We in the West don’t expect public men or women to speak the truth from public platforms. This attitude has inhibited from the start our ability to recognise and deal with the threat posed by Islamist radicalism.

Time and again, the spokesmen for these movements have told the world precisely what they intend.  And time and again, the scant handful of Americans who bothered to take notice have dismissed what was said as the product of political alienation, as the consequence of economic marginalisation, as a hangover of post-colonial insecurity, or as tactical bluster.

No. These people mean exactly what they say, and they mean it for precisely the reasons they say they do.  They genuinely believe in the extreme and often heretical variants of Islam to which they cleave, that faith guides their actions, and their public statements are expressions of that faith. 

Time and again, we have wilfully blinded ourselves to this fact, partly because modern minds balk at accepting what is essentially medieval reasoning at face value, and partly because it’s the conveniently amicable thing to do.

That, plus the national election here in the US, and the Wall Street crisis, account in large part for the silence that greeted last week’s abominable speech by Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the United Nations....”

Political reactions to the Ahmadinejad speech:-

A few politicians did expressly condemn the speech. But as we showed above, the overall response was muted.   Here are reactions from those who did speak out:-

“The statements of the Iranian President about Israel are irresponsible and unacceptable.  The blatant anti-semitism of his UN speech this year was intolerable and demands our mutual condemnation….”

- German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, quoted in Reuters, 26 September 2008

“This was probably the most consistently anti-semitic speech by any leader since the end of the Third Reich….”

- Denis McShane, British MP, former Minister of State for Europe, and chair of the cross-party parliamentary committee which reported in 2006 on anti-semitism in Britain, speaking in the UK Houses of Parliament on 8 October 2008

“This is the first time in the history of the United Nations that the head of a state is appearly openly and publicly with the ugly and dark accusations of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion….”

- Israeli President Shimon Peres, quoted in the London-based Jewish Chronicle, London, 29 September 2008

Key messages:

  • Iran’s nuclear and strategic ambitions, combined with the Jew-hatred fomented by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other members of the Iranian elite, constitutes a threat not only to Israel but to the world
  • If the Jew-hatred is downplayed, however, people do not understand the nature of the Iranian threat. And they will also misunderstand the nature of Israel’s response to it
Further Beyond Images resources

The speech of Iran’s Supreme leader Khamenei, March 2009: his call for Israel’s destruction’ (Briefing 237, 17 March 2009)

‘Iranian leaders’ incitement to genocide against Israel’ (Briefing 217, 25 July 2008)

And see generally, ‘The Iranian Threat’ area on the Jerusalem Post website (see www.jpost.com)