UNESCO chief to Livni: We will fight delegitimization of Israel
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UNESCO chief to Livni: We will fight delegitimization of Israel

Though its committee has approved anti-Israel text, Irina Bokova vows UN body will promote Jewish heritage around the world, combat Holocaust denial

The chief of the UN's education and culture agency, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, August 21, 2015. (AP/Raad Adayleh)
The chief of the UN's education and culture agency, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, August 21, 2015. (AP/Raad Adayleh)

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova 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.

Bokova made the comments in a response to a letter that the Zionist Union lawmaker and former foreign minister sent ahead of Thursday’s UNESCO vote on a resolution that effectively rejects Jewish ties to Jerusalem’s holy sites.

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 UNESCO’s committee stage 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.

In her initial letter sent on the eve of Thursday’s vote, Livni warned that the resolution could spark religious conflict and violations of the decades-long status quo at Jerusalem’s flashpoint holy sites.

Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni on November 16, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni on November 16, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Bokova’s response, which apparently came after the motion was passed, 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.

“For more than 70 years UNESCO has worked to preserve world Jewish heritage in order to fight anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial,” Bokova wrote, according to a report on the Ynet website Saturday. “UNESCO is the sole UN organization that has educational programs on the lessons of the Holocaust, with the aim of combating modern anti-Semitism including the delegitimization of Israel.”

Bokova also mentioned UNESCO’s joint projects to fight anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel, as well as those aimed at preserving sites in Israel that show the connection of the Jewish people to the land, including Jerusalem. Among those projects, she said, was work with the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Holocaust studies.

The Israeli leadership reacted furiously to the resolution Thursday, 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.

Jewish men worship at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on October 14, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA)
Jewish men worship at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on October 14, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA)

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.

The chairman of UNESCO’s Executive Board, Michael Worbs, said Friday that he hoped to delay Tuesday’s board meeting in order to reach a consensus on the resolution before a formal vote. He also apologized for the resolution in an interview aired Friday night on Israeli television.

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 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,” the UNESCO chief said in a statement.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said in response Friday that Bokova’s criticism was insufficient, and she must follow up her words with actions.

“The announcement by UNESCO’s Director-General about the importance of the Temple Mount to the Jews is not enough,” said a statement from Bennett, who is also president of Israel’s National Commission for UNESCO.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett seen in the Knesset plenum, August 1, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett seen in the Knesset plenum, August 1, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The moral support provided by UNESCO to terror will end only when the organization cancels yesterday’s outrageous decision, which denies history to please Israel haters,” he said. “Words are important, but they are not a replacement to the actions of the organization she heads.”

It was not immediately clear what steps, if any, Bokova intended to take in light of her statement.

Israel informed Bokova on Friday that it was suspending its cooperation with UNESCO over the vote, with Bennett calling the motion a denial of history that “gives a boost to terrorism.”

Bennett said all meetings with UNESCO officials, participation in international forums and professional cooperation would be suspended until further notice.

A total of 24 countries voted in favor of Thursday’s resolution, while six (including the US and Britain) voted against and another 26 abstained. Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-HaCohen praised the diplomatic effort that had changed several “no” votes in a similar resolution in April into abstentions this time.

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