Earlier today the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO, passed a resolution criticizing Israeli government policies with regard to religious historical sites in occupied East Jerusalem, particularly the Al Aqsa/Haram al-Sharif complex in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Israeli government and many others criticized the resolution for failing to mention the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, the site upon which the Haram al-Sharif now sits.
Some headlines notwithstanding, the resolution itself does not actually “deny” or “nullify” the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, it simply does not acknowledge it. But this is problematic enough. The Temple Mount, which held the two Jewish temples, is the holiest site in the Jewish faith, and a hugely important site in the history of the Jewish people. While the resolution does “[affirm] the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions,” failing to affirm this specifically with regard to the Temple Mount would seem to be a clear betrayal of UNESCO’s stated mission of “[b]uilding intercultural understanding… through protection of heritage and support for cultural diversity.”
In addition to being an irresponsible move, it’s also a confounding one. Elsewhere in the text, the UNESCO resolution refers to the “Bilal Ibn Rabaḥ Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb” in Bethlehem and the “Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs” in Al-Khalil/Hebron, referring to these sites by names by which they are known by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The fact that UNESCO chose not do the same for the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount is troubling, and reveals its political purpose. This resolution seems to be the latest in a series of pointless stunts by a Palestinian leadership desperate to create the illusion of progress, but bereft of actual ideas. It does nothing to advance the Palestinian cause, while doing a lot to provoke Israeli fears and provide another useful tool for the Israeli right to use to distract attention from the occupation.
Problems with the UNESCO resolution aside, however, it’s important to put this in context of other events in East Jerusalem. While the denial or downplaying of the Jewish historical connection to the Temple Mount area is ahistorical and offensive, it really can’t be compared to the countless ways in which Israeli policy functions — not just in words in some resolution, but in actual deeds on the ground — to undermine the Palestinian connection to Jerusalem. Indeed, Jewish historical claims are among the instruments often used by the Israeli government to justify the constriction of Palestinian life and seizing of Palestinian property as it seeks to reshape East Jerusalem, in violation of its commitments under international conventions. The UNESCO resolution deserves criticism, but let’s understand what the genuine threats to peace, dignity, and equality really are.