NOTHING has damaged the moral image of the United Nations in its nearly 45-year history as much as the resolution adopted Nov. 10, 1975, stating that Zionism equals racism. With Zionism widely perceived as a code word for Jews, the resolution invited bigots everywhere to give expression to overt Jew-baiting and then sanction it by the General Assembly's action.
The UN resolution, which challenged the legitimacy of Israel, is the more provocative by reason of the fact that ``racism'' has been formally determined by the world body to be not only evil, but illegal as well. Contracting parties to a key UN accord, numbering over 100 governments, are required to ban racism and its manifestations. Thus ``Zionism,'' too, can be considered an illegal excrescence, to be excised from the body politic.
The late Andrei D. Sakharov quite rightly called the General Assembly resolution an ``abomination,'' but the international community has made little effort to reverse the resolution. But a growing number of countries, including a number in the third world and in East Europe, now recognize that the incendiary equation violates the spirit and purpose of the UN Charter.
Critical to the success of any effort to reverse the resolution is the attitude of the Soviet Union. Moscow played a crucial role in pushing through the defamatory resolution. Its client states in the third world led the lobbying. And the Soviet Union, more than any other country, used the resolution to justify a virulent anti-Semitic propaganda campaign masquerading as anti-Zionism.
That campaign ended in 1986. Mikhail Gorbachev's ``new thinking'' treats the primitivism of the propaganda with contempt. The party ideological journal Sovetskaia Kultura recently exposed the propaganda of the ``stagnation era'' as bordering on Hitlerism. Comparison was made between ``Mein Kampf'' and the works of a notorious anti-Zionist writer who had been earlier hailed by the Kremlin. Only the substitution of the word ``Zionism'' for ``Jewry,'' as in Hitler's book, kept the Soviet writing from being total plagiarism.
Moreover, Moscow has carefully eschewed earlier anti-Israel hostility. A deepening diplomatic relationship has been accompanied by widening commercial and cultural exchange. At the UN, the vulgarity of Soviet broadsides in a previous epoch has been replaced by, for example, a vote of abstention on the perennial question of Israel's credentials.
Still, anti-Zionism appears to remain a component of Soviet ideology. Recently, after a Jewish group in Moscow announced the formation of a ``Zionist Union,'' Pravda responded with a blistering verbal assault which included the charge that ``Zionism'' is ``racism.'' As legitimization for this incendiary blast, the Communist Party organ referred to the infamous UN equation.
For Pamyat and other populist anti-Semitic elements in the USSR, Pravda's comments on Zionism could only serve as a welcome cue to continue their propaganda outrage. They, too, mask their anti-Semitic bigotry by targeting the enemy as Zionism, not Jewry. The broadening aspects of this populist anti-Semitism helped spark today's great Jewish exodus.
GORBACHEV'S new posture toward the UN carries positive elements, including a verbal emphasis upon human rights and the rule of law. The ``Zionism equals racism'' formula stands in sharp contradiction to these fundamentals of the UN's founders.
All the more disturbing, then, is the recent Moscow rebuff of a US proposal for a joint superpower initiative to repeal the offensive resolution. The proposal was in keeping with the unprecedented joint US-USSR sponsorship at the UN last November of a resolution aimed at maximizing cooperation on security issues.
The fact that it was accompanied by an extraordinary press conference at the UN suggests that a new era has dawned in the world organization.
It's clear that Washington intends to press the cooperation initiative. How will President Gorbachev respond to this continuing American initiative? Will he, in the spirit of glasnost, dump an obscene equation that provides comfort only to the bigoted? How Moscow responds can well determine whether the initial image of the UN itself can be restored.