SWC Participates in House Foreign Affairs Committee Briefing on UNESCO'S 'Palestine' Membership

November 3, 2011

Simon Wiesenthal Center's Government Affairs Director Mark Weitzman particpated in a House Foreign Affairs Committee briefing sponsored by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY), US Representative to the UN General Assembly. Below is Mr. Weitzman's testimony:

In light of this week’s vote by UNESCO to admit “Palestine” as a member, the Simon Wiesenthal Center on behalf of its 400,000 members joins Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen and those gathered here to express its total support of the mandate cutting the 70 million dollar US contribution to UNESCO. UNESCO’s violation of its non-political mandate by its “Palestine” vote, rewards the a bald-faced political maneuver designed to avoiding direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Further, it rewards those who deny the historic connection between the Jewish people and its ancestral homeland and part of the continuing attempts to delegitimize the Zionist movement, similar in intent to the infamous 1975 UN resolution 3379 that equated Zionism with racism. While the UN repealed that resolution in 1991, it is an outrage that today another UN body helps resuscitate that vicious lie. It is deeply troubling that this outrageous vote was carried out by UNESCO, which, according to its own constitution, was established because it is “in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed… in the unrestricted pursuit of objective truth, and in the free exchange of ideas and knowledge,” and against the “propagation, in their place, through ignorance and prejudice. the doctrine of the inequality of men and races”.

We at the Simon Wiesenthal Center are especially sad to have to take this position, because our Center has had a long history of fruitful cooperation with UNESCO. In 1993, then Director-General Dr. Federico Mayor joined Simon Wiesenthal in the opening of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. In 1992 and again in 2003, Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Center’s Dean and Founder, keynoted historic conferences on anti-Semitism and the struggle for Tolerance which were co-sponsored by UNESCO and the Wiesenthal Center, both convened at UNESCO’s international headquarters in Paris, under the aegis of UNESCO’s previous Directors-General, Dr. Federico Mayor and Koichiro Matsuura respectively. In 2003, Mr. Matsuura gave a keynote address at the Tenth Anniversary Celebration of the SWC’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. And, in 2008, he attended the launch of Antisemitism, the Generic Hatred: Essays in Memory of Simon Wiesenthal at the SWC’s Museum of Tolerance in New York. That volume, which I had the privilege of co-editing together with my colleague, Dr. Shimon Samuels, was published under the auspices of UNESCO. Finally, Director-General Matsuura contributed the forward to the joint Simon Wiesenthal Center-Yad Vashem publication, Strategies in Facing Antisemitism: An Educational Resource Guide that was released to honor the 100th birth date of Simon Wiesenthal.

Now, tragically, UNESCO has decided to depart onto a different path. Instead of following its own mission “to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture”, it has now embraced the cause of those who openly seek to rewrite history for their own political purposes, and erase the history and culture of another people for territorial gain. Here are few examples of past outrages: In 2011, UNESCO—which has long shared responsibility with UNRWA for textbook development for Palestinian schools in Gaza—joined in UNRWA’s ignominious retreat when HAMAS-dominated teachers’ unions demanded exclusion of any material on the Holocaust. This was in explicit defiance of the 2005 UN General Assembly Resolution 60/7, which “Urges the develop(ment of) educational programmes that will inculcate future generations with the lessons of the Holocaust in order to help to prevent future acts of genocide… Rejects any denial of the Holocaust as an historical event, either in full or part… Requests the Secretary-General to establish… measures to mobilize civil society for Holocaust remembrance and education.” The cowardly refusal of UNESCO to stand up for Holocaust education was made even more hypocritical by UNESCO’s own resolution 61 of 2007 which spoke of the “role UNESCO could play in promoting awareness of Holocaust remembrance through education and in combating all forms of Holocaust denial in accordance with the United Nations General Assembly resolutions mentioned above”.

But the issue here goes even beyond Holocaust education – it is at its core a struggle over the political manipulation of history. And here again, UNESCO, when it comes to Middle Eastern issues, has betrayed its own constitution. Where the UNESCO constitution mandates that “With a view to preserving the independence, integrity and fruitful diversity of the cultures and educational systems of the States Members of the Organization, the Organization is prohibited from intervening in matters which are essentially within their domestic jurisdiction”, UNESCO in 2010 ruled that Israel has no right to add the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron—where virtually all of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs are buried—to its National Heritage List. The Tomb of the Patriarchs, the oldest Jewish shrine and the second holiest site in Judaism, centers on the Cave of Machpelah, an ancient double cave revered for almost 4,000 years as the burial site of the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their wives. In biblical tradition as well as the archeological record, the Jewish people have been joined in connection to the Cave of Machpelah for almost 4,000 years. Purchased by Abraham for himself, his wife, and their descendants, Sarah, Abraham, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is where Jewish history and identity began. In addition, UNESCO acted to re-label as an Islamic mosque the tomb of Rachel Tomb and demand that Israel remove the site from its National Heritage List. A pilgrimage site for Jews for more than three millennia, the tomb of Joseph’s wife, Rachel, who died in childbirth and was buried on the road to Hebron, has been a focus of Jewish hope as well as pain since the Book of Jeremiah enjoined: “Refrain your voice from weeping . . . Your children shall return to their own country.” Why this radical attempt by the Palestinians and their allies to use UNESCO to overturn biblical traditions long accepted not only by Jews, but by Christians and Muslims as well? The explanation is the ongoing, multi-faceted campaign to de-legitimize and demonize Israel, which for its organizers trumps everything else. The goal is to sever all historical claims to the Land of Israel by the People of Israel.

