Anti-Jewish Resolutions Loom As an Early United Nations Test for GOP Leaders
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UNITED NATIONS — The first post-election test here for President Obama — and the new leadership in the Congress — will be the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which has taken five decisions that disparage Israel’s claim of linkage to some of Judaism’s most revered shrines.
Among those who call on America to withdraw from UNESCO are the presumptive Republican Speaker, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, and Majority Leader, Eric Cantor of Virginia. Other Republicans, including a former United States permanent representative here, John Bolton, urge an even more ambitious reform in the rules that govern funding for international organizations: have America pay only to fund activities that enhance its own national objectives.
Such calls may receive a significant shot in the arm after UNESCO’s executive board voted for five anti-Jewish decisions last month, passing them by large margins. They include a demand that Israel remove from its list of national heritage sites the burial places of Judaism’s three biblical patriarchs – Abraham Isaac, and Jacob – as well as the tomb of one of the matriarchs, Rachel.
UNESCO “urges the Israeli authorities to remove the two sites from its national heritage list,” according to one of the resolutions, which passed on October 21 by a large majority of 44 of the board’s 58 members. Twelve countries, from Europe and Africa, abstained, while only America opposed the measure. Four other measures passed by similar margins, calling on Israel to refrain from archeological activities in several biblical sites, including the Temple Mount.
Israel added the West Bank’s Cave of the Patriarch, near Hebron, and Rachel’s Tomb, near Bethlehem, to its list of national heritage sites back in February to much outcry from Arabs, who said the sites are holy to Muslims. Israel noted that Muslims regularly pray at both sites, unlike Jews who had been barred entry prior to the 1967 War, when Jordan controlled them. Since February, there was no change in the arrangements that govern prayers at both sites.
UNESCO’s decisions are “shameful,” Prime Minister Netanyahu wrote in a statement last week, adding that the U.N.’s cultural flagship organization is “Attempting due to political reasons to uproot the connection between the nation of Israel and its cultural sites.”
Yesterday three prominent American-based Jewish groups – the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Anti Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations – issued scathing denunciations of UNESCO, arguing that its decisions stray beyond UNESCO’s mandate, are one-sided, and present “an affront to history” to boot.
American diplomats fought to stave off UNESCO’s decisions by telling colleagues in Paris that the exercise – reportedly initiated by Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey – would hurt not only Jews and Israel but also the credibility of UNESCO itself. At least two traditional UNESCO procedures were violated by the Arab sponsors. For only the second time in its history, the executive board passed decisions that addressed a specific country – Israel. For the first time, it passed them by a majority vote, rather than by consensus-based acclimation.
Such maneuvering is unlikely to help American supporters of UNESCO, which the Bush administration decided to rejoin in 2003. Nineteen years earlier, President Reagan withdrew from the Paris-based organization, arguing that American funds were wasted on an institute known for waste and corruption. The Bush administration reasoned that the American withdrawal and defunding had prompted action, as UNESCO did much along the years to address underlying corruption issues. Nevertheless, calls for America to once again withdraw never ceased.
Terminating American support for UNESCO “would save taxpayers $78.1 million annually,” Messrs. Boehner and Cantor wrote last year in a Republican document titled “Proposals to Reduce the Deficit and Achieve Savings for American Taxpayers,” which they addressed to President Obama. America “had not supported UNESCO for 19 years prior to the decision by the Bush administration to rejoin in 2003,” they wrote, adding that now “membership provides little benefit to taxpayers in light of the overall cost.”
In a letter addressed to Bahrain’s cultural minister, Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, who will chair an upcoming UNESCO heritage conference, the Simon Wiesenthal Institute’s director of international relations, Shimon Samuels, called on Ms. Al-Khalifa to ignore the decisions, as the determination of which site belongs to a country is not the purview of UNESCO.
“Perhaps the archeological site of Troy should be on the Greek heritage list, rather than that of Turkey?” Mr. Samuels wrote. The Saudi newspaper al-Watan wrote last week that Mr. Erdogan initiated the UNESCO drive in March after Israel’s added the two sites to its list of national heritage sites.
The resolutions are “an affront to history and to truth and to the very principles that UNESCO was formed to protect,” the chairman and executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Alan Solow and Malcolm Hoenlein, wrote in a statement.
“It is deeply troubling that an organization established to protect historic sites around the world is addressing these issues from a purely Palestinian and Muslim perspective,” ADL’s executive director, Abraham Foxman, wrote to UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova.
A UNESCO spokeswoman in New York, Suzanne Bilello, wrote in an email that the resolutions were taken by the board’s member states and not the organization’s secretariat.