UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, has recently angered the Israeli government by passing two resolutions that were reported to have been “denying,” “nullifying,” “ignoring,” “failing to acknowledge,” and “erasing” Jewish ties to the Temple Mount. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked sarcastically whether UNESCO would next “deny…the connection between peanut butter and jelly, Batman and Robin, rock and roll.” In a satirical video, the Israeli Foreign Ministry reimagined the Bible as revised by UNESCO, suggesting Jesus ascended to the “Al Aqsa Mosque/Haram al-Sharif.” Israeli officials focused their public relations offensive around the message that UNESCO’s sin was the crude revision of history. This was indeed how Jewish and Israeli media framed the matter.
This was not, however, the thrust of the resolutions, but a background assumption of an explicit attempt to portray Israel as a clear and present danger to a world heritage site. In reality, the resolutions, in a bid by dictatorships (with the acquiescence of democracies) to render Israeli sovereignty over the Old City utterly illegitimate, do the most damage by prejudging how the international community should approach the question of the holy sites in any future accord.
The UNESCO resolutions commit three cardinal sins, which should perturb world Jewry far more than the mere “denial” of Jewish connections to Jerusalem.
Firstly, the UNESCO resolutions order Israel to cease all works celebrating Jewish heritage in Jerusalem. UNESCO “deprecates” the “enforced creation” of the proposed egalitarian prayer plaza at the Western Wall. This is a landmark project to cater for non-Orthodox denominations, and represents a pivot in the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel. It “expresses its deep concern” over plans for the Kedem Center, a new archaeological visitors’ center at the City of David. It “deplores” plans for the Liba House project at the Western Wall plaza, which involves opening up hitherto concealed remains, exposing deeper foundations of the Western Wall, and building classrooms and an auditorium for education purposes. And it “deeply deplores” Israel’s failure to cease archaeological digs around the Old City, which have been exposing key pre-Islamic remains. Moreover, by reaffirming that the Mughrabi Ascent is “an integral and inseparable part of Al-Aqsa Mosque,” and demanding the Jordanian Waqf be given “exclusive authority” over it, UNESCO seeks to block the only entry point to the Temple Mount for Jews and tourists.
And UNESCO does this while turning a blind eye to attempts to literally bulldoze that heritage. UNESCO calls on Israel (“the occupying power”) to restore the “historic status quo that prevailed until September 2000,” which granted “exclusive authority” over the Temple Mount to the Jordanian religious authorities. These are the same authorities that illegally dug up thousands of tons of precious archaeological soil from the Temple Mount and dumped them in the Kidron Valley, and excavated and converted new areas under the Temple Mount for use as mosques. These works have damaged priceless archaeological remains and even threaten the structural stability of the Temple Mount itself. Recently, the Waqf even took a tractor into the Dome of the Rock to dig up earth around the spot believed to be the Holy of Holies of the ancient Jewish Temples—without a peep from UNESCO.
The resolutions also present Israel as an irresponsible and even malicious guardian of the holy sites. It “deeply decries” and “strongly condemns” what it calls “Israeli aggressions” against civilians on the Temple Mount and the “arrests and injuries among Muslim worshippers”—by which it means, presumably, attempts by Israeli forces to restore order on the Mount during rioting, in which the al-Aqsa Mosque was used to store rocks and firebombs by the rioters. UNESCO also “disapproves of the Israeli restriction of access to Al-Aqsa Mosque” during Eid al-Adha of 2015—referring to the age restriction on men after riots involving stones and firecrackers on the Mount. Incidentally, Israel also restricted access for Jews and tourists during Eid al-Adha in order to allow for the celebration of the Muslim holiday. And during Ramadan 2015, it even eased access by allowing buses to arrive straight from West Bank cities. Shockingly, UNESCO refers to the wave of Palestinian stabbings from October 2015 as a “cycle of violence…in the context of constant aggressions by the Israeli settlers,” turning recent events on their heads and excusing terrorism against Israeli civilians.
UNESCO further refers with derision to “so-called ‘Israel Antiquities’ officials,” as if Israel’s top archaeologists are fraudulent tomb-raiders. And egregiously, UNESCO does not say a word about the Murabitoon and Murabitat—Islamist gangs that used to intimidate Jewish visitors with cries of “Allahu Akbar” and sometimes physical violence until Israel proscribed them in the interest of public safety.
Finally, UNESCO attempts to physically dislodge Israel from the Old City by condemning all projects that make it easier to visit. UNESCO “deplores the damaging effect” of the Jerusalem Light Rail a short distance from the Old City walls, and requests that Israel dismantle it. The tram currently provides the best public transport links to the Old City through the Damascus and Jaffa gates. UNESCO also “deplores” a plan for a cable car connecting downtown Jerusalem to Gethsemane, to allow tourists to access an area difficult to reach by public transport. Scraping the barrel, UNESCO “deprecates…the instalment of an umbrella”—yes, an umbrella—at the Mughrabi Gate. It further “deplores” the construction of new restrooms at the Western Wall, a new police station, and even a planned disabled elevator.
Denigrating UNESCO’s judgement by ridiculing its basic assumptions is certainly an effective talking point. But the potency of a message should not distract Israel’s friends from the truly pernicious content of the resolutions, and therefore to the true extent of the perfidy of democratic nations for their collusion in Arab attempts to deprive the Jewish people of their cultural patrimony.
Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.
[Photo: Andrew Shiva / Wikimedia]