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UNESCO's mistake on Jerusalem

The resolution was yet another shallow attack on identity elements, the same type I reject every time Israel does it to Palestinians. It was also a setback to the kind of UN action that could actually move the bar in a region that desperately needs it.

File photo of the UNESCO General Assembly (Cancillería Ecuador/CC)

File photo of the UNESCO General Assembly (Cancillería Ecuador/CC)

UNESCO has made a startlingly bad move in voting to affirm “Item 25,” a hodgepodge of condemnations and calls for Israel to stop policies that harm religious or cultural sites in Jerusalem, Hebron and Gaza. On Jerusalem, the text conspicuously referred to the holiest site by its Muslim name only: Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif, pointedly neglecting – denying, many feel – the Jewish history of the site Jews call the Temple Mount. The declaration specifically noted the importance of the Old City to the three monotheistic faiths, a contrast which actually highlighted the excision of any Jewish connection to the actual holy site itself.

UNESCO can claim an ignoble feat of making me agree with Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, and maybe for the first time in living memory, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. Both thrashed UNESCO for taking a blunt hatchet to ancient and modern sensibilities of the Jewish people.

Why did I take it so personally? I am not religious. But I hold degrees in both comparative religion and ethnonationalist conflict; I am also a practitioner working to untangle them. So I can say for certain: one doesn’t need any of those credentials, only common sense, to know that human beings hold their religious beliefs and ancient national mythology extremely dear. Many will kill and die for these things.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews look out over the Western Wall and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, December 17, 2015. (Esther Rubyan/Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox Jews look out over the Western Wall and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, December 17, 2015. (Esther Rubyan/Flash90)

Israel and every other human society should evolve beyond physical violence for the sake of holy sites. But to deny spiritual connections is deeply disrespectful to those who simply feel connected to our history and tradition. I fasted on Yom  Kippur, as one of my few outward expressions of tradition. A day later, UNESCO trampled on my heritage – rather the opposite of its mandate.

There is a more sinister historic and political implication to such language. The resolution dances close to the narrative that Jews have no connection to this land, but arbitrarily chose to settle here and colonize the rightful, exclusive, owners. It is a theme that is both incorrect and dangerous.

Beyond the bigger themes, this move was also a surefire way to empty the resolution of any potential concrete effectiveness. The heart of the statement is a call on Israel to stop activities that are harming the site and Muslim religious sensibilities, not only in Jerusalem – but also in Hebron and Gaza. Neither Israel nor anyone else will notice that now. To be sure, it is unlikely that Israel would have snapped into action if the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount had been judiciously described with both names. But anyone paying attention would have had to focus on substance rather than distraction. The deliberate language raises serious doubts about whether member states who voted in favor cared about the actual goals, or just wanted to commit a symbolic injury.

And the reverberations go beyond just UNESCO. Is this what the UN needs right now? Other agencies struggle for integrity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is not only right-wingers who are becoming skeptical of the decades-old UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that runs various aspects of life for Palestinian refugees. With good intentions, it may actually be disempowering Palestinians, by perpetuating dependency and inertia. The UN Human Rights Council has been fetishizing its condemnations of Israel for years, deflecting massive human rights violations of its other members, which currently include Burundi, Congo, Russia and Saudi Arabia (among others).

Finally, UNESCO’s foolish step is a setback to the kind of UN action that could actually move the bar in a region that desperately needs it. There has been strong speculation that the UN Security Council may seek to pass a resolution either condemning settlements or setting parameters for a two-state solution during President Obama’s “lame duck” period. This has raised a large question about whether Obama might withhold the automatic U.S. veto, as a parting statement. The UN needs all the credibility it can muster for this to happen, or for such a move to make any impression whatsoever in Israel. Already Israeli peace and human rights leaders who testified Friday at the UN Security Council on these issues were roundly condemned by politicians at home. It will be that much easier for Israel to explain away whatever the Security Council does next.

It’s true that Israelis have become resistant to the UN and nicer language would not have changed that. A UN agency should behave better not to score points with Israel but for its own integrity. It is also true that for most of Israel’s history the West has been fundamentally biased in favor of Israel, so the UN often provides needed balance. But the resolution wasn’t balanced; it was just another shallow attack on identity elements that I reject every time Israel does it to Palestinians. It is certainly not the UN’s role to throw matches into the most combustible religious heart of the conflict.

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    COMMENTS

    1. UNESCO sailed away to la-la land along with the UN Human Rights Council.

      Reply to Comment
    2. ThirteenthLetter

      Is it finally, finally, after so many years, starting to sink in that it is not about human rights at all — it is that they hate you and want you, and all Jews, dead?

      Reply to Comment
    3. i_like_ike52

      It should be crystal clear to everyone that the Palestinians have NO INTENTION of ever agreeing to a compromise peace or the “2 states for 2 peoples” formula. They are saying to the whole world, and, most importantly to their own people that the Jews have no place in Eretz Israel and they will never accept it.
      It is true that Olmert already recognized the fact that the Arab/Muslim world will never recognize any Jewish rights or presence in Jerusalem, particularly at the Temple Mount and the Kotel (Western Wall). Therefore he agreed to de facto Palestinian control of those places in the guise of “International supervision” by a commission made up of a majority of Muslim countries. He apparently felt that this would make his capitulation more palatable to the Israeli/Jewish public, but Abbas turned Olmert’s compromise peace proposal down flat even though it almost completely accepted the Palestinian territorial demands.
      Thus, it is now plain for everyone to see that the Palestinians will never make peace with Israel under any terms and that their whole political platform is in the direction of completely delegitimizing any Jewish presence anywhere in the country. I think that Israeli public is now aware of this and will reject any more useless Israeli capitulations to the never-ending Palestinian demands.
      Finally, seeing how so many European powers debase themselves by refusing to vote against this measure by denying their own Christian history shows how pervasive the rot is in the whole Western world. I hope Jews around the world now realize that relying on promises of support in the event Israel should make foolish concessions is sheer folly.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @I_Like_Ike: You’ve won! There’s going to be one state – it fact, it already IS one state. Ari Shavit in Haaretz:

