Every few months Jewish organizations wring themselves in fury over some slander, dishonor or injustice heaped upon Israel and the Jewish people by the United Nations. Envelopes flood my mailbox with pleas for donations to fight the latest libel and for signatures on petitions to the Secretary-General and other UN officials demanding redress. Numerous e-mails from friends and relatives follow, urging me to join the fray.
Both the UN and Israel were created while I was a teenager, and I have long regarded myself as a supporter of both. Of course, they have been at each other for some time now so I am not surprised at these bursts of enmity. But some of the furious Jewish campaigns are troubling because they seem so weakly rooted.
The latest furore centers on UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, based in Paris. According to B’nai Brith [Sons of the Covenant] International, a Jewish service organization founded in New York in the 19th century, UNESCO has declared the Cave of the Patriarchs “a ‘Palestinian Site’ that Israel and the Jewish People have no right to control.” The Cave is venerated as the burial grounds for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the fathers of the Jewish religion, and three of their wives. UNESCO, according to B’nai Brith, has done the same with the Tomb of Rachel, the second wife of Jacob.
In his fund-raising letter, Daniel S. Mariaschin, the international director of B’nai Brith, wrote, “Independently, these claims are outrageous. Taken together though, they are ominous — for they reflect a wholesale attempt to do nothing less than erase the Jewish connection to Israel altogether.
“And that gambit, in turn, is connected to another: a concerted and wide-ranging effort to deny Israel’s right to exist.”
In similar rhetoric, Ronald A. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, condemned the act in a letter to Irina Bokova, the Bulgarian diplomat who has been the director-general of UNESCO since 2009. “The importance and holiness of these two sites to the Jewish people indeed predate their importance to other religious groups, and to deny this is to deny history,” he said.
The complaint became more dramatic in a recent e-mail making the rounds. “The United Nations has once again reared its anti-Semitic head,” the e-mail says, accusing UNESCO of declaring the sites “to be mosques.” It urges all recipients to sign a petition of protest to UNESCO.
All this fury, as it turns out, has been aroused by little or no substance. Anti-Israeli states often dominate the debate at the UN. There are certainly historic moments when the UN has treated Israel badly, unfairly, and unjustly. But this is not one of them.
In February 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s tomb were Israeli national heritage sites and included them in a $106.4 million program to renovate 150 heritage sites during the next six years.
There was one problem. The two sites are not in undisputed Israeli territory but are located in the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu included them to satisfy the pleas of Shas, a small, right wing religious party in his governing coalition. None of the angry denunciations of UNESCO that I have read mention the fact that the sites lie in what most of the world regards as Palestinian territory.
Netanyahu’s act did not please the Obama Administration. According to the Associated Press, Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said the administration viewed the Israeli announcement as “provocative and unhelpful to the goal of getting the two sides back to the table.” Toner said the American diplomats had conveyed the administration’s displeasure to senior Israeli officials.
The designation of the tombs as “Israeli national heritage sites,” much like the continued expansion of the settlements on the West Bank, obviously appealed to those Israelis who want to absorb the occupied territories into Israel. But it was a provocation, especially for the volatile city of Hebron, where the Cave of the Patriarchs is located. Hebron is a city of 170,000 Palestinians with a settlement of 500 Jews guarded by Israeli soldiers. The worst eruption of violence came in 1994 when a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Palestinians praying at the tomb. He is celebrated as a hero by the Jewish settlers in Hebron.
Seven Arab governments — Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia — brought the issue before the executive board of UNESCO. The board passed a resolution last October urging Israel to remove the two sites from “its national heritage list.”
The UNESCO resolution, far from denying the Jewish significance of the sites, described them as “of religious significance for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” But it affirmed that “the two sites are an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law, the UNESCO conventions and the United Nations and Security Council resolutions.” In short, Israel was chastised on purely jurisdictional grounds — it had no right to declare a site within occupied Palestinian territory as an Israeli national heritage.
The resolution was passed by a vote of 44 to one with 12 abstentions. American Ambassador David T. Killion cast the only dissenting vote, but it was hardly an endorsement of the Israeli action. He told the executive board that the United States had expressed its concern to Israel. “Israel says its action was never intended to stake out territorial claims but was rather a reflection of historic cultural connections,” the ambassador said. “We hope and trust that is the case.”
But this was not the reason for his vote. The United States objected because UNESCO was blaming Israel in a matter that was none of UNESCO’s business. “UNESCO’s expertise does not lie in accounting for the work of other United Nations bodies, pointing fingers in matters of a political nature, or deciding territorial claims,” Killion said. The US could not support a resolution, he went on, that “supposes authority that UNESCO does not and should not possess.”
Despite the narrow jurisdictional scope of the UNESCO resolution, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu chose to interpret it as a denial of Jewish heritage. “The attempt to detach the people of Israel from its heritage is absurd,” he said. “If the places where the fathers and mothers of the Jewish nation are buried, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Leah and Rachel, some 4,000 years ago are not part of the Jewish heritage then what is?” This was a distortion of the UNESCO resolution, which never denied Jewish ties to the site. But Netanyahu’s rhetoric set off the latest anti-UN frenzy of the Jewish organizations.
What is at work? Israel has been demonized so frequently by the UN that it lashes out as often as it can in hopes of diminishing the standing of its accuser in the United States and elsewhere. The UN and its bodies deserve the lashing at times. But this is not one of them. Attacks on the UN based on distortion and deliberate misreading may hurt the UN, but I do not believe they help Israel in the long run.