UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has been heavily criticized for his handling of the Gaza war, including these last few days by Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. To help us understand Guterres’s role better, let’s consider a membership organization like the UN that’s familiar to most of us- a synagogue.
A Rabbi’s job is to serve the needs of the members that hired him. They’re the boss. Everything would be straightforward, except for one problem- with so many bosses, what happens when they clash?
Here’s a simple example. What if one congregant, let’s name him Reuven, insists there should be only tuna at kiddush. He puts his hands on his hips and stands his ground- just tuna, only tuna, and nothing but tuna gets served in this town.
Another congregant, let’s call him Shimon, disagrees. He wants egg salad only. He says tuna contains mercury, the nets kill dolphins, and it tastes bad besides. So they argue and everyone starts to get upset.
Role of the Rabbi
What should the Rabbi do? Let’s start with a few things he shouldn’t. It’s not for the Rabbi to give his personal view. For the Rabbi to say, “I don’t like egg salad either, Reuven’s right, let’s just have tuna,” would be completely inappropriate. This would cause the side the Rabbi disagrees with to feel completely not valued and they might well leave the shul.
The Rabbi also must remain impartial and not act on personal grievances or pique. So even if Reuven voted not to hire him and closes his eyes when the Rabbi speaks on Shabbat mornings, whereas Shimon comes to all the classes and is always ready to help make a minyan, that should have no bearing at all.
The Rabbi’s job is to make sure that both sides feel heard and see that their views are respected. The Rabbi should acknowledge how important the issue seems to both sides and explain back their reasons so that both sides know that their arguments are being considered. Then the Rabbi should nudge the community into a decision making process that both sides perceive as fair, while looking for areas of compromise.
But very importantly the Rabbi also has to be ready to confront the parties if they behave in ways that go against the norms and values of the community. So for example, Shimon can explain in detail all the reasons he dislikes tuna. But if that turns into him calling Reuven a genocidal maniac out to slaughter every creature in God’s oceans the Rabbi should step in and tell him he’s over the line. That type of personal name calling won’t be tolerated in shul.
The Secretary General
Now we can understand the role of the Secretary General. His bosses are all the countries of the world, and when they argue (or in this case fight a war), his responsibilities are like the Rabbi’s.
Israel has every right to demand from Guterres fair and impartial treatment. Whatever personal opinions Guterres may have about Israel or the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Bibi Netanyahu personally, or unsettled grudges from past disputes should have no bearing.
Israel can also expect that Guterres enforce norms of behavior. In this case, that means that just like a Rabbi should tell a congregant who starts to swear or insult others that is not tolerated in shul, Guterres must clearly and unequivocally condemn the Hamas massacre of Oct. 7th. Guterres has to state firmly and absolutely that no matter what Hamas’s political grievance, the atrocities it committed are outrages that can never be justified. In the days after Oct. 7th he said something pretty much kind of like that (sort of). Whether or not he handled this well enough you be the judge.
But, as much as it may frustrate us, we can’t expect the Secretary General to take our side. Whether we think of Israel’s arguments and political positions, trying to get Guterres to agree with them is like Reuven or Shimon trying to get the Rabbi to take their side by listing all the pros or cons of tuna and egg salad. It doesn’t matter how convincing the reasons are, it won’t work because it’s Guterres’s job to remain impartial.
Finally, the Rabbi has to keep in mind the overall health of the shul, to try to make sure the dispute about kiddush doesn’t derail the overall vision of the community. So too Guterres is responsible for keeping in mind how fighting between individual members affects the entire world.
Guterres Invokes Article 99
I believe this is how we should understand Guterres this week as he invoked section 99 of the UN Charter, which authorizes him to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter that he believes may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.
He did this in the form of a letter (read it here). It begins with a condemnation of the Oct. 7th attacks and a call for the unconditional release of Israel’s hostages. Then it details the horrible conditions currently being endured by residents of Gaza, the inability to provide vital aid due to the fighting, and the threat of breakdown of public order, disease, and displacement. Guterres calls for an immediate humanitarian truce to facilitate assisting Gaza’s civilian population.
I believe what he’s saying is that in his view the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza has reached the point where it is a threat not just to the local population but also to global peace and security. In his opinion such severe, widespread harm inflicted on millions threatens to create a level of suffering and anger that will make future peace impossible. Instead, he thinks it will lead to a cycle of retribution and payback violence that will drag the entire region towards more war. His job as Secretary General is to try not to let that happen.
Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, responded harshly to Guterres’s letter. Cohen said that Guterres himself is the danger to peace, and that his call for a cease fire constitutes support of Hamas and an endorsement of the murder of the elderly, the abduction of babies, and the rape of women. Cohen added that Israel will no longer be silent in the face of bias from the UN.
Is Guterres out of line writing his letter, siding with Hamas against Israel out of prejudice, bias, or personal opinion? This seems to be what Israel’s foreign minister believes. Or is Guterres doing his job? In complaining, is Israel acting like a hotheaded congregant, frustrated that no matter how much he argues the Rabbi remains impartial, stays loyal to a greater vision of community, and refuses to tell the congregant he’s right? I leave it for you to decide.