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Antonio Guterres (L) is sworn in as UN secretary general by the president of the General Assembly Peter Thomson at the United Nations in New York, December 12, 2016. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images
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New UN Secretary General Acknowledges Jewish Ties to Jerusalem; Palestinians Demand Apology

Antonio Guterres’s speech about the continuing vitality of anti-Semitism was met with a textbook anti-Semitic reaction

Yair Rosenberg
February 03, 2017
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images
Antonio Guterres (L) is sworn in as UN secretary general by the president of the General Assembly Peter Thomson at the United Nations in New York, December 12, 2016. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, during his Holocaust Memorial Day speech, new United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres did something commendable. Rather than restricting himself to decrying the easy case of the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews, Guterres opted to call out many other historical manifestations of anti-Jewish prejudice:

It would be a dangerous error to think of the Holocaust as simply the result of the insanity of a group of criminal Nazis. On the contrary, the Holocaust was the culmination of millennia of hatred and discrimination targeting the Jews—what we now call anti-Semitism.

Imperial Rome not only destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, but also made Jews pariahs in many ways. The attacks and abuse grew worse through the triumph of Christianity and the propagation of the idea that the Jewish community should be punished for the death of Jesus—an absurdity that helped to trigger massacres and other tremendous crimes against Jews around the world for centuries to come.

The same happened in my own country, Portugal, reaching its height with the order by King Manuel in the 16th century expelling all Jews who refused to convert. This was a hideous crime and an act of enormous stupidity. It caused tremendous suffering to the Jewish community—and deprived Portugal of much of the country’s dynamism. Before long, the country entered a prolonged cycle of impoverishment.

“History keeps moving forward,” Guterres continued, “but anti-Semitism keeps coming back.”

As if to prove Guterres’s point about the continued vitality of anti-Jewish prejudice, the political party of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas immediately objected to this speech. Their reason: In passing, the U.N. Secretary General had dared to acknowledge the Jewish connection to Jerusalem when he mentioned the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans.

Fatah slams UN SG for saying there’s a link between Jews and Jerusalem: ‘This is an assault on Palestinians’ rights in the city.’

— Khaled Abu Toameh (@KhaledAbuToameh) January 29, 2017

Guterres did not back down. Interviewed on Israeli radio, he affirmed that it was “completely clear that the Temple that the Romans destroyed in Jerusalem was a Jewish temple,” and that “no one can deny the fact that Jerusalem is sacred to the three monotheistic religions.” In response, the Palestinian Authority declared that Guterres had “violated all legal, diplomatic and humanitarian customs, overstepped his role as secretary general,” and demanded that he “issue an apology to the Palestinian people.”

Now, neither the existence of the Jewish Temple nor the historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem are in dispute. Reams of archaeological and textual evidence attest to both. In 1925, the Islamic Waqf overseeing the Temple Mount even published a pamphlet noting that “the identity of the site with Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute.” But contemporary Palestinian leaders have long engaged in a sustained denial of this basic Jewish history. At the ill-fated Clinton peace talks at Camp David, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat infamously claimed that the Jewish Temple stood in Nablus, not Jerusalem. And this past October, over the objections of the United States and Europe, the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization passed a Palestinian-drafted resolution that denied Judaism’s link to the Temple Mount, the faith’s holiest site.

To some, this might seem like an esoteric tempest in Turtle Bay, a mere footnote in a wider geopolitical conflict. But that gets things backward. The basic unwillingness of the Palestinian leadership to acknowledge the historically documented Jewish connection to Israel lies at the heart of their unwillingness to reach a compromise with Israel. One is not going to make serious concessions to another party if one believes their entire claim to be falsified. If compromise means meeting another actor halfway, it matters where the opposing party is situated at the start in the mind of their interlocutor.

In other words, while the international community embodied by Guterres concerns itself with brokering a fair compromise in Israel/Palestine between two parties with compelling claims, the Palestinian leadership considers only one of those claims to be valid, skewing its perception of an acceptable agreement. Much like those in the settler movement who deny any Palestinian right to the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, the persistence of this outlook poses a profound impediment to peace.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.