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UN Rewrites Jewish History, and Jews Look on the Bright Side

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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A resolution adopted by a United Nations committee that essentially denies any historical Jewish connection to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem received widespread condemnation last week. The absurdity of the resolution, however, may end up giving Israel a rare upper hand at the UN, with even the director-general of UNESCO, its cultural agency, expressing her disgust.

The resolution, which UNESCO adopted at committee stage, uses only Muslim names for the holy sites of Jerusalem’s Old City and takes Israel to task for “provocative abuses that violate the sanctity and integrity of the area.”

Not surprisingly, Jews around the world united in decrying the UN’s latest farcical and transparent attack on not only Israel’s policies, but on Israel itself. After all, if Jews have no ancestral relationship to this land while Muslims do, the argument that Israel is a colonialist and illegitimate enterprise becomes much easier to make. UNESCO's vote ironically succeeded in bridging institutions and individuals who are often deeply divided on Israel. Indeed, some Israelis allowed themselves the hope that the Palestinians, who fueled the resolution, might finally have overstepped in their attempt to gain advantage over Israelis through the UN.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, insisted that UNESCO’s omission of the Jewish people’s connection to Jerusalem constitutes a “war on Jewish history.” Although Hoenlein and Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street rarely see eye to eye, last week, they did. J Street, the progressive pro-Israel lobbying group, said the resolution “outrageously seeks to rewrite history.” Jonathan Greenblatt, a former special assistant to U.S. President Barack Obama and now national director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (and widely perceived as left-leaning), said, “Yet again, member states of the UNESCO Executive Board have perpetuated outrageous and false allegations against Israel and blatantly denied the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount and Jerusalem.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with his now trademark hyperbole, attacked the resolution in a post on Facebook, saying, “The theater of the absurd continues with UNESCO.” He continued: “Today UNESCO adopted its second decision this year denying the Jewish people’s connection to the Temple Mount, our holiest site for over three thousand years. What’s next? A UNESCO decision denying the connection between peanut butter and jelly? Batman and Robin? Rock and roll?”

Many in the Jewish community hoped that the Palestinians, who celebrated the resolution, may have gone too far. Essentially denying that the Temple Mount was the site of Judaism’s two ancient temples is an old Yasser Arafat tactic. Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, even called the vote a victory for Israel. “The Palestinians have lost all support in Europe, including France, Spain and even Sweden,” Shama-Hacohen said. “Along with the shift of position of key countries such as India and Argentina to abstention, the vote constitutes a significant achievement.”

David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, also pointed to the specifics of the vote as good news. Although 24 nations voted in favor and only six voted against (with 26 abstained), not a single European country supported the resolution. “A minority of UNESCO members, led by the Palestinian Authority and Arab countries, has sought for a long time to exploit this body to castigate Israel,” Harris said. “The United States, United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Estonia have asserted moral leadership by firmly and unequivocally rejecting this blatant historical revisionism.”

If Palestinian denial of Israel’s legitimacy took a hit with this overreach, some Israeli leaders are hoping that the Palestinians may be headed for even more turbulence with the election of Antonio Guterres of Portugal as the next UN secretary-general. Israel’s UN envoy Danny Danon said, “On a day when UN agencies have again chosen to slander Israel and UNESCO adopted a resolution which attempts to sever the historical connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem, I expect the new secretary-general to be a fair leader. We hope that he will end the obsession with Israel, and will work together with us against the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel forces in the UN.” Others also see cause for tempered optimism. The centrist Times of Israel noted that while Guterres will not hesitate to criticize Israel, he is fundamentally a friend.

The resolution is thus an opportunity for Israel, but it will require measured response, not usually an Israeli strong suit. If Israel overreacts, it will simply fuel the fires of international rejection. But if Netanyahu and his government can somehow retain the moral high ground, last week’s vote might just be the beginning of an ever-so-slight shift in UN direction, which a new secretary-general -- assuming that Israel does not give him cause for attack -- will have an opportunity to further.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net