Thursday, October 20, 2016

Time to Go

You really should never say never. I would have thought, for example, that I simply could not think less of the United Nations, an organization so in the thrall of Israel’s enemies that all it seems capable of ever doing is passing even more one-sided, irrational resolutions regarding the Jewish state and providing a satisfying, supportive refuge for even its most vicious enemies. This has been going on for a very long time. It was more than ten years ago, for example, that Kofi Annan, then the Secretary General of the U.N., himself admitted openly that Israel was almost invariably judged by standards never applied to its enemies and that its sense of being under siege at the U.N. was thus entirely justified. So that was refreshing…but the Secretary General, for all his public handwringing, was unable to do anything substantive to change things. Nor was his successor, Ban Ki-moon. Whether the new Secretary General, former Portuguese prime minister António Guterres, will be able to bring about any meaningful change remains to be seen. But, given that systemic anti-Israel bias appears to function almost as the organization’s life-blood, his chances are probably somewhere between slim and none.

And then came this last week’s “Jerusalem” resolution at UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, a wholly one-sided resolution so embarrassing partisan that the front page of UNESCO’s website this week headlines a story not about the resolution itself but about the degree to which Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director-general, responded to its adoption by scrambling to distance herself from it. Nor did Mrs. Bokova mince her words: “To deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site,” she said plainly, adding that any attempt to do so “runs counter to the reasons that justified its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list.”  In some sort of grim way, that was a satisfying statement to read. But it only truly serves to underscore the degree to which UNESCO itself has allowed itself to become little more than a mouthpiece for Israel’s enemies in defiance of its own impotent leadership.

In the wake of the resolution, the two candidates vying for the American presidency condemned the resolution clearly: Mr. Trump called it “a one-sided attempt to ignore Israel’s 3000-year bond to its capital city” and Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy advisor issues a statement clearly stating that it was, in her candidate’s opinion, “outrageous that UNESCO would deny the deep, historic connection between Judaism and the Temple Mount.” Naftali Bennet, Israel’s education minister, said that the UNESCO decision “denies history and encourages terror” and announced Israel’s decision to suspend all cooperation with UNESCO. Would that our country would follow suit and make a parallel decision! Still, there was some slight silver lining to the vote in Paris in that its outcome more or less extinguished any possibility that Congress might vote to restore the funding of UNESCO cut off in 2011 after the organization admitted the non-state of “Palestine” as a member.

The good news is that there is no reason to expect the UNESCO resolution to have any actual effect on the ground. Jerusalem remains the capital of Israel. Jewish access to Jewish holy sites—and, indeed, the access of all to those sites and to the holy sites of other faiths—remains guaranteed. The level of security maintained by Israel at sites deemed plausible terror targets remains as it always has been. Visitors to Jerusalem will therefore not have any different experience next week than they would have had last week. And that, of course, is all for the good.

But it would be wrong to dismiss UNESCO’s resolution as a mere expression of basically toothless anti-Semitism on the part of Israel’s crankiest foes. (And I use that term carefully: by crossing over from condemning, say, Israel’s position regarding West Bank settlements to implying, more or less unambiguously, that the holiest sites to any Jew, including the Western Wall itself, are really Muslim holy sites that Jews have somehow magically co-opted as a way of buttressing their own claim to someone else’s property, UNESCO has openly and shameless crossed the line from “mere” anti-Israelism to true anti-Semitism.) Indeed, there is something important here to consider even if the resolution will have no effect at all on the actual city of Jerusalem or its residents or visitors because, by adopting it, UNESCO has now stepped through the looking-glass into a topsy-turvy world of make-believe that would be almost amusing if it weren’t so deeply sinister.

I read the resolution in its entirety. (Click here and you can too.) Even looking past the deeply offensive reference to Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel, as being part of “occupied Palestine” and the almost humorous way the resolution’s authors express their deep regret regarding Israel’s lack of interest in granting visas to UNESCO’s “experts” so they can pursue their hate-filled agenda on the ground in the Holy City, the resolution has to be understood as part of an ongoing attempt on the part of Israel’s enemies to deny the historical connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel and, particularly, Jerusalem. And that is no laughing matter. Indeed, once the discussion transcends historical reality and feeds solely on the fantasies of Israel’s enemies, we risk entering a realm of discourse in which reality itself plays only an ancillary role and is easily overwhelmed by fairytales spun out by people whose interest in actual history is minimal.

