UNESCO moves forward with anti-Jewish resolution regarding Jerusalem sites

Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, the most important Jewish religious site with Dome of the Rock (left) in the background. (Photo: Mikhail Valkov/Wikimedia Commons)

A decision that lawmakers from both the left and right of the political spectrum are calling “unbefitting of UNESCO” has left Israel’s government and many Jews and supporters of Israel around the world furious.

UNESCO’s executive board on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution that not only denies deep historic Jewish connections to holy sites in Jerusalem, it completely neglects Christian ones as well. Michael Worbs, chairman of the UNESCO executive board, had tried to delay the decision based on the resolution’s wording, while Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, expressed dismay and opposition of the decision. Subsequently, she has received death threats for her efforts.

The 2000-word motion, which calls the Temple Mount and Western Wall only by their Muslim names and condemns Israel as “the occupying power,” passed the committee stage vote last week in Paris, but was ratified on Tuesday by the UNESCO’s Executive Board despite many protests and last-ditch efforts by Israel’s Foreign Ministry to try to get support and prevent the adoption of the resolution, even with Israeli diplomatic missions around the world closed due to the Sukkot holiday.

The next step in the process is the vote by the World Heritage Committee which meets in Paris from October 24 to 26. Carmel Shama HaCohen, Israel’s envoy to UNESCO, recognizes that the committee next week “will be a tough playing field.”

In 2011 both Israel and the US withdrew their funding to UNESCO which means they are allowed to voice opinions, but not able to vote on resolutions. Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett declared the motion a denial of history that “gives a boost to terrorism,” before announcing that Israel would be suspending its cooperation with UNESCO. Some Israeli leaders have accused the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural division of anti-Semitism. Israel has withdrawn all support but says that diplomatic efforts will continue while they expect all countries to support Israel’s position on this matter.

Bokova said that efforts to deny history and Jerusalem’s complex multi-faith character does harm to UNESCO.

“The heritage of Jerusalem is indivisible, and each of its communities has a right to the explicit recognition of their history and relationship with the city,” she said. “Nowhere more than in Jerusalem do Jewish, Christian and Muslim heritage and traditions share space.”

Shama HaCohen accused Arab countries of “appalling conduct” over the drafts. He said the director-general’s life is in danger since she opposed the Jerusalem motion. After threats were made against Bokova, she was given increased protection.