On Wednesday, UNESCO passed by secret ballot a second resolution attempting to erase any Jewish or Christian connection to Jerusalem’s holy sites, referring to them solely by their Arabic names, even though the first such resolution had sparked outrage among world leaders. Israel’s government had responded by cutting ties with UNESCO. Israeli sentiment ranged from tragedy to absurdity.
Prominent Israeli archeologist Gabriel Barkay suggested that UNESCO’s denial of the Jewish Temple is worse than Holocaust denial. Ofer Zalzberg, “Israel/Palestine analyst” for International Crisis Group, argued the mainstream media has missed the crux of the issue by focusing on terms rather than substance.
Barkay was born in Hungary in 1944, the same year German troops invaded and occupied his country. After immigrating to Israel and becoming a prominent archeologist, he established and co-directed the Temple Mount Sifting Project dedicated to recovering archeological artifacts from Temple Mount dirt that the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf bulldozed and discarded in 1999. Barkay says the UNESCO resolution’s temple denial is even worse than Holocaust denial.
This Isn’t Just Rhetoric
First of all, notes Barkay, Temple deniers, like Holocaust deniers, completely ignore historical and archeological fact. But whereas victims, perpetrators, and documents from the Holocaust still exist, as well as the actual concentration camp sites, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, whose artifacts date back thousands of years, is easier to deny.
Second, undermining the Jewish connection to Jerusalem also undermines the entire basis for Christianity as well as Islamic literary references to Jerusalem as Bait al Maqdis, translated from the Hebrew Beit HaMikdash (The Holy Temple) and referring to the First Temple.
Last and most importantly, Barkay believes the request for Waqf control over Jerusalem’s holy sites is “part of a general attitude” promoting destruction of non-Muslim artifacts, citing previous destruction of Temple Mount artifacts and the Islamic State’s destruction of ancient religious heritage sites in Iraq, Syria, and Libya.
He also cited the Waqf’s hypocrisy of opposing archeological digs on the Temple Mount, which represents one-sixth of the Old City, while asking for proof of Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, or what Arabs call the Haram al-Sharif. Barkay denounces the UNESCO vote as “a deplorable decision that ignores historical and archeological fact. It is a disgrace to anybody who thinks himself to be a civilized person.”
Blame the Bureaucrats
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites in Israel, stated flatly that after this decision, UNESCO has forfeited its right to exist. “The holiness of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall for the Jewish people … does not need anyone’s approval. It is ridiculous to deny the [archeological] discoveries that are occurring all the time.”
International Crisis Group’s Ofer Zalzberg had a different take on the UNESCO resolution, criticizing the media’s focus on the terminology about holy sites over the substance of the decision. He explained that Jordanian- and Palestinian-drafted resolutions normally use Arabic terms, so it’s simply part of UNESCO’s bureaucratic routine. “Everything that created the controversy is a long-standing norm in this organization,” said Zalzberg. “There has not been any government decision to implement it on Jordanian, Palestinian, or Israeli sides. Everyone has been surprised that it became such a big issue.”
Zalzberg did note the resolution’s bias insofar as it “does not point to one infraction or self-criticism on the Jordanian-Palestinian side. Only at Israel as the so-called occupying power.” After vilifying Israel, the document requests a change in the way holy sites are managed.
Namely, it requests a return to pre-intifada management in which both parties coordinate on security and access, worship, and protecting the antiquities. According to Zalzberg, this could work, as there was “very little violence at the site from 1967-1996” until the Waqf halted all coordination with Israel after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened the northern tunnels.
Paradoxically, it was then 1996 when the Waqf rejected Israel’s call to return to coordination—the very objective UNESCO sought in its resolution this week. But because of the offensive terminology, the Jordanian-Palestinian duo shot themselves in the foot. It’s yet another absurdity in the UNESCO resolution.