There are no archeological sites or ancient literary sources that suggest, even indirectly, that Jerusalem was not the capital city of ancient Israel both in the First and Second Temple periods, yet UNESCO seems unaware or uninterested in acknowledging that detail, let alone thoughtfully responding to it. And yet the sources are hardly hidden or obscure: readers interested in learning more would do best to find a copy of Menachem Stern’s exhaustive three-volume work, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, published by the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities between 1974 and 1984, and reading it carefully. I read all three volumes and attempted to master their contents as part of the preparation I understood before taking the oral examination in ancient Jewish history that preceded my doctoral defense, and the magisterial nature of the work stays with me still. It is, to say the least, a stunning piece of scholarship…and one even non-experts would enjoy enormously. The author’s erudition is stunning. And the resultant image of ancient Israel among the nations is riveting.

Of special interest in Stern’s work is the fact that almost none of the scores of authors cited was Jewish or had any special affinity for Jews or Judaism. Just the opposite was the case: some of the authors cited were openly hostile to the Jewish people; others were merely interested in including the Jews in their surveys of the ethnic make-up of the various peoples who were in their day part of the Roman Empire. Still others were curious about Judaism as a religion and understood to research the matter as best they could either from a distance or, in some few cases, from close at hand. But what’s remarkable about the three volumes is their unanimity on the very points that UNESCO wishes to deny. These authors lived from roughly 300 BCE to 300 CE, so they cover a period of literary history lasting more than half a millennium. They don’t all touch on the same topics, obviously. But a general consensus regarding the topic at hand—the Jewishness of Jerusalem—easily and quickly emerges when you start reading. Jerusalem is a Jewish city because its residents were Jews and because it was built by Jews. Perhaps even most importantly, it is a Jewish city in many of these authors’ minds because the Temple, the spiritual center of ancient Judaism, was located there. Interestingly, even the most rabidly anti-Semitic authors included by Stern in his anthology do not dispute the fact that Jerusalem was a Jewish city in their day and for as far back historically as they could research; if there is a single detail upon which all seem to agree, it would be the quintessentially Jewish nature of Jerusalem. Readers interested in reading more can click here to read Rivkah Fishman-Duker’s appraisal of Stern’s work as it applies to the UNESCO resolution that was published earlier this week on the website of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. With her conclusions, I concur totally.

Of course, none of this matters to the scholars of UNESCO. That the first Muslim invasion of Israel took place in the sixth century CE, so more than 1500 years after Jerusalem became the capital of David’s kingdom, is ignored entirely. Nor is it merely Jewish history that UNESCO wishes to erase: its history as a place of Christian history and sanctity is apparently as of little interest as its Jewish history. (For more specifically on the way the UNESCO resolution ignores the Christian presence in Jerusalem, which also antedates the Muslim invasion by centuries, click here.)  But, of course, the point here has nothing to do with history at all, and least of all with the kind rooted in the thoughtful analysis of actual facts. What we are dealing with is a concerted effort to present Jerusalem—and the rest of Israel too, only in a less direct way—as an essentially Muslim city under “occupation” by Israel.  Nor, speaking frankly, is it possible to imagine someone sufficiently naïve seriously to wonder why UNESCO, so deeply concerned about Jerusalem today, seemed so totally unconcerned when synagogues were being razed, Jewish graves were desecrated, and every conceivable effort was made to eradicate any trace of Jewish presence in the Old City during the years the Old City of Jerusalem was occupied by Jordan in the years leading up to the Six Day War.

The United States voted against the resolution. So did the U.K., Germany, Lithuania, Estonia, and the Netherlands. Voting in favor were eight Muslim countries joined by China, Russia, South Africa, Vietnam, and a smattering of South American and African countries. Abstaining—which is to say, not being willing to support a resolution wholly rooted in the denial of history and yet lacking the moral courage actually to vote against it—were, among other countries, Sweden, Greece, Spain, Ukraine, France, Japan, and India.

For me, this is also personal. I passed my orals some time ago when I was still in graduate school. But Jerusalem is also my city, the only city in the world in which I own a home and the place in which my oldest child was born. It’s the place to which I retreat on an annual basis to recharge my intellectual batteries, to re-find the spiritual bearing that drew me to the rabbinate in the first place and upon which my rabbinate still rests, and to seek the inner peace that is the personal version of the peace of Jerusalem for which the psalmist enjoined all who would serve God to strive for…and to pray for daily as well. To deny the Jewishness of Jerusalem is to deny the validity of Judaism itself and of Jewishness as it exists in tandem with the faith that grants it its inmost nature and most enduring appeal. Even by its own abysmal standards, UNESCO behaved disgracefully last week. If you ask me, it’s time for our nation to withdraw from UNESCO. We’ve done it before too—the U.S. withdrew its membership in 1984 under President Ronald Reagan and remained absent for almost two decades before eventually returning under President George W. Bush. 

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