UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. (Image source: Fred Romero/Flickr)
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), regarding international interest in preserving historic sites in Israel, is a sham. Its work consists mainly of denying a Jewish connection to the land and its history. In a 2016 vote, UNESCO denied any connection between Israel and its historic Temple Mount and the Western Wall -- a retaining wall which is all that is left of the ancient Jewish Temples (Solomon's Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE).
In 2017, UNESCO's resolution on "Occupied Palestine" announced that:
"...all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying Power, which have altered or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and in particular the 'basic law' on Jerusalem, are null and void and must be rescinded forthwith..."
Two draft resolutions approved by UNESCO's 59-member Executive Committee last week were merely "follow-ons." First, that Hebron's Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs (Cave of Machpela) are Palestinian heritage sites, and second that they are "in danger." From Israel.
The votes were entirely consistent with previous UNESCO pronouncements and the list of "for", "against", and "abstain" was to be expected.
As usual, the American denunciation was strong and ringing. Ambassador Nikki Haley wrote to the UNESCO chair after preliminary meetings in Poland, "The Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is sacred to three faiths, is in no immediate threat. Such a designation risks undermining the seriousness such an assessment by UNESCO should have," She called the vote itself "a tragic affront to history."
The Europeans, as usual, tried to cut a deal with the Arabs that would soften the language just slightly so that European members of the council could vote for it. They failed because the Arab states knew it would pass in its harsher form. Indeed, the resolution passed within minutes – in a secret ballot, although some countries asked for a recorded vote.
So, why should the U.S. take it seriously?
NOT because it is going to change. NOT because one should be surprised. But because there has to be a marker for the United States to understand the staggering failure of Western countries to stand for THEIR OWN CULTURE, THEIR OWN HISTORY, THE BIBLE THEY READ, and their OWN RESPONSIBILITY to truth. Including Jewish truth.
The Old Testament is read by Christians with the same reverence as the New Testament. The purchase of Machpela by Abraham as a burial site for his wife and family is part of their understanding of the ages, cultures and history that came before Jesus. Jesus did NOT send the money changers out of the Al Aqsa Mosque
The Europeans have abandoned their understanding of biblical history because they have abandoned their religion.
And that makes them different from us -- thus far.
Americans are accustomed to thinking of Europeans and the British as our intellectual, ideological, historical, and religious forebears and our best political friends. The rise in Europe of democratic institutions, capitalism, Christianity and Western intellectual, literary and artistic accomplishments are part of American history. France and Poland helped the Colonies separate from Britain, but Britain remained our closest ally. "Lafayette, we are here," meant something. We were there for them again during World War II. We organized the Marshall Plan and NATO to stabilize Western Europe and even let Germany into the club after its abysmal performance earlier in the century.
But Europe is becoming something else.
It would be crude, given Europe's Jewish history, to abandon Israel openly and entirely. While European leaders (except Jeremy Corbyn) routinely pronounce their support for Israel, and while boycotts of Israel made only marginal strides on the Continent as Israel-Europe trade reached record levels in 2017, European governments have found other ways to express hostility to Jewish statehood on historic Jewish land.
One way is to fund illegal building in Area C of the West Bank. The Oslo Accords, signed by Yasser Arafat, divided the West Bank into Area A -- full Palestinian control; Area B -- Palestinian civil control with Israeli security control; and Area C -- full Israeli control. When Israel finally demolished 6 EU-funded buildings in 2018, the Europeans were furious -- regardless of their own violation of the Oslo Accords.
Another way is to fund schools and textbooks in Palestinian areas, ignoring until recently the incitement and false history those books taught children.
The most insidious is to disconnect the modern State of Israel from continuous Jewish history in the Land of Israel. This is where Christian churches matter. Through the past 70 years, Europeans have become less wedded to their own Christian identity and less willing to stand for biblical history -- including the history of Jews. Church attendance in France is 11%, according to a Pew poll. The same poll shows the UK at 20 percent, Germany 13 percent; Belgium 11 percent; and Spain 20 percent. The United States in 2014 was 47%.
That disparity creates a disconnect in their understanding of the world and Israel's place in it -- and a further disconnect with U.S. policy and public opinion.
The estimable Arab writer Bassam Tawil wrote recently:
"The question, again, remains whether the international community will ever wake up to realize that Palestinian leaders are playing them for fools."
But what makes Tawil -- one of the best writers on the subject -- think the Europeans do not know precisely what the Palestinians are doing and think the Europeans are "played for fools" rather than engaging wholeheartedly in anti-Israel activity to undermine Israel without expressly announcing themselves? And that this willingness comes from an abandonment of European history?
UNESCO votes inform the way people think about history. One can disagree with Israeli policies and practices while agreeing that the Land of Israel is the historic space of the Jewish people. But when UNESCO erases that connection, there remains no reason to posit that there should be a State of Israel at all. Which leaves the Hamas and Fatah position of "Palestine from the River to the Sea" as the natural arrangement of things.
To the extent that Europeans (and some Americans) dismiss their traditional, biblically grounded understanding of the Middle East, Israel and the free world are less secure. UNESCO's members understand that such dismissal by the West advances their goal of the elimination of Israel. The United States should, too.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center.