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At Unesco, India votes to deface Jewish heritage
After last year's abstention at UN Human Rights Council, India is back to voting against Israel. The Unesco resolution not only declares Temple Mount Islamic, it seeks to disinherit Jews of their faith
Jerusalem, more so the old city, is intrinsically associated with Jewish faith, society and culture. It is the fulcrum around which Judaism, the original Abrahamic faith, waxed, waned and waxed again. Given the centrality of Jerusalem in defining the Jewish identity, even of those Jews who declare themselves as ‘secular’, it is only natural that this Biblical city should be the capital of today’s Israel, a speck on the map of West Asia although it straddles the region like a giant, not the least because it is the only open, vibrant, plural democracy across the Maghreb and Mashreq.
Apart from the large number of lesser Biblical era antiquities that dot Jerusalem, indeed as they do all of Israel and the West Bank, what sets Jerusalem apart is Temple Mount, identified as Mount Moriah and Mount Zion. Jewish tradition and scripture inform us that this was the site of the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE, and the Second Temple, built on the ruins of the first by Zerubbabel in 516 BCE.
The Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, the Romans sacked the Second Temple. Much later, during Umayyad rule, two Islamic structures were superimposed on the Temple Mount: The Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the first seeking to establish the supremacy of Islam over non-Islamic land, the second appropriating the ‘rock’ where the first of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, was born.
Through the ages Jerusalem has been a contested city, especially eastern Jerusalem. For Jews and Christians, it is the holiest land; Muslims claim it as their second holiest site and hence demand eastern Jerusalem, if not all of it, as theirs. Claims and counter-claims apart, what is indisputable is that Temple Mount is first and foremost a Jewish religious, cultural and heritage site.
The twists and turns of history and ravages of time have left little of the two temples apart from its Herodian walls now surrounded on three sides by cobblestoned Byzantine lanes. Since Jews are prohibited from praying on the mount or at the ‘rock’ where the sanctum sanctorum of the two temples once stood, they pray at the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall. Around the world, Jews pray facing the direction of this wall that stands witness to the limitless suffering inflicted on Jews through the ages.
This bit of the past and the present of the Temple Mount’s history, severely abridged, is necessary to contextualise a resolution adopted by the Executive Board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Programme and External Relations Commission at its 199th session last Friday, April 15. The resolution was moved by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan, all members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which fashions itself as a sharia’h-compliant parallel United Nations.
In what is possibly the swiftest rewriting of history, the resolution strips the Temple Mount and other Biblical sites of their Jewish heritage and declares them as solely Islamic. The Jerusalem Post describes the hideous caricaturing of history by the Unesco worthies pithily: The resolution’s “language ignores
Jewish ties to its holy religious site of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall area in Jerusalem’s Old City... It refers to the area solely as Al Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al Sharif, except for two references to the Western Wall Plaza that were put in parenthesis. The text also referred to the plaza area by the Western Wall as al-Buraq Plaza”.
Strangely, last year in October, Unesco had “backed away from reclassifying the Western Wall as solely a Muslim holy site, but is now using language that refers to it as such”, the Jerusalem Post reports, adding, “April’s resolution reaffirms that the Mughrabi Ascent, which starts at the Western Wall Plaza, is an integral and inseparable part of Al Aqsa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif”.
The Unesco resolution calls on Israel to “restore the status of the Temple Mount to what it was prior to September 2000 when the secondintifada broke out”. At that time, according to the resolution, “the Jordan Waqf had full control of Al Aqsa Mosque/ al-Haram al Sharif including maintenance and restoration work and regulating access”. At present, the site is “under the full authority, but not full control, of the Islamic Waqf”. Israel controls access to the site.
Commenting on the absurdity of the demand, a top Israeli official told me, “This resolution coincides with Jordan declaring it will not install cameras on Temple Mount to monitor the events there. A few months ago there was a demand to install cameras there, as a move to mediate between the sides and to bring calm to Temple Mount. The Palestinians demanded to monitor the ‘Israeli provocations’ and we happily agreed to install them all over the compound so that every violation or provocation will be documented (including in the mosques).”
Not surprisingly, the Palestinians and their patrons in the OIC realised that installing cameras would result in self-incriminating evidence of their provocations on Temple Mount. “There would be footage every time they prepare themselves for a conflict with the Israeli side, including collecting rocks inside Al Aqsa itself. The cameras would have exposed all of this and due to recent Palestinian pressure, the Jordanians have decided not to install them.”
