December 18, 2018

UNESCO and the culture of denial

The resolution by the executive board of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) last week to remove any reference to a Jewish link to the Temple Mount while condemning Israeli behavior in the Old City of Jerusalem is disturbing on various levels.  

First, it fortifies the impression that a body supposedly devoted to the noble goals of cultural preservation and educational advancement is simply a tool of political propaganda. Moreover, it reveals that those responsible have a profoundly deficient sense of history. The fact that the resolution mustered only a minority of those countries eligible to vote (the vote was 24-6, with 26 abstaining) offers little succor.  Somewhat more consoling was the reaction of UNESCO’s director-general, Irina Bokova, who hastened to affirm the historical connections of Judaism, as well as Christianity and Islam, to the holy site by noting: “The Al Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram al-Sharif, the sacred shrine of Muslims, is also the Har HaBayit — or Temple Mount — whose Western Wall is the holiest place in Judaism, a few steps away from the Saint Sepulcher and the Mount of Olives revered by Christians.”

The UNESCO decision was symbolic and likely will have few real policy ramifications. But it taps into a destructive culture of historical denial that widens the chasm between Israelis and Palestinians. Denial of the other’s history is not unique to this conflict; it has been a regrettably common practice in troubled spots such as Northern Ireland, India-Pakistan and the Balkans, among other sites. It can have a toxic effect, deepening enmity, disdain and resistance to the very humanity of the other side.  

Sadly, the Palestinians are quite accomplished in the game of historical denial. No less a figure than Yasser Arafat startled his audience at the Camp David summit in 2000, including then-President Bill Clinton, by alleging that the First Temple was built by Solomon in Nablus, not Jerusalem. But classical Islamic sources, as David Barnett has shown in a 2011 study, do make reference to a bayt al-maqdis, the Arabic cognate for the “beit ha-mikdash” or Holy Temple, in Jerusalem.  

Meanwhile, in 2010, an official in the Information Ministry of the Palestinian Authority, Al-Mutawakil Taha, issued a report stating that the Western Wall was Muslim property and had no religious significance for Jews. More recently, there has been an uptick in denialism in Palestinian religious and political circles.  The current Palestinian Minister of Religious Affairs, Yusuf Ida’is, has frequently declared that the Temple Mount belongs exclusively to Muslims — and that assertions of a Jewish connection are falsifications. In similar fashion, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, a frequent denier, delivered an address in May 2016 that sought to dismiss “the Jews’ claims in the land of Palestine,” particularly in Jerusalem and around the Temple Mount. Unfortunately, this kind of historical rubbish is proclaimed on a weekly, if not daily, basis, and not on the fringes of Palestinian society, but at the center.

And yet, part of what makes the practice of historical denial so pernicious is that it invites and often requires historical denial from the other side. In their struggle to assert control over the land, Israeli Jews and supporters of Israel have also engaged in forms of erasure, including the denial of a link by Palestinians to Palestine.  

The holy bible of this argument is Joan Peters’ 1984 book, “From Time Immemorial,” in which the American author argued that Arabs were not indigenous to the land but were relatively late arrivals to Palestine. She refers, for example, to the “sparse Arab population” of Palestine around the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, an assertion that flies in the face of almost all other data, including those of two of the leading Jewish demographers of the 20th century, Arthur Ruppin and Roberto Bachi. 

Peters’ book was initially greeted with a good deal of praise in the United States, winning a National Jewish Book Award in 1985. Upon closer inspection, the book’s flaws were exposed, owing, in no small part, to a review in The New York Review of Books by the renowned Israeli scholar of Palestine Yehoshua Porath, who pointed out that “a large majority of Muslim Arabs inhabited the land” well before the British Mandate. Even the reliably conservative scholar Daniel Pipes characterized the book as “appallingly crafted.”

Rather than die a quick death, the Peters thesis has been championed ever since by various pro-Israel activists, perhaps no more prominently than by former Israeli diplomat Yoram Ettinger, who parlays the denial of the Palestinians’ historical roots into a new demographic claim that there are at least a million fewer of them in the West Bank than any other accepted source estimates.  This virtual depopulation has been greeted enthusiastically by Israeli Ministers Naftali Bennett and Tzipi Hotovely, who use Ettinger’s numbers to lay permanent claim to the occupied territories.  

In his review of Peters, Porath analyzes “the two contrasting mythologies that the Arabs and the Jews have developed to explain their situations.” History is often summoned to celebrate the virtue of one side’s rights entirely at the expense of another’s. Unfortunately, the Palestinians are all-too-willing participants in the game of historical denial. But the Israelis and their friends can play it, too. And now UNESCO reveals its appetite for this perverse blood sport. Rather than perpetuate imbalanced and inaccurate myths, it could have insisted on the presentation of both Israeli and Palestinian narratives regarding Jerusalem. While hardly a guarantee of success, such a dual narrative approach compels each side to acknowledge and confront the other’s past, which is a necessary, if long, step toward recognizing your enemy’s humanity. 


David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA.