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In unsubtle critique, Israel gifts UNESCO Arch of Titus replica

Cultural agency’s chief Irina Bokova accepts frieze of menorah being carted off by Romans as ‘recognition of the strength of our partnership with Israel’

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A replica of the Arch of Titus, handed to UNESCO on September 26, 2017 (Erez Lichtfeld)
A replica of the Arch of Titus, handed to UNESCO on September 26, 2017 (Erez Lichtfeld)

Israel handed a replica of a frieze from the Arch of Titus to the head of UNESCO, using the monument commemorating Rome’s victory over Jerusalem for a not-so-subtle critique of the organization’s resolutions that ignore Jewish links to the holy city.

The idea originally came from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organization passed a resolution last year that used only Muslim names for the Jerusalem Old City holy sites.

The replica will be exhibited in UNESCO’s Paris headquarters as a “greeting from the historical truth about the existence of two Temples on the Temple Mount,” said Carmel Shama-Hacohen, Israel’s ambassador to the agency.

Shama-Hacohen handed the replica to UNESCO’s outgoing director-general Irina Bokova, who, in her speech, offered a more subtle critique of one-sided anti-Israel resolutions passed routinely by her organization’s member states.

“2,000 years ago the Romans destroyed the Temple and removed it from the Jewish people. And today, UNESCO is trying to destroy and remove the history of Jerusalem from the Jewish people,” Shama-Hacohen said at the event.

“When the executive board of UNESCO adopts every six months a resolution that denies the connection between the Jewish people and the Temple Mount, they are not only adopting a political resolution, they are adopting a resolution that negates the right of the State of Israel to exist and the Jewish people’s right of self-determination,” he said.

Furthermore, such resolutions “pave the way for spreading anti-Semitism and terrorism,” Shama-Hacohen went on.

“To those who are using UNESCO and its executive board as a political tool to promote political stability in their own country I say, enough. Too many people are paying a heavy price for your resolutions,” he said. “Taking this organization and Jewish history as a hostage for your political problems is not the answer.”

The Arch of Titus. (Wikimedia commons/Cassius Ahenobarbus)

Built in the year 82 CE, the Arch of Titus commemorates Rome’s victory over the Jews and subsequent siege of Jerusalem 12 years earlier. It depicts Roman soldiers carrying away the grand menorah that was used by the high priests in the destroyed Jewish Temples, and is seen by many Jews as proof of the Jewish people’s connection to Jerusalem.

“The Arch of Titus in Rome illustrates a most tragic event in the history of the Jewish people, bearing witness also to the millennial relationship between the Jewish people and the city of Jerusalem,” Bokova said at the event.

Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, with cultural agency’s director-general Irina Bokova, September 26, 2017 (Erez Lichtfeld)

Bokova, who will end her term as UNESCO head next month, accepted the gift — crafted by the Art Conservation Department at the Israel Antiquities Authority — as “recognition of the strength of our partnership with Israel, and as a promise of a deeper cooperation in the future.”

The story of the Temple’s destruction “stands at the heart of Jewish identity,” she said. “This story can guide us through the depths of time, showing the resilience of a people, helping us understand the role of transmission and memory, how it structures identities over centuries, how cultures permeate and influence each other.”

Jerusalem, she said, is sacred to the three monotheistic religions, “and nowhere in the world more than in Jerusalem do Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions share space and interweave to the point that they support each other.”

Referring to the Temple Mount by both its Hebrew and Arabic names — Har Habayit and Al-Haram al-Sharif, respectively — she noted Jerusalem’s universal value to all three religions.

Said Bokova: “Too often we see the rise of exclusive discourses, trying to distort and cut our heritage in pieces, in endless disputes about what belongs to who, to this culture or another, about whose heritage is the greatest, the oldest, the holiest.”

She always tried to work with all UNESCO member states to “strengthen the spirit of coexistence,” she said. “It is not always easy, but there is no other way.”

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