The Day the UN Downgraded Judaism’s Holiest Site to a Stable

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People walk near the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City, October 26, 2015.Credit: Reuters

If you thought the Western Wall was the main visible remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple and the closest spot where Jews could pray at their holiest site, the United Nations has news for you.

According to a resolution passed last week by UNESCO, the UN’s cultural heritage agency, the Western Wall is first and foremost the revered hitching post for a mythological horse and a holy landmark of Islam.

The resolution, submitted by a group of Arab countries to UNESCO’s Executive Council, went beyond previous decisions by the agency condemning Israel’s handling of holy sites in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In October, UNESCO passed a resolution accusing Israel of restricting Muslim worship in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and committing other violations. But at the last moment a paragraph that lay claim to the Western Wall as an integral part of the compound and a holy site for Muslims was struck down.

Jerusalem's Temple Mount and Western Wall on May 5, 2015.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

That victory was largely nullified by the latest document, which refers to the Kotel area chiefly as Al-Buraq Plaza – using Western Wall Plaza as a second reference, enclosed in quotation marks.

The name Buraq refers to a mythological winged horse, which, according to hadith literature, carried the Muslim prophet Mohammed on his Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, and then on to Heaven.

While Buraq’s story dates back to the eighth century, almost at the dawn of Islam, the precise identification of the Western Wall as the spot where Mohammed tethered his mighty steed while he prayed on the Temple Mount is a much more recent tradition, dating to the late Ottoman period.

By the 20th century, this identification had been consolidated and Al-Buraq Road became the name of the tight passageway that ran along the Western Wall during the Jordanian occupation of East Jerusalem, which ended when Israel took control of the entire city in the 1967 Six-Day War.

UNESCO’s choice of the pre-1967 designation is a subtle sign that the UN considers the Western Wall part of the Al-Aqsa compound and is a nod to Jordan, the former occupying power, which still retains control of the Muslim holy sites in the area above the Western Wall through the Waqf religious trust.

By naming the area after Mohammed’s steed, the UN also signals it accepts the primacy of Islamic tradition and religious needs over any other faith, belief or even historical fact – since no serious academic would dispute that the Western Wall is part of the retaining wall built by Herod during his reconstruction of the Temple.

The resolution condemns various Israeli activities around the Western Wall Plaza, including the recently-approved construction of an egalitarian Jewish prayer space on the southern side of the plaza, plans to build an elevator that would help disabled people reach the Kotel in a wheelchair, and even “the installment of an umbrella” at the Mughrabi Gate entrance, the only access to the Temple Mount open to non-Muslims.

The resolution also ignores the Jewish link to the rest of the holy site, which archaeologists widely agree houses the remains of two Jewish temples, the second of which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.

The document refers to the compound only as “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al Sharif” (The Noble Sanctuary) and describes it solely as “a Muslim Holy Site of worship.”

Under the current status quo, Jews and non-Muslims are permitted to visit the Temple Mount but not pray there. Despite Israel’s continued claims of support for this arrangement, Muslim and Palestinian fears of Jewish encroachment on the compound have been one of the causes behind the latest round of Mideast violence.

The UNESCO resolution appears to back these fears, condemning “Israeli aggressions and illegal measures against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to their Holy Site.” Among various complaints, it accuses Israel of “planting Jewish fake graves” in the area around the Temple Mount and removing or destroying archaeological remains dating to the Islamic period. This despite the fact that a number of Islamic remains have been uncovered or preserved by Israeli archaeologists in recent years, including the palaces built on the south side of the Temple Mount by the Umayyad dynasty.

Israel Finkelstein, a top archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, dismissed the resolution as a “political propaganda manifesto.”

“UNESCO should have praised Israel for its effective protection, preservation and promotion of heritage sites in Jerusalem under dire circumstances,” he said in an email to Haaretz, adding that the agency “should have raised its voice against the most brutal damage of cultural heritage in the city in recent years – the bulldozing by the Waqf of important archaeological debris from the Temple Mount.”

Finkelstein was referring to the 9,000 tons of soil that the Muslim religious trust dumped in a nearby valley in 1999-2000 after conducting works, which were uncoordinated with Israel, on the southeast corner of the Temple Mount. The sediments have since been collected by Israeli archaeologists and are being studied as part of the so-called “Sifting Project.” Earlier this week, it was reported that a 12-year-old Israeli girl discovered an ancient Egyptian amulet dating back more than 3,200 years while volunteering with her family on the project. 

The Israeli government has slammed UNESCO’s resolution, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling it “another absurd UN decision.”

“UNESCO ignores the unique historic connection of Judaism to the Temple Mount, where the two temples stood for a thousand years and to which every Jew in the world has prayed for thousands of years,” he said in a statement. “The UN is rewriting a basic part of human history and has again proven that there is no low to which it will not stoop.”

Asked to comment on the resolution, a UNESCO spokeswoman pointed to a statement by Director General Irina Bokova, who said that: “Jerusalem is a Holy Land of the three monotheistic religions, a place of dialogue for all Jewish, Christian and Muslim people, nothing should be undertaken to alter its integrity and authenticity.”

“Member states have a responsibility to UNESCO’s mandate, to move forward in ways that promote dialogue, tolerance and peace,” Bokova said.

The Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported Wednesday that in response to a letter by Israeli opposition lawmaker Yair Lapid, Bokova distanced herself and the organization she leads from the resolution, which was approved with the votes of 33 countries, including France, Spain, Sweden and Russia.

“The decision that the Temple Mount is a site that is holy only to Muslims is a political decision of UNESCO’s member states that is not acceptable to me,” Bokova was quoted as writing to Lapid.

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