Friday, October 14, 2016

On the UNESCO Executive Board declaration on the "status quo" at the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif)

As reported by Reuters, the UNESCO Executive Board recently put out a statement that repeats verbatim what that same board has been saying for years. The declaration is published under the heading "Occupied Palestine" and deals - among other subjects - with the status quo at the most important Muslim site in Jerusalem, the Noble Sanctuary or Haram al-Sharif. 

The story caught my attention. I went to the UNESCO website – which seems super-busy and is not easy to find one’s way around on – to find the actual text of the declaration. (It is HERE).   The document does not deny Jewish history and its connections to the Haram al-Sharif. It simply does not mention Jewish history or Jewish sentiments. It speaks about the historical status quo, meaning the guardianship and practices associated with the place as it was before 1967, and takes exception at Israel’s interference with that status. By failing to mention Jewish attachment to the site, UNESCO's Executive Board is widely criticized (including by the director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova) for failing to maintain its humanitarian mission and making itself a political proxy for the Palestinian National Authority, which uses its membership status in UNESCO to draw public attention to the ongoing “occupation” of East Jerusalem, putting diplomatic pressure on the Israelis.

The short-term Israeli concern is that talk of Israel’s “change in the status quo” at a Muslim holy place is not just false but stokes Muslim fears internationally and increases the ongoing sporadic violence locally. The long-term Israeli concern is that the language used in the declaration undermines the long-standing Jewish attachment to the place, an attachment that Israel has been using to justify its desire to hold on to Jerusalem as the "eternally undivided capital" of Israel (Basic Law Jerusalem 1980).

In the past, Israel justified its claim to remain in charge of the holy places in the name of better guardianship (a kind of mission civilatrice, or “Orientalist” argument), in the name of freedom of religion, etc. Since the late nineties and early oughts, the rhetoric has become more “Jewish,” appealing to the national religious base of the governing coalition’s electorate and supporters abroad. 

The rhetoric of outrage against the UNESCO declaration that’s been making the rounds in the English-language Jewish and Israeli print and social media seems aimed at closing the ranks between diaspora and Israel, where Dov Waxman (“Trouble in the Tribe”) and others like Peter Beinart have been showing an increasing rift between the Israeli national-religious right and the younger generation of diaspora Jews, especially in the US. The Temple Mount/Western Wall issue is very potent, as it is perhaps one of the few things on which Jews can viscerally agree.

You should go some time and see for yourself both the extraordinary devotion of the ultraorthodox but also the the grotesque sentimental hysteria of Birthright groups manipulated into religious experiences at the Western Wall. Conversely, you should also visit the Haram al-Sharif on days when ordinary Muslim Jerusalemites outnumber western tourists or when the place is closed to tourists, and experience the serenity and relaxation, especially of women and children, in a space that is – to a significant extent – devoid of the trappings of Israeli occupation. The Haram is, most of the time, a safe space and a retreat.

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