Opinion

At UNESCO, Jews Have No Standing, but Historical Revisionism Does

The vote is a gift for Israeli belligerents who can say yet again: There is no one to talk to. No partner. It fuels an immoral alliance of interests between Arab and Jewish rejectionists, and supported by Western governments.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray during the mourning ritual of Tisha B'Av at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's old city, early Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016. The Jewish holy day of Tisha B'Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the biblical temples is marked Sunday.
Sebastian Scheiner, AP

Historical revisionism and denial are rarely progressive or constructive strategies for conflict resolution. 

In the context of the hundred-year-old unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict, I am sure that the latest, 'inspired' move by the 58 constituent member countries of UNESCO, to pass a resolution disregarding Judaism’s historic connection to the Temple Mount and casting doubt on the link between Judaism and the Western Wall, will certainly rank amongst the least helpful contribution to calm tensions in the region. 

The proposers of this motion – Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Sudan and their Western backers - should beware what they wish for. The last lie hatched up by hostile revisionists and deniers was that Israel intended to change the status quo on the Temple Mount by allowing Jews to worship at the 'holiest' site in Jewish tradition. The result? Scores of Jews being knifed, shot or mown down by terrorists in cars. 

Rather than being a simple, if not egregious, piece of propaganda, the words of this resolution have the potential to kill.

The most infuriating aspect of this controversy, and any subsequent violence, is how entirely avoidable it is, how needlessly provocative. One can already hear the cries of the rabble rousers on the Israeli/Jewish side demanding to see evidence that Mohammed actually ascended to heaven from the rock on the Haram el Sharif, as that serves as the basis for the resolution's exclusive Muslim 'ownership' of the site. Since that would be difficult to actually prove, those who would seek to protect Islamic claims to the Mount will be left with the more reasonable point that the site is simply regarded as holy and has been to Islam for 1400 years. 

'Belief' rather than 'proof' could - should - also have currency in UNESCO terms. But of course, that would have to work for the benefit of Jewish tradition regarding the Temple Mount, as well.

It does not seem unreasonable that UNESCO and the 'wise' governments that sought this ridiculous resolution, will see that even if the archaeological evidence didn't sway them (even though such proof is strong, if not uncontestable – but this isn't about archaeology anyway), Jews clearly seem to believe this spot was where the Temple stood for a thousand years. 

How hard and politically incorrect would it be for UNESCO to recognize that two groups, Muslims and Jews, claim the same area, the Temple Mount and Haram al-Sharif, as holy? 

But that is not the language of the resolution, and not its intention. Some of the cowardly Western governments who supported the earlier draft, such as France (whose prime minister walked back their support afterwards claiming it was a "misunderstanding"), abstained, giving the weakest of opposition to a contention that nullifies Jewish history and culture. Other Western states' votes in favor highlight, not for the first time, their rank hypocrisy and unsuitability to play any useful role in this conflict. 
 
Of course, there are many confidence-building measures that Israel could offer to lower tensions with Palestinians, to encourage diplomatic relations and begin the process of dismantling the occupation. As the backers of this resolution know perfectly well, this will absolutely not happen if attempts to deny Jewish presence and claims in this area succeed. 
 
I suspect that this was a given for the UNESCO resolution-makers. That's why they wanted it to succeed. The vote is a gift for Israeli belligerents who will point to the other side and say for the umpteenth time: There is no one to talk to. No partner. Not for the first time, there is an immoral alliance of interests between Arab and Jewish rejectionists, with the active support of a various Western governments. 

Theoretically, opposing the delegitimization of Jewish history and culture ought to unite us: Jewish messianists, secular nationalists, liberals, left, right and all points in between. We should expect to hear a howl of protest from Jewish progressives/liberals/whatever we call ourselves, who consistently demand free access and religious expression in this tense geographical area, whether for Palestinians, women or non-Orthodox Jews. It remains to be seen if this will in fact happen.

It is a sad, almost pathetic irony that UNESCO's own mission statement is "Building peace where it starts - in the minds of men and women." It's clear we can't depend on international institutions themselves to filter out voices of symbolic violence that has already led to real bloodshed. But the UNESCO vote will remain as a true test of moral backbone, for Jewish liberals as much as for Western states, as well as the entire Muslim world.

Jeremy Leigh is the head of Israel Studies at Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem. He is the author of Jewish Journeys (Haus, London 2007).