The 58-member board of Unesco approved this odious resolution with 33 votes in favour, six against and 17 abstentions. Ghana and Turkmenistan chose to be absent. Among those who voted for the resolution were South Africa, Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, Spain, Russia, France, Guinea, India, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Mauritius, Mexico, Mozambique, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, North Korea, Senegal, Slovenia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Chad, Togo, Vietnam.
Those who voted against the resolution were the US, Germany, Britain, Netherlands, Estonia, Lithuania. Members who abstained from voting were Albania, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, El Salvador, Greece, Haiti, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Nepal, Uganda, Paraguay, South Korea, St. Kitts & Nevis, Serbia, Trinidad & Tobago, Ukraine.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the resolution with the contempt it deserves: “This is yet another absurd UN decision. Unesco ignores the unique historic connection of Judaism to the Temple Mount, where the two temples stood for a thousand years and to which every Jew in the world has prayed for thousands of years. The UN is rewriting a basic part of human history and has again proven that there is no low to which it will not stop.”
Soon after the resolution was adopted, Irena Bokova, who heads Unesco and is likely to become the next UN Secretary-General, distanced herself from this travesty. That’s understandable, given the absurdly untenable claims made by the resolution, wishing away history with the sole purpose of delegitimising Israel and denuding Jerusalem of its Jewish past.
In a letter to the Director-General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Bokova has said that the decision to thus define the Temple Mount was a political decision and that she was opposed to it. “This decision was made by the economic council and the management council of UNESCO which are both management bodies, and was not made by me,” she wrote.
What should bother us in India is that our representative at Unesco has gone and voted against Israel and in support of negating Jewish history. Was the vote a Pavlovian response by a Foreign Office bureaucrat in Paris? Or was it a conscious decision of the BJP Government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to restore status quo ante after the notional departure of an abstention?
Either way, the vote reaffirms the view that much of foreign policy remains hostage to the perversities of the Congress decades when red-ragging Israel was considered the best means of appeasing Arabs abroad and Muslims at home. It was expected that Modi’s hawk eye would spot the clause in the 2014 draft BRICS declaration, no doubt worked in by bureaucrats faithful to the Congress, that controverted India’s traditional position on the Israel-Palestine issue. But those were very early days and the clause went unnoticed.
Next came the vote against Israel at the UNHRC on a resolution on Gaza in July 2015. That too could be explained away as bureaucrats defying the regime change that had happened two months ago, or getting the better of the new Government that was elected to smash the status quo and break with the past. A year later, when India abstained from voting against Israel at the UNHRC, it was seen as course-correction, signalling an end to pandering to Arabs in the hope of pleasing Muslims at home. Less than a year after that historic abstention, it’s back to the past with a bang.
Two points need to be made to drive home the fact about India’s unwholesome vote in Paris which may find favour with Israel-haters but has left Modi’s core support base wondering who’s calling the shots. Clarity is definitely needed on why India voted in support of exterminating the very idea of Jewish identity and faith. Intriguingly, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson has not commented on the Unesco vote yet, although it is believed the Government is in receipt of a letter of trenchant protest from the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
The first point refers to India voting for a resolution, moved by OIC member-states, that rewrites history in the most grotesque manner. Did the Government believe this would soften OIC on the Kashmir issue? If it did, it clearly believed wrong. For even as India was voting for the Unesco resolution in Paris, the OIC member-states were voting unanimously for a scathing anti-India resolution on Kashmir at the 13th Islamic Summit in Istanbul. As expected, the Government of India officially denounced it. This has created a peculiar situation: In New Delhi we deplore the OIC and debunk its resolution, in Paris we merrily waltz with the organisation that promotes Islamic supremacy by voting in support of their resolution.
Second, the April 15 Unesco resolution has set a frightening precedent with enormous mischief potential. In theory, this moment onward anything and everything is possible. Imagine a clutch of Islamic countries moving a resolution at Unesco declaring Ayodhya an Islamic heritage city, the Ram Mandir as Babri Masjid, and the Ram Chabutra-Sita ki Rasoi area as Babur Plaza. Let there be no doubt that such a resolution would secure sufficient votes, including those of China, Brazil, France and Spain, possibly also Russia and the US, to pass muster. Which way would India vote?
There is no percentage in believing this won’t happen. There is even lesser percentage in doing what we did in Paris.
(The writer is a current affairs analyst based in NCR)
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