Much has already been written on UNESCO’s pitiful resolution last week on Jerusalem and its holy sites, in particular, its implicit denial of any Jewish (or, for that matter, Christian) connection to the Temple Mount. But it is what this resolution on “Occupied Palestine” affirms, rather than what it negates, that should worry us most: a paranoid conspiracy theory that holds that Jews are plotting to harm Islamic holy sites. This has no basis in fact, but it now has the imprimatur of a major international organization.
In the resolution’s long sections on the Mount’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, UNESCO “condemns the escalating Israeli aggressions” perpetrated “against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to their holy site Al-Aqsa,” “deplores the continuous storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif by Israeli right-wing extremists,” and “deeply decries the continuous Israeli aggressions” committed by “the so-called ‘Israeli antiquities’ officials.”
It is crucial to understand the power that this lie about Al-Aqsa being threatened has both in motivating violence and widening the conflict, which is crucial for the Palestinian cause. There’s a long history to Arab claims that Jews or Zionists or Israelis have threatened Al-Aqsa, dating all the way back past 1930. Such claims are part rallying cry, part conspiracy theory, and part a transparent projection of past actions against Jewish holy sites that fell into Muslim hands, as well as revenge fantasies for a future after such sites have been “liberated” from Zionist control.
The power of this lie, both in inciting violence as well as mobilizing Arab and Muslim public opinion beyond the local theater of conflict, was first understood in the 1920s by the Mufti of Jerusalem (and future Nazi collaborator) Haj Amin al-Husseini. He saw Al-Aqsa as a way of turning a local conflict, where his side might have been at a disadvantage, into a regional, religious, and even global conflict where this disadvantage could be reversed. The claim that Jews were seeking to harm Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem in 1928 was the pretext for a wave of Arab violence against Jews, culminating in the massacre a few months later of 67 Jews in Hebron.
This method served as a model for each of the future eruptions of violence following false claims of Jewish threats to Al Aqsa, which occurred roughly once a decade, particularly after Israel conquered the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967. Even during the peak years of the Oslo process, the opening in 1996 of a second exit to a tourist tunnel that (despite lies to the contrary) ran under no mosque was used as a false pretext for three days of violent rioting that included two deadly attacks on Jewish holy sites in the West Bank. Global opinion universally blamed Israel for the riots.
This too has been the pattern in the violence of the past year in Israel and the West Bank. The attackers themselves—usually in social media posts—aver that their primary motivation is the “threat” to Al Aqsa. But the international media nearly always translates this for its readers as “frustration with the occupation” or, if the Al Aqsa issue is mentioned at all, it is treated as something in dispute (“The Israelis deny harming the Muslim holy sites”). Even if the violent reaction is condemned, the pathological mindset which gave rise to it is presented with understanding.
It would be as if we took Dylann Roof’s claims that black men were raping white women seriously as a motivation for his massacre of African-American worshipers at a Charleston church—or treated that as disputable, or even just condemned Roof but also called on the African-American community to rein in its behavior or some such obnoxious statement. Instead, we rightly see Roof’s paranoid fantasy as being just another manifestation of the same pathological racism which drove him to carry out his infamous rampage.
In the case of Jews and Israel, however, what is clearly a pathology is treated instead as a possible grievance—and, in the case of UNESCO, a genuine one.
This perceived grievance stretches the bounds of irony to the breaking point. Let me list just four ways this is the case. First, immediately after conquering the Old City, Israel handed control of the Temple Mount to the Islamic Trust, or Waqf, and forbade any Jewish religious rite on the entire Mount (not just in the mosques), a status quo it has maintained to this day. Read that carefully: The world’s only Jewish state had just scored an astonishing victory over enemies who only days earlier were promising a war of extermination against it and, in the process, liberated the Jewish people’s holiest site—and then promptly handed it over.
Second, conspiracy theories aside, Israel has not conducted any excavations, archaeological or otherwise, under the Mount or the mosques on the Mount. The only large-scale excavation in recent times was carried out by the Islamic Waqf on the site formerly known as Solomon’s Stables, now the El-Marwani Mosque.
The construction of the El-Marwani Mosque on the southeast corner of the Mount, directly adjacent to Al-Aqsa, entailed a wanton and unrecoverable destruction of archaeological treasures ranging across three millennia of human patrimony. Unlike the imagined archaeological damage fantasists and fanatics accuse Israel of committing, this was never condemned by UNESCO or any other international body.
Third, Israel does actively restrict the religious rights of worshipers on the Temple Mount—but these are Jews, not Muslims. It forbids any Jewish prayer or religious activity of any kind anywhere on the Mount and limits visits of non-Muslims to a few hours a week. During a particularly tense period from 2000 to 2003, Israel forbade the entry of Jews altogether. No international human rights group has ever protested this entirely prudent denial of religious freedom. It is the visits of Jews in 2014 and 2015—to the Mount, but never inside the mosques—that is preposterously described in the UNESCO resolution as “storming Al Aqsa.” I guess when you deny that Jews have any reason to want to visit a place, their presence must be described as some kind of invasion. In fact, the only worshipers regularly harassed on the Temple Mount are the few Jews have the temerity to silently visit their faith’s holiest site. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has repeatedly affirmed that it will uphold this status quo, including in Arabic.
Fourth, Israeli control of the Old City of Jerusalem in the last half century has meant that Al Aqsa, the third holiest site in Islam, is the rare Islamic holy site not to be a stage for some kind of massacre of Muslim worshipers by one or another rival branch of radical Islam.
The countries voting for this obscene resolution aren’t just denying Jewish history, then, they are condoning an anti-Semitic libel and implicitly licensing the violence it heralds. Being more sensitive to Jewish feelings about holy sites would certainly be a nice step forward, but it alone won’t address the most grievous and dangerous aspect of this resolution.
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Shany Mor is an Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College and a Research Fellow at the Chaikin Center for Geostrategy at the University of Haifa. He served as a Director for Foreign Policy on the Israeli National Security Council.