On Oct. 13, 2016, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed a resolution denying Jewish cultural connections to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, referring to both solely by their Arabic names, without mentioning the importance of the site to the Jewish people.
This distinction may appear petty to some. After all, the Jewish people are not the only ones who feel a spiritual connection to these spaces. All three of the Abrahamic religions claim these sites–and Israel in general–to be holy and sacred.
For Jews, the Western Wall is the holiest place in which we are permitted to pray. The last wall standing from the second Jewish temple, it’s a space of great cultural significance.
The Temple Mount, which lies behind the Western Wall, is considered the holiest spot in Judaism. Many believe the foundation stone, which lays inside it, to be the place from which God created the entirety of the Earth. However, Jews are forbidden from praying there. Therefore, in denying Jewish cultural heritage to these holy sites, UNESCO engaged in vile antisemitism and did a considerable disservice to the United Nations as a whole. Not content to marginalize Israeli citizens and the Zionist movement, the organization felt the need to demean all of the Jewish people on Earth by denying their claims to their own religious monuments. UNESCO’s decision symbolizes everything that is wrong with the United Nations’ and the international community’s treatment of the Jewish state. It defies not only history, but also basic human decency.
While many may, and do, defend it as nothing more than a symbolic action meant to strike at the Israeli government, the very nature of the decision is so great as to preclude any righteous moral justification. Hidden behind criticism of the Israeli government, this resolution had very little to do with disagreements over policy, but rather used dissatisfaction with the Israeli government as an excuse to delegitimize the state of Israel and Jewish people’s historic and cultural ties to the land of Israel.
This becomes increasingly apparent when the discourse around Israel is compared to the discourse around any other country. Even nations with horrid human rights records are not subject to this kind of attention. I’ve yet to hear any activist claim that the solution to the Chinese government’s occupation of Tibet is the elimination of China. I have yet to hear activists respond to the Russian occupation of the Ukraine by discrediting Russian historical claims to Moscow. I have yet to hear critics of Turkey’s human rights records claim that the solution is to dissolve the country. Only the Jewish state is criticized in this fashion, only the Jewish state’s right to exist is subject to question.
This decision has been made especially ludicrous as, the same day as this resolution, a rare artifact, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, dated to the seventh century B.C.E., around the end of the First Temple period, was discovered that specifically connects the Jewish people to the Temple Mount. It is believed to be the oldest non-biblical evidence of Jewish connection to the holy site (The Jerusalem Post, “Rare First Temple-era scroll exposes earliest Hebrew mention of Jerusalem,” 10.26.2016). Yet even in the face of insurmountable evidence, the forces that seek to delegitimize Israel roll onward. The Palestinian government has gone on to attempt to claim the Dead Sea Scrolls, a series of holy Jewish artifacts, as its own, a clear attempt at historical revisionism that ignores facts and demonstrates a desire not to criticize policy, but to delegitimize the state (The Jerusalem Post, “Palestinians make a play for Dead Sea Scrolls at UNESCO,” 11.06.2016).
Acknowledging the connection that the Jewish people have to the Temple Mount does not diminish Muslim claims to the same holy site. Were UNESCO to make a similar resolution that refused to acknowledge Islam’s ties to these sites, outrage would be equally warranted.
If by doing this, UNESCO hoped to promote peace in any sense, its leaders should know and understand that through their actions, they have set back the peace process by potentially instigating tensions between Palestinians and Israelis. The resolution, by lending credence to the idea that Israel’s existence is illegitimate, discourages the Palestinian government from negotiating. And, by aggravating the Israeli government through a resolution that does nothing to help the Palestinian people, UNESCO closes an avenue that could have been used to further cooperation and bring the two sides closer to peace.
While there have for a long time been incidents of anti-Israel activists denying Israel’s right to exist, never has an international institution gone so far as to deny that Jews have any connection to the region.
And yet, while undeniably on the fringe, this viewpoint is not as uncommon as some might be inclined to believe. I have, on multiple occasions, always by a person who is not Jewish, been told that modern Jews have no historical connection with Israel and that I am not actually Jewish. While this view is far from mainstream, UNESCO channels this sentiment in its denial of Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, at the very least among pro-Palestinian activists in the United States.
This is but one in a long line of bad decisions by the United Nations that reveal a bias against the Jewish state. This bias, often referenced and well documented, discredits the organization’s ability to seek peace in the region.
The epitome of this clear bias can be found in a 1975 decision by the United Nations General Assembly, in which, through a vote of 72 to 35, it declared that Zionism is racism, prompting widespread condemnation and outrage.
Although the resolution was later revoked in 1991, it remains emblematic of the widespread anti-Zionist, anti-Israel sentiment in the United Nations.
Claims of anti-Israel bias are supported by a large number of resolutions targeting the Israeli government while its neighbors, all of whom have objectively worse human rights records, have received little to no attention from the international body. Saudi Arabia even serves on the Human Rights council despite being one of the worst human rights violators in the world. The Israeli people and government have good reason to be suspicious of the United Nations, and the UNESCO decision does little to rebuild a sense of trust.
The United Nations’ unfair treatment of Israel, as exemplified by UNESCO, not only exposes its hypocrisy, but also results in a situation that inhibits peace by discouraging the Israeli government from turning to international institutions for help, and by disincentivizing diplomacy on both sides. The United Nations has taught the Israelis to fear diplomats and has taught Palestinians that they should not need to negotiate. By reducing the situation to Palestine is good and Israel is bad, the United Nations reduces the chances for peace.