UNESCO and the Temple Mount: What We’re Getting Wrong

The United Nations and Israel have not always had the most amicable relationship. International resolutions, declarations, and statements are consistently littered with anti-Israel bias. The latest example of this comes to us not from the UN Human Rights Council but rather from UNESCO, the international body under the United Nations charged with the recognition and protection of cultural world heritage sites, among other responsibilities.

A new UNESCO resolution regarding “Occupied Palestine” has caught the attention of major Israeli news organizations and activists alike. Most Israel supporters have criticized the document for exclusively using Islamic names in reference to Jewish holy sites including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, in effect removing the Jewish cultural and historical connection to these important places. This conscious decision by the countries who submitted the motion (Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan) angered many, but a catch-all lip service section in the beginning of the document that labels the Old City of Jerusalem as important “for the three monotheistic religions” has been raised up as an example of the supposed equity of the resolution. Anti-Israel activists have tried and succeeded at making the critics of the UNESCO resolution look vindictive and petty because they are angry at the names and language used rather than the content itself. While UNESCO should be criticized for the purposeful obfuscation of Jewish connection to these places, I believe the language used in the document is less concerning than the actual ramifications of the policy recommendations discussed within.

Behind the terminology used in the resolution stand important policy recommendations that aim to restrict Israel’s claim to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount area. These recommendations focus in part on the Mughrabi Ascent. The Mughrabi Ascent, which is the ramp above the Women’s Prayer Section of the Western Wall, was destroyed by a minor earthquake in 2004 and was temporarily replaced with a wooden walkway. It is the only pathway for non-Muslims to enter the Temple Mount for religious and secular purposes alike.  It is the only pathway positioned entirely outside the jurisdiction of the Jordanian Waqf, the Muslim religious authority controlling the Temple Mount. The Mughrabi Ascent has been used in the past by Israel to send security forces up to the plaza to prevent riots and protect Jews praying at the Western Wall from stones thrown from above. The UNESCO resolution claims that the Ascent is “an integral and inseparable part of the Al Aqsa Mosque,” shortly after also advocating for the Jordanian Waqf to be given “exclusive authority” over “maintenance, restoration, and regulating access” to the Mosque. Giving the Jordanian Waqf the authority of “regulating access” to the Mughrabi Ascent would prevent non-Muslims from entering the Temple Mount using the only pathway they are allowed. This shift in the status quo of the Mughrabi Ascent is entirely incompatible with respecting the importance of the city “for all three monotheistic religions.” It would also prevent Israeli security forces from adequately protecting Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below. Given the Waqf’s history of destroying archaeological artifacts through sloppy construction on the Temple Mount, it’s safe to assume that if they are given control of the reconstruction of the Mughrabi Ascent there would be more of the same. This policy recommendation by UNESCO was not made in good faith, and prevents Israeli Jewish as well as non-Muslim access generally from the Temple Mount.

Outside Jerusalem, the resolution also claims that the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb, both of which are Jewish as well as Muslim holy sites, belong exclusively to Muslims and are an “integral part of Palestine.” UNESCO calls these Jewish holy places exclusively “Palestinian sites” in order to erase the legal and historical claim Israel has to its own heritage. Besides dangerous shifts in the status quo of historic sites, the UNESCO resolution is rife with traditional libellous claims against Israel, including claims that Israel had placed fake Jewish graves in Muslim cemeteries and that “constant aggressions” by Israeli settlers and security forces target children. This consistent erasure of Jewish history in the indigenous homeland of the Jews and demonization of the State of Israel is inappropriate of an allegedly unbiased organization like UNESCO, and belies the anti-Israel bias that is uniform among UN subsidiary organizations.

Since the ratification of this UNESCO resolution, the Israel advocacy world has been alight with criticisms of the language and names prefered throughout the document. While I agree that the issue of nomenclature deserves attention, I believe that the actual content of this dangerous resolution deserves much more. Israel activists and supporters would do much better to focus on the issues, and condemn this resolution for more than just its language. Ignoring the policy recommendations in this resolution is tantamount to accepting them.