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US, Israel and Jewish groups condemn UNESCO vote denying Jewish holy sites

(JTA) — The United States, Israeli officials and Jewish groups reacted with outrage to a preliminary vote by the United Nations cultural agency that denies a Jewish connection to the Old City of Jerusalem.

UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — at its executive board’s meeting Thursday in Paris passed the Palestinian-backed measure with 24 votes in favor and 6 against, with 26 countries abstaining.

“One-sided, unhelpful resolutions have been a recurring challenge at UNESCO in recent years, and the United States has strongly opposed these resolutions at the UNESCO Executive Board,” a senior administration official told The Jerusalem Post. “We will not hesitate to use our vote at the current board meeting to oppose these resolutions.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said he was “outraged” by the vote, which he said in a statement “denies thousands of years of Jewish connection to Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

“Would UNESCO vote to deny the Christian connection to the Vatican? Or the Muslim connection to Mecca?” he asked.

“The UNESCO vote claims that there is no connection between the Jewish people and the Western Wall. In fact, it is the UNESCO vote that has no connection to reality.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement: “To say that Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the pyramids. With this absurd decision, UNESCO has lost the modicum of legitimacy it had left. But I believe that historical truth is stronger and that truth will prevail. And today we are dealing with the truth.”

Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog, head of the Zionist Union, accused UNESCO of giving a “bad name to diplomacy” in a statement posted to Facebook.

“Whoever wants to rewrite history, to distort fact, and to completely invent the fantasy that the Western Wall and Temple Mount have no connection to the Jewish people, is telling a terrible lie that only serves to increase hatred,” he said. “On this matter there is no disagreement among the people of Israel, and I urge UNESCO to withdraw this bizarre resolution and to engage in protecting, not distorting, human history.”

American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris called the resolution “another attempt to undermine the very foundation of the State of Israel and the documented, age-old historical Jewish connection to the land. And unlike previous such resolutions, notably, not one European nation lent its support this time.”

The United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Lithuania and Estonia joined the United States in voting against the resolution. Other European countries abstained.

The Anti-Defamation League said in a statement that the resolution “essentially expunges the 3,000 years of Jewish connection to Jerusalem.”

“Resolutions such as these poison the atmosphere and sow mistrust making steps toward reconciliation all the more difficult,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said.

AIPAC said in a statement that by approving such a resolution, UNESCO “undermines efforts to seek a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by giving support to forces in the Palestinian community that reject reconciliation. Unfortunately, this resolution is also demonstrative of Palestinian efforts to circumvent direct negotiations by manipulating international institutions.

“We commend the nations that stood up for historic truth and rejected this malignant resolution,” the pro-Israel lobby said.

The preliminary vote had the unintended effect of uniting Jewish groups across all sides of the political spectrum in their criticism.

T’ruah, the New York-based rabbinic human rights group, said the vote “represents an offensive and anti-Semitic attempt to erase thousands of years of Jewish history.”

While the UNESCO resolution affirms “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions,” it refers to the Temple Mount several times only as Al-Ḥaram Al-Sharif, the Islamic term for the Temple Mount, without mentioning its Jewish names in Hebrew or English. It also uses the term Buraq Plaza, placing “Western Wall Plaza” in quotes, appearing to deny a Jewish connection to the site, where the Jewish Temple stood until the middle of the first century C.E. and whose retaining walls are made of distinct stones associated with the Jewish king Herod. The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, another Herodian structure, is referred to as the al-Ḥaram al-Ibrahimi, and Rachel’s Tomb, outside Bethlehem, is noted as the Bilal ibn Rabaḥ Mosque.

A similar resolution, deploring Israel’s presence at and maintenance of various holy sites, was adopted by UNESCO’s executive board in April.