        “Daily, hourly, Zionism is digging its own grave on the peaks of Judea and Samaria and in the abyss of the one state.”

        http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.747191

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Oh Ike. Utter nonsense, a mound of distortions. It misrepresents what happened between Olmert and Abbas and it pretends that Israel has ever offered the Palestinians a fair “compromise.” It never has. One spots a right winger pulling a fast one when “compromise” is used as it is here. It always means something else: either “you surrender” or “something we know ahead of time you can’t agree to–that’s its purpose–because the last thing we really want is peace, we want the whole shebang.”

        I think Ari Shavit misunderstands the true intentions of the right wing. (He misunderstands a lot of things and his specialty is breathless, hysterical, apocalyptic scenarios. It’s become a kind of joke.) I don’t think the right wing thinks it will have to share one state or two states or any state with Palestinians. I give the right wing more credit for being cold-bloodedly rational, or at least, coherent. I think the right wing is dead set on sticking this thing out until it can provoke a conflagration that it thinks will allow it to commit ethnic cleansing and mass population transfer under the cover of the fog of war. It has no intention of a fair compromise. Ever. It aims to perpetrate Nakba II. It will goad the Palestinians to the breaking point, expertly shut down non-violent avenues of releasing the pressure, and then claim “They attacked us! It was existential! Poor us! We had no choice!” The right wing is simply biding its time. It would panic only if somehow a true, fair compromise were to gather momentum, that is, if the thing escaped the right wing’s control. The last time that threatened to happen a prime minister was assassinated.

        Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          Thank you for proving my point. THe Palestinians prefer to keep the status quo, i.e. “the occupation” rather than give up things like the “Right of Return” of the refugees. Compromise is suicide for them. Olmert, Livni, Clintons and Obama all say that “it will be very bad for Israel if there is no Palestinian state”. Well, that’s what the Palestinians want..Do you think they they will want an agreement in order to help Israel? That is why they do not want a state or an agreement.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Nonsense again. For a Palestinian leader to compromise on the RoR (“mutually agreed upon solution”) he has to have political cover in the form of an actual, decent, non-humiliating deal with the Israelis (something Israel has never offered a Palestinian leader). Surely you can see that. Do I think they they will want an agreement in order to help Israel? No, of course I don’t. The question itself betrays that peculiar brand of Israeli narcissism. Do you think the Israelis want an agreement in order to help the Palestinians? No, of course you don’t. That’s why we have agreements.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Tal

      It is true to say that the Palestinians said no to the offers made to them by Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008, but could it be that the offers made by the Israeli leaders weren’t sufficient?
      Could it be that Israel never made an offer that made sure there would be a territorial continuity inside the West Bank for the future West Bank?
      Just look what Condoleezza Rice said about Israel’s offer back in 2008:

      “They made an offer – it’s not good, but it’s not bad…. Ariel is a problem, I told them – it protrudes down far into the Palestinian state.”

      First of all, it is important to mention that the Palestinians made an offer as well back in 2008, An offer which Israel rejected.
      http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4017957,00.html

      Second, Accordind to an interview Made by Nahum Barnea in 2014
      The Palestinians accepted these parameters:
      demilitarized state;
      Border outline so 80 percent of settlers would continue living in Israeli territory;
      he agreed for Israel to keep security sensitive areas (mostly in the Jordan Valley – NB) for five years, and then the United States would take over.
      He also agreed that the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty,
      agreed that the return of Palestinians to Israel would depend on Israeli willingness. ‘Israel won’t be flooded with refugees,’

      http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4515821,00.html

      Third, according to another report made in 2016, The Palestinians negotiated with representatives of the Israeli Opposition party and achieved an historic agreement including all of the core Issues:

      Borders will be changed according to new facts made by Israeli settlements so there would be a land swap of 4% from the West Bank and about 70%-80% of settlers could stay where they are.
      Jerusalem will be divided considering changes made by Israeli settlements and the Jewish quarter and the Wailing Wall would stay under Israeli sovereignty.
      There will be a symbolic return of Palestinian refugees and some would be compensated.
      Watch an interview with Gershon Baskin about this agreement (min 18)

      http://10tv.nana10.co.il/Article/?ArticleID=1194810

      On the other hand, According to a report by Barak Ravid, in 2014 Itzhak Molcho, Netanyahu’s representative to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, thwarted every attempt to open a map and make the negotiation fertile.

      http://www.haaretz.co.il/israel-peace-convention/1.2359763

      As Israelis, it is our responsibility to question OUR government and not to seek and blame the other side.

      Reply to Comment
      • Carmen

        “As Israelis, it is our responsibility to question OUR government and not to seek and blame the other side.”

        Not so much ‘as israelis’ because there’s a couple million here who have no voice. Let’s include all. If we could look at each other as fellow travelers – there, we have a basic commonality – let’s question this government and demand it work for all of us, let’s think rationally and not behave like Pavlov’s dogs and start to salivate at the endless propaganda, lies and hatred.

        Reply to Comment
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