In a highly controversial resolution, the executive board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted 33-6 to strongly condemn Israel for alleged violations of Muslim religious freedoms at holy sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron, and for allegedly “planting fake Jewish graves.”
The draft was first adopted by vote on April 12, 2016, in the Executive Board’s Programme and External Relations (PX) Commission (see voting results below). This text was then ratified without a vote by the Executive Board’s plenary on April 15th. Membership in the two bodies is the same.
What’s in the text?
Adopted under the agenda item on “Occupied Palestine,” the 5-page resolution “strongly condemns” alleged “Israeli aggressions” against “the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to their Holy Site Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al Sharif.”
The text is divided into the following sections:
- “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif and its surroundings”
- “The Ascent to the Mughrabi Gate in Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif”
- “The UNESCO Reactive Monitoring Mission to the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls and The UNESCO experts meeting on the Mughrabi Ascent”
- “Reconstruction and development of Gaza”
- “The two Palestinian sites of Al-Ḥaram Al Ibrāhīmī/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Al- Khalīl/Hebron and the Bilāl Ibn Rabāḥ Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem”
Who submitted the resolution?
The text was submitted by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Sudan and Qatar.
Who voted for the resolution?
33 countries voted in favor: Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chad, China, Dominican Republic, Egypt, France, Guinea, India, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mauritius, Morocco, Mexico, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, Slovenia, Sudan, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Togo, Viet Nam.
6 voted against: U.S., UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Estonia, Lithuania.
17 abstained: Albania, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, El Salvador, Greece, Haiti, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Nepal, Paraguay, South Korea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Serbia, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, Ukraine.
2 were absent: Ghana, Turkmenistan
What does the resolution say?
- The resolution repeatedly “decries,” “condemns,” “deplores” and “deprecates” a long list of alleged Israeli infringements of Palestinian rights. The text calls Israel “the Occupying Power.”
- The decision “strongly condemns” alleged “Israeli aggressions and illegal measures against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to their Holy Site Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al Sharif.”(I.B.1.8)
- The resolution refers to the Temple Mount only with the Islamic and Arabic names of “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif.”
- The Western Wall is described using scare quotes as “Western Wall Plaza”, to denote disbelief (I.B.1.17 and I.B.2.20); other Israeli sites are described as the “so called Liba” and “so called Kedem Center.” (I.B.1.17)
- The decision expresses “deep regret” at Israel’s reluctance to “comply with 185 EX/Decision 15” and remove The Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Tomb of Rachel, both of great significance in Judaism, from Israel’s national heritage list.
- The resolution chastises “the Occupying Power” for “planting Jewish fake graves” (I.B.1.14) in Muslim cemeteries.
- Although the decision stopped short of an initial attempt to repeat October 2015’s efforts to declare the Western Wall part of the Al-Aqsa mosque, it acknowledges the significance of the holy sites only to Islam.
Why are the claims problematic?
(i) Israel’s alleged “illegal measures against the freedom of worship”
Contrary to what is said in UNESCO’s decision, Israel guarantees its citizens’ freedom of religion. The Bahá’í faith, whose adherents suffer persecution in many parts of the world (notably in Iran), has its headquarters in Haifa. This is in stark contrast to the situation in neighboring countries. In Lebanon, for example, blasphemy is still punishable by a year’s prison sentence.
In fact, criticism of restrictions on freedom of religion in Israel has focused on curtailments to the religious freedom of Jews — in particular, the interdiction against Jewish worship at the Temple Mount, prayer at which is reserved exclusively for Muslims.
(ii) Failure to acknowledge significance of these sites to Judaism
This is not the first time that UNESCO has courted controversy over its inaccurate rendering of the history of Jerusalem’s holy monuments. But the decision’s distortion of the facts is regrettable not simply for its inaccuracy — more insidiously, it lends an initial plausibility to what are unwarranted criticisms while its bilious tone makes for a hateful and deeply politicized text.
It is especially puzzling that France voted for a resolution which seeks to expurgate the Temple’s historic connection to Judaism when one considers that all over France, including in the Louvre in Paris, hang depictions of Les marchands chassés du Temple (Jesus driving the merchants from the Temple), in which Christ is shown expelling traders from the confines of the Temple.
(iii) Conspiracy Theory: Israel accused of “planting Jewish fake graves”
In a wild conspiracy charge, the resolution chastises “the Occupying Power” for “planting Jewish fake graves” in Muslim cemeteries. The only apparent source for this claim is the Al-Aqsa Foundation for Endowment and Heritage, and some Arab-language social media conspiracy posts.
French Leaders Criticize Own Vote for Resolution
- Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu reprimanded French President Francois Hollande for his country’s support of the resolution, citing it as a stumbling block to Israel endorsing a French-led international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
- In a rare development, French leaders questioned their own government’s vote. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls criticized the resolution, saying: “This UNESCO resolution contains unfortunate, clumsy wording that offends and unquestionably should have been avoided, as should the vote.” (« Il y a dans cette résolution de l’Unesco des formulations malheureuses, maladroites, qui heurtent et qui auraient dû être incontestablement évitées, comme ce vote »)
- French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve also criticized Paris’s vote in favor of the resolution, telling an event organized by CRIF, the umbrella group of French Jewish communities, that he does “not take a supportive view of the text.” The resolution “should not have been adopted,” Cazeneuve said at the event in Paris, adding that the resolution passed “was not written as it should have been,” the Le Figaro daily reported.
- President Hollande indicated that he will be “vigilant” in ensuring that the next text on the subject, expected in October, will be unequivocal in its affirmation of the shared significance of the holy sites.