In an extraordinary sequence of diplomatic events, Mexico’s ambassador to UNESCO walked out of last week’s vote in Paris on a resolution effectively denying Judaism’s historic ties to Jerusalem, in what appears to have been a personal protest against his country’s decision to vote in favor of the text. The ambassador, who is Jewish, then apparently contemplated resigning his post, but was urged not to by Israel’s ambassador, who wrote him a personal letter praising him as a friend of the Jewish state.
UNESCO’s resolution, sponsored by several Arab countries, referred to the Temple Mount and Western Wall — Judaism’s holiest sites — only by their Muslim names, and condemned Israel as “the occupying power” for various actions taken in both places. Approved at the cultural body’s committee stage in Paris on Thursday, the resolution must still be validated by the Executive Board of UNESCO when it meets Tuesday, but the wording is unlikely to change.
Mexico was one of the 24 countries that voted in favor of the resolution. Six nations (including the US, Germany and Britain) voted against and another 26 abstained.
Mexico’s ambassador Andres Roemer walked out of the session, and considered resigning. However, Israel’s ambassador Carmel Shama HaCohen wrote him a letter the next day, urging him not to do so.
In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times of Israel, Shama HaCohen wrote that he found it “personally moving” when Roemer exited the session on Jerusalem, “to actively avoid the vote against your conscience.” HaCohen urged Roemer to remain in his post as ambassador, noting that he would continue to be “a great asset to Mexico and a friend to Israel.”
HaCohen wrote: “I would like to express my deepest appreciation to your assistance in advice and insight. Your presence as a friend is highly appreciated and welcomed. I am looking forward to continue working together with you in the future.
“Furthermore, it was personally moving to see you leave the room during the vote in order to actively avoid the vote against your conscience.
“Moreover, I found your consideration to resign from your post as pre-matured and rushed [sic]. I am sure that you will be a great asset to Mexico and a friend to Israel.”
The letter, on official Israeli government stationary, is dated October 14, 2016 and signed by HaCohen.
Roemer, who is also a lawyer, economist and playwright, is the grandson of Viennese orchestra conductor Ernesto Roemer, who fled Europe before World War II. A self-described “atheist Jew,” he grew up in Mexico City, and had previously served as Mexico’s consul-general in San Francisco.
Both UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and chairman of the UNESCO Executive Board Michael Worbs have expressed displeasure at the outcome of Thursday’s vote.
In an interview to Israeli television on Friday, Worbs apologized for the resolution, shortly after expressing the hope that the Board’s Tuesday meeting could be delayed, in order to reach a consensus on the resolution before a formal vote.
Bokova, meanwhile, told MK Tzipi Livni that her organization would battle the delegitimization of Israel, as well as continue to promote Jewish heritage around the world and fight against Holocaust denial.
Responding to a letter sent on the eve of the vote by the former Israeli foreign minister, Bokova said that she herself recognizes the sanctity of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall to the Jewish people, and highlighted various UNESCO activities aimed at upholding Judaism’s connection to the land of Israel.
In her initial letter, Livni had warned that the resolution could spark religious conflict and violations of the decades-long status quo at Jerusalem’s flashpoint holy sites.
Bokova also signaled her dismay at the resolution on Friday, saying efforts to deny history and the city’s complex multi-faith character harm UNESCO.
The Israeli leadership reacted furiously to the resolution, with some accusing UNESCO of anti-Semitism. Lawmakers from both the right and left of the political spectrum said the decision was ill-befitting of the cultural body.
Israelis and many Jews around the world view the move as the latest example of an ingrained anti-Israel bias at the United Nations, where Israel and its allies are far outnumbered by Arab countries and their supporters.
Israel informed Bokova on Friday that it was suspending its cooperation with UNESCO over the vote, with Education Minister Naftali Bennett calling the motion a denial of history that “gives a boost to terrorism.”