by Dr. Theresa Newell, CMJ USA Board Member
On Thursday, October 13, 2016, UNESCO’s Executive Board meeting in Paris adopted a resolution put forth by an Arab delegation on behalf of the Palestinian Authority that effectively disregards Jewish and Christian ties to Jerusalem holy sites, and has led Israel to cut ties with the cultural body. UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) is an arm of the United Nations. The resolution is titled “Occupied Palestine.” The Jerusalem Post reported that the six-page draft resolution claims that the Western Wall is part of the Temple Mount and therefore Islamic. It broadly condemns Israeli actions in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.
The Israeli ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama Hacohen called the resolution “a total Islamization” of a site revered by Jews as well as Muslims. The Post pointed out that the Western Wall is a retaining wall built 2,000 years ago by King Herod. The purpose was to create an acropolis or flat area for the enhancement of the Jewish Temple, which stood on the mount at that time. This was the Temple that stood during the life of Jesus. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, a Byzantine [Christian] church stood on the spot in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
“To disconnect the Jewish people from the Western Wall is one step too much, even for nations that are the most anti-Israel,” Hacohen said. He noted that “the timing is also problematic, since the Temple Mount issue has already sparked Palestinian violence against Jewish citizens.”
The Temple Mount is under the custodianship of the Wakf Muslim religious trust and the Jordanian monarchy. Jordon voted for the resolution. Palestinians have accused Israel of wanting to change the status quo of this arrangement – a charge which Israel has repeatedly denied.
An aerial view of the Dome of the Rock, left, in the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s old city, and the Western Wall, center, the holiest site for Jews, October 2, 2007. (AFP/Jack Guez)
UNESCO’s Executive Board chairman Michael Worbs told Israel’s Channel 10 that when Jerusalem was declared a World Heritage Site, its importance to the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) was highlighted. He stated, “I am very well aware of that [importance] and personally would never deny that,” referring to Jewish historical connection to the Old City of Jerusalem.
“I would also like to remind [everyone] that Jerusalem, the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls were inscribed as a World Heritage Site of UNESCO by the World Heritage Committee in 1982, and at that time it was inscribed specifically as a site that has meaning for three religions,” Worbs also said. This position, he said, supersedes any debate that the board has had recently.
Twenty-four countries, including China, Russia and the Arab bloc of nations, voted in favor of the resolution, “Occupied Palestine.” Six nations (including the US, Germany and Britain) voted against, and another 26 abstained. The UNESCO resolution referred to the Temple Mount and Western Wall only by their Muslim names and condemned Israel as “the occupying power.” Israel refers to the area as The Temple Mount; the Arabic name is al-Haram al-Sharif, which means Holy Sanctuary. The area is the most important site of worship for Judaism and the third most important site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. The resolution included the Western Wall as part of the Temple Mount and designated it all as a Muslim site, ignoring any Jewish connection to the area.
Neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority (PA) is a member of the 58-member Executive Board of UNESCO. The PA was admitted to UNESCO in 2011. It was the first UN body to accept Palestine as a member. Both Israel and the United States (which supplied 22% of UNESCO funding) withdrew its funds to the organization when the Arab majority brought the PA on as a member.
Mexico’s ambassador to UNESCO, Andres Roemer, who is Jewish, walked out of the vote in Paris in an apparent protest against his country’s support of the resolution. Shama Hacohen urged the ambassador not to follow through on his decision to resign, telling him he is needed.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the resolution a “theater of the absurd.” To declare that Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the Pyramids,” Netanyahu said.
The Palestinian Authority’s deputy ambassador to UNESCO, Mounir Anastas, told reporters Tuesday the resolution “reminds Israel that they are the occupying power in East Jerusalem and it asks them to stop all their violations.” These violations include archaeological excavations around religious sites, Anastas said. Elias Sanbar is the PA ambassador to UNESCO.
The Times of Israel reported that a bloc of Arab nations applied pressure to key UNESCO leaders before the resolution came to a vote.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria said, “Nowhere more than in Jerusalem do Jewish, Christian and Muslim heritage and traditions share space.” [See Bokova’s complete statement here: "Statement by the Director-General of UNESCO on the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls, a UNESCO World Heritage site."] Bokova has received “death threats” after expressing reservations about the Arab-backed resolution denying Israel’s history in Jerusalem, Israel’s ambassador Shama HaCohen said on Israel Radio. The UN has not confirmed this report.
Unlike the UN, no member of UNESCO’s board has veto right. As UNESCO Director, Bokova has no official say over resolutions that are sponsored and voted on by the members. She is “invited” in the draft of the resolution to take it before the next meeting of the UNESCO Executive Board, which is scheduled to meet next April. She has the prerogative to not include the resolution on her agenda for that meeting thus ending the discussion for the time.
While this resolution may not immediately change things on the ground, it marks both a revision of the history of the biblical sites and an unwarranted claim challenging the very “status quo” the Palestinian Authority accuses Israel of disrupting. Tampering with the politically sensitive area of the Temple Mount and Western Wall has, in the past, unsettled what peace surrounds this “City of Peace,” Jerusalem. Psalm 122:6 calls us to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” May we all heed this call in our day.