UNESCO and Bias Against Israel

On October 4, 2013 the animus by an international body against Israel was once again displayed by six resolutions condemning Israel at the 192nd session in Paris of the 56-member executive board of UNESCO. The resolutions were promoted by the Arab and Islamic bloc and supported by Russia and France. The U.S. voted against all the resolutions, and Britain and Italy abstained.

Essentially the resolutions called on Israel to stop all actions that might damage the "authenticity and integrity" of the Old City of Jerusalem. They concerned a number of issues, the preservation of archaeological sites in the Old City, the building of a visitors' center, the building of an elevator by the Western Wall, the excavations said to be damaging sites on the Temple Mount, and alleged deterioration of educational and cultural institutions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) was founded in November 1945 with the purpose "to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations ...to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law, and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world."

UNESCO has not become a battleground for its member states to seek political advantage in the extreme way that is familiar in the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council. Nevertheless, at least since 1969 it has been misused to become an arena for bias against the State of Israel. In that year UNESCO refused to publish a report by three eminent professors that criticized the textbooks that were preoccupied with indoctrination against Jews that were used in the UNRWA school system for Palestinian refugees.

On a number of occasions UNESCO has criticized Israel for "altering the historical features of Jerusalem by its archaeological excavations...and threatening the historical and cultural sites" of the city. In November 1974 it refused to assist Israel in the areas of education, culture, and science because of Israel's "persistent alteration of the historic features of Jerusalem." On the other hand, UNESCO invited Yasser Arafat, an individual not known for his concern about those historic features, to address its General Assembly in 1980. Not surprisingly, his speech on that occasion was confined to denouncing "Zionism."

More surprisingly, UNESCO in October 2010 resolved by a vote of 44-1-12 that historic Jewish landmarks, Rachel's Tomb, near Bethlehem, and the Tomb or Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Abraham. Isaac, and Jacob and three of their wives, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah, are said to be buried, should not be added to Israel's National Heritage List, but should be declared "integral parts of the occupied Palestinian Territories and that any unilateral action by the Israel authorities is to be considered a violation of international law." This was a politically-motivated decision, in essence denying or minimizing the importance of the ties of the State of Israel and the Jewish people to their historic heritage. It is doubly troubling that Muslims now refer to those two Jewish sites as the al-Ibrahimi mosque and the Bilal bin Rabah mosque.

Equally troubling was the fact that UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, a left-wing Bulgarian politician mostly educated at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, accepted the decision on the two sites on the advice of Robert Serry, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, who held that accepting the two sites as part of Israel's natural heritage could harm the peace process. Interestingly, Mr. Serry, a Dutch diplomat, was "troubled" by the kidnapping and killing of an IDF soldier in the West Bank in September 2013, but merely called for "calm on both sides."

On this resolution, and other four others critical of Israel passed on the same day the United States was the only dissenting vote. Among other issues, the resolutions called for monitoring of Israeli archeological projects in Jerusalem and excavations in Jerusalem, though they did not call for monitoring work by Palestinians on the Al Aqsa mosque compound that was indeed destroying important archeological relics and artifacts.

Amid all this, historical knowledge was sadly lacking. It went unmentioned that both Muslims and Christians had built over the Jewish sites during the time of the Crusades and the Muslim conquest, and that Jews were limited in their physical approach to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It was also forgotten that between 1949 and 1967 when Jordan ruled the area Jews were not allowed to visit the Jewish sites in Hebron and the Old City of Jerusalem. When Israel took control in 1967 all holy sites were open to all religions.

The bias of UNESCO was even more apparent at that time when its Executive Board expressed criticism of Israel's blockade of Gaza, and its policies concerning its security fence and the Golan Heights, issues far removed from its ostensible mission.

The bias continued in June 2011 when UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, by unanimous vote, accepted a petition by Jordan, and signed by Egypt, Iraq, and Bahrain, to censure Israel over the archeological excavations near the Mughrabi Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. This was an action of bad faith since it concerned the building of a new bridge leading from the Western Wall Plaza to the Temple Mount, a building that Jordan had agreed was necessary to replace the unsafe existing bridge. UNESCO, equally in bad faith, took no action in April 2013 when Hamas bulldozed the ancient harbor in Gaza to use as a terrorist training camp, one year after it had been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Though it is not a state, the Palestinians were granted full membership of UNESCO in October 2011 by vote of 107-14-52. The U.S., which provides 22 per cent of the UNESCO budget, voted against, and Britain and Italy abstained. This action was taken according to the rule that admission to UNESCO for non-states required the recommendation by the Executive Board and a two-thirds majority vote.

It is saddening that yet another international organization is still being misused to promote hostility towards Israel. During the last three years, 2009-2012, UNESCO has passed 32 resolutions critical of Israel for one reason or another: it has not passed any resolution critical of any other country.

Indeed the opposite is the case. In November 2011 Syria was unanimously elected to two UNESCO's human rights committees, which deal with individual human rights and complaints against governments, and overseeing the work of human rights groups. Syria thus joined some other countries on the committees equally concerned with violations of human rights, such as Zimbabwe, Algeria, Vietnam, China, Belarus, and Venezuela. The theater of the absurd was highlighted in March 2012 when, at a moment that the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime in the civil war raging there were being investigated by the Red Cross in Syria, UNESCO voted in favor of keeping Syria on the human rights committee.

Irina Bokova was on October 4, 2013 nominated by the Executive Board of UNESCO to serve a second term as Director-General. She oversees an organization that spends more than 80 per cent of its budget on staff costs, travel, and operating expenses. Very little has been spent on projects except castigation of Israel. It is an understatement to say that UNESCO has been irresponsible in this regard. One hopes she can help turn the attention of the body to the real issues for which it was founded, contributing to "peace and security" and not allow it to continue to be a forum exhibiting bias towards the State of Israel.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.