UNESCO chief pans her member states on anti-Israel Jerusalem resolution
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UNESCO chief pans her member states on anti-Israel Jerusalem resolution

After Israel cuts ties to UN cultural agency, Irina Bokova warns that 'to deny, conceal or erase' any faith's traditions in holy city undermines body's activities

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria on May 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria on May 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

The director-general of the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO signaled her dismay and opposition to her organization’s own members on Friday, a day after they adopted a resolution that rejects the historic Jewish connection to holy sites in Jerusalem.

Though she did not explicitly mention the resolution, Irina Bokova made her disapproval of the motion clear, saying that efforts to deny history and Jerusalem’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,” Bokova said in a statement.

Bokova noted that the “cultural and spiritual traditions” of all faiths in Jerusalem “build on texts and references, known by all, that are an intrinsic part of the identities and history of peoples.

“To deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site, and runs counter to the reasons that justified its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list,” she said. “When these divisions carry over into UNESCO, an organization dedicated to dialogue and peace, they prevent us from carrying out our mission.”

It was not immediately clear what steps, if any, Bokova intended to take in light of her statement. The resolution was approved Thursday at UNESCO’s committee stage. It must still be validated by the Executive Board of UNESCO when it meets early next week, but the wording is unlikely to change.

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

Bennett, who serves as president of Israel’s National Commission for UNESCO, said all meetings with UNESCO officials, participation in international forums and professional cooperation would be suspended until further notice.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks in the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 27, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks in the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 27, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

UNESCO’s draft resolution, sponsored by several Arab countries, referred to the Temple Mount and Western Wall only by their Muslim names and condemned Israel as “the occupying power” for various actions taken in both places.

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.

Israeli leadership reacted furiously to the UN resolution, with some accusing the UN’s cultural arm of anti-Semitism on Thursday.

Lawmakers from both the right and left of the political spectrum said the decision was ill-befitting of UNESCO.

View of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem, with the Mount of Olives behind it, on September 29, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
View of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem, with the Mount of Olives behind it, on September 29, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the decision “absurd,” while President Reuven Rivlin called it an “embarrassment” for UNESCO. The Executive Board of UNESCO is next week set to approve the resolution, which passed Thursday at the committee stage.

Culture Minister Miri Regev slammed the resolution as “shameful and anti-Semitic,” and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel called for Israel to increase the Jewish presence on the Temple Mount, a flashpoint site governed by a tense status quo, in response.

Opposition chief Isaac Herzog accused UNESCO of betraying their mission. “Whoever wants to rewrite history, to distort fact, and to completely invent the fantasy that the Western Wall and Temple Mount have no connection to the Jewish people, is telling a terrible lie that only serves to increase hatred.”

Twenty-four countries voted in favor of the resolution Thursday afternoon, six against and 26 abstained, though Ambassador Carmel Shama-HaCohen praised the diplomatic effort that had changed several no votes in a similar resolution in April into abstentions this time around.

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