Was Israel’s failure to recruit the Christian world against the controversial UNESCO resolution on Jerusalem a crushing, unforgivable diplomatic defeat, or does the Western world care so little about its religious and cultural heritage that there’s nothing even the savviest officials could have done to prevent it?
By referring to the Temple Mount compound merely as “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif,” the resolution willfully ignores Jewish ties to the Old City and its holy sites. This blatant distortion of history has caused tremendous outrage among the Israeli public and has been highlighted in the government’s angry responses to it.
But the resolution, which was overwhelmingly approved in the committee stage on Thursday and, ratified by UNESCO’s executive board Tuesday, also turned a blind eye to Christianity’s relationship with the city in which Jesus was crucified and buried some 2,000 years ago and which has since been revered by Christians all across the globe. Not one of the nearly 2,000 words of the resolution specifically mentions the world’s largest religion (nearly one-third of the world’s population is Christian), and there is just a vague nod to the importance Jerusalem has “for the three monotheistic religions.”
And yet, Christian-majority countries at UNESCO largely supported the resolution, which was sponsored by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan.
The Dominican Republic, Russia, Nicaragua, Mozambique and South Africa all voted in favor of the resolution. So too did Mexico and Brazil, though they both later expressed regret over this decision, with Mexico indicating that, on second thoughts, it would have abstained.
Many other nations in which Christianity is the dominant religion abstained — in other words refused to oppose a resolution that negates their faith’s connection to Jerusalem. These included Argentina, France and Sweden, although since this trio routinely votes with the Palestinians and against Israel in these kinds of UN forums, their abstentions recognized a relative positive for Israel.
Why was it that the powers that be in these countries did not mind backing or not opposing a resolution that ignores Christianity’s ties to the Holy City?
That relatively weak countries such as Cameroon, El Salvador, Ghana, Uganda, Trinidad and Tobago, and Kenya stuck to their traditional pro-Palestinian line can be explained by their need to remain on the Arab world’s good side. It’s called realpolitik. But relatively rich and enlightened nations like Greece or France? Even deeply religious countries such as Italy and Spain, oddly, did not feel the urge to reject the resolution.
In their advocacy work over the last few weeks, Israeli officials prominently highlighted the Jewish connection to Jerusalem that the wording plainly aimed to erase. Could Israel have avoided defeat by contacting Christian nations and pointing out to them that Christianity was being written out of Jerusalem too?
Israeli diplomats this week were hesitant to discuss their efforts to utilize this argument. One senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed the Foreign Ministry “has put a lot work into this angle, with some results. We did our best.” He refused to elaborate.
What did “our best” entail? For one, the ministry posted a clip on YouTube showing a man reading the “UNESCO Revised Edition of the Bible.” Reciting from the second chapter of the Gospel of John, the man is taken aback by the verses about Jesus going about his business in the “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif” rather than the Jewish Temple.
But by Tuesday evening — five days after it was released — the clip had been viewed only about 8,000 times.
Jerusalem also reached out to local Christian groups, such as the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem.
“Our 85 national branches all over the world have been working on this UNESCO vote over recent weeks and we feel we have had an impact in changing some of the results,” David Parsons, the group’s media director, told The Times of Israel Tuesday.
The Vatican’s help was sought as well. A few days before the vote, Jerusalem’s new ambassador to the Holy See, Oren David, contacted the Vatican’s undersecretary for relations with states, Antoine Camilleri, and asked her to use her influence to get member states to reject the draft. Such a text would harm Christian interests as well as Jewish ones, the Israeli diplomat reportedly told his interlocutor. (The Vatican itself is not a member of UNESCO and thus had no vote.)
The Jewish state also asked the help of Protestant denominations, some of which are very pro-Israel. “We asked the Evangelical communities for their help by way of our mission in every country in which they could be effective,” said Akiva Tor, who heads the Foreign Ministry’s Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions. “Israel did its best to awaken Christian sensibilities to the meaning of this resolution and to the fact that it’s equally an offense against Christianity as it is an offense against Judaism.”
Brazil, for instance, has a large community of pro-Israel Evangelicals, but their influence was evidently not sufficient to sway the government’s decision away from a yes vote.
Had Israeli diplomats in their discussions with their interlocutors placed more emphasis on the fact that this resolution insults not only Jewish history but their own heritage, they might have been more effective. On the other hand, pro-Palestinian voting patterns are evidently a hard habit to break… even if it means denying one’s own history.
This is how the members of UNESCO’s executive board voted on Thursday:
In favor: Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chad, China, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Mauritius, Mexico, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan and Vietnam.
Against: Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States.
Abstaining: Albania, Argentina, Cameroon, El Salvador, France, Ghana, Greece, Guinea, Haiti, India, Italy, Ivory Coast, Japan, Kenya, Nepal, Paraguay, Saint Vincent and Nevis, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda and Ukraine.
Serbia and Turkmenistan were absent.