Why is Israel suspending cooperation with UNESCO?

A new resolution passed by the UN's cultural agency has touched a nerve with Israel and the US.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters File
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stands at a view-point overlooking a wooden ramp (C) leading up from Judaism's Western Wall to the sacred compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, where the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine stand, in Jerusalem's Old City on December 12, 2011.

Israel has suspended cooperation with UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, accusing it of downplaying Israel’s connection to a Jerusalem hilltop considered sacred in both Islam and Judaism, after one of the agency's committees approved a resolution intended to safeguard “the cultural heritage of Palestine and the distinctive character of East Jerusalem.”

The resolution criticizes Israeli administration of the site, including its restricting of access to Muslim worshippers and of use of force by police and soldiers. It also refers to the hilltop and its religious complexes exclusively by the names used by Muslims – al-Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, and al-Aqsa Mosque – instead of the Temple Mount, as it’s known in Judaism.

In a Facebook post, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “another delusional decision” by UNESCO, and said the resolution denies Judaism's historic relationship with the site.

“To say that Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the pyramids,” he wrote. “By this absurd decision, UNESCO has lost what little legitimacy it had left.”

The draft document was drawn up by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, and Sudan, before passing with 24 votes in favor, six against, and 26 abstentions, according to Al-Jazeera. The United States voted against the resolution.

Mr. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials consider UNESCO’s resolutions on Israel to be hopelessly politicized, says David Makovsky, an expert on the Middle East peace process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

They argue "that these resolutions reflect a majority of 56 countries that identify themselves as Muslim states, and therefore purposefully try to airbrush any Jewish connection to land in Jerusalem, including religious sites" like the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, he says.

The feud returns the spotlight to an agency that has often drawn ire in Israel, even as it’s typically seen in the US as an anodyne historical-preservation group – where it’s recognized at all. 

As the Monitor’s Dan Murphy wrote in 2011, UNESCO has long been “a target for denunciation and anger,” despite not possessing the same weight as other UN bodies – perhaps because of the lasting symbolic resonance of its work.

It has also had a history of political stances on global causes that fall to the left of many Western powers. In the 1960s, according to a study by Sweden’s Umea University, UNESCO recommended that public education should contribute to “the struggle against colonialism and neo-colonialism in all their forms,” at a time when the Council of Europe was arguing for an equal presentation of the “moral and intellectual” benefits of colonial systems.

In Israel, ire against the organization is often rooted in designations of archeological sites that attribute their primary importance to Islam.

"You have a huge misuse of archaeology by both sides to prove their narrative is more true than others and to justify facts on the ground," Eric Meyers, a religion professor at Duke University, told the Monitor in 2013

As the Monitor's Christa Case Bryant wrote at the time:

Palestinian leaders have increasingly refrained from acknowledging the existence of a Jewish temple in Jerusalem – and some outright deny it. Meanwhile, those seeking to shore up the Jewish nation's ties to the city have largely ignored the legacy of centuries of Muslim presence as well as that of early ethnic groups such as the Canaanites, believed by some to be the ancestors of Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Israel’s scuffles with UNESCO have sometimes drawn the United States into the mix. Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan both moved to cut funding or pull the US from the agency, decisions influenced in part by its criticisms of Israeli policy. And in 2011, UNESCO voted to recognize Palestine as a member, triggering laws passed in the 1990s requiring the US government to pull funding.

At a press conference on Friday, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner also criticized the resolution, which the United States had voted against.

"We are deeply concerned about these kinds of recurring, politicized resolutions that do nothing to advance constructive results on the ground. And we don't believe they should be adopted," he said.

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