Until 2000, the Palestinians recognized Rachel’s Tomb, which was called exactly what it was in the Palestinian encyclopedia, Al-mawsu’ah al-filastiniyah, and in Palestine: The Holy Land, a Palestinian publication, with an introduction by none other than Yasser Arafat. But in 1996, the Palestinian newspaper, Al-Hayat al-Jadida, announced that Rachel’s Tomb was “originally a Muslim mosque” Then during the Second Intifada—in the midst of violent Arab demonstrations against peace with Israel—the Palestinian Authority begin calling Rachel’s Tomb the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque, in honor of the Prophet Mohammed’s Ethiopian slave who became the first muezzin or leader of the call to prayer. This “instant history”—or reinvention of tradition for unworthy political purposes—subverts simultaneously Jewish, Muslim, and African history. Not since the seventh century, when Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque was built over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, has there been such a concerted attempt to bury religious sites holy to both Jews and Christians beneath Islamic institutions as is now gathering steam in the twenty-first century Holy Land. At the Tomb of the Patriarchs, there are now domes over the tombs of Abraham and Sarah and a mosque over the tombs of Isaac and Rebecca. There is no Muslim cemetery visible in photos from near the Tomb of Rachel dating as recently as 1900 and only after 1948 was there a Muslim cemetery surrounding three sides of Rachel’s Tomb.

Back in 2005, a concerted international campaign, which received no criticism from UNESCO, sought to replace the Israel Antiquities Authority with the Palestinian Authority as the caretaker of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The question must be asked: what sort of custodian of the sacred heritage of Judaism and the other two Abrahamic religions would the Palestinians, in league with UNESCO, be? We have known the sorry answer to that question ever since the year 2000. That was when there were violent desecrations beginning in 2000 of Joseph’s Tomb—Judaism’s third holiest site after the Temple Mount and the Tomb of the Patriarchs—following the Israel Defense Forces’ withdrawal from Nablus. The signed document promising to protect the holy site and allow Jewish worshippers access to it was made a mockery by a Palestinian mob that used pickaxes, hammers, and bulldozers to destroy the tomb. This pattern of religious vandalism and desecration was repeated in 2005 when the Palestinians immediately demolished Jewish synagogues following Israel’s voluntary evacuation of 9,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza. The Palestinians are a people in search of a national narrative. Yet how they construct it—out of Holy Land venues sacred to three great faiths— concerns Jews and Christians as well as Muslims. Extremely troubling is the denunciation by the Waqf—the Muslim religious authority which control’s Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock—of the traditional view that the Dome rests atop the ruins of Solomon’s Temple, even as Palestinians illegally excavate and dump archeological evidence of a Jewish presence going back over 2,500 years. There are even some Palestinians—Christians as well as Muslims—who speculate that Jesus wasn’t really a Jew but an Arab—a variation on Hitler’s embrace of “an Aryan Jesus”. (PA Television, Dec., 2010, states that "The shahid (martyr) President Yassir Arafat used to say 'Jesus was the first Palestinian martyr'. I heard him say the sentence many times.'"... Earlier in the year the Fatah communications and Education Authority issued a statement that Mary too is "of the nation of Palestine, claiming that "He (Jesus) and his mother (Mary), we may say, were Palestinians par excellence". (http://palwatch.org/site/modules/print/preview.aspx?fi=157&doc_id=4038&sec

The political nature of this effort has been made abundantly clear. For example, in 2008, Nov. 2008, Ahmad Qurei, a leading Palestinian negotiator in talks with Israel stated "Israeli occupation authorities are trying to find a so-called Jewish historical connection between Jerusalem and the Temple mount, but all these attempts fail. The (Temple Mount) is 100% Muslim...the Arab world is called upon to interfere with Israeli plans in Jerusalem, to stop Jewish Israeli attempts to create a Jewish character to Jerusalem and against the al Aqsa.” (http://www.wnd.com/?pageId=80382). In March 17, 2009, the Chairman of the Supreme Islamic Council for the PA, al Tamimi, declares Jews have no rights to Jerusalem, saying “Jerusalem is the religious political and spiritual capital of Palestine...the Jews has no rights to it.”(http://palwatch.org/site/modules/print/preview.aspx?fi=495&doc_id=876) A year later, on March 2, 2010 the PA Minister of Religious Affairs, Mahmoud al Haboush claims Jews have no historical rights in the land at all, saying "History proves the Arab Islamic right to the land and disproves all Israeli claims that they have religious and historical rights to the land" (http://palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=490&page=2). He repeated that on Aug. 10, 2010 on PA Television, saying that “Jerusalem has been Palestinian throughout history...We are its owners." (http://palwatch.org/site/modules/print/preview.aspx?fi=605&doc_id=3831) In Nov. 2010...Deputy PA Information Minister Al-Mutawakkil Taha claimed that Jews have no historical claim to Western Wall, writing in a report that “This wall has never been part of what is called the Jewish Temple...It was Islamic tolerance which allowed the Jews to stand before it and cry." (http://www.israelifrontline.com/2010/11/jews-have-no-right-to-western-wall) (http://www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=196329) The agenda behind this campaign is acknowledged publicly.

In May 27,2011 Official PA daily columnist, Adel Abd al-Rahman wrote that “"The Zionists must acknowledge publicly in front of the world that the Jews have no connection to the Palestinian land...that which occurred 2,000 years ago, assuming that it is true, represents in the book of history nothing more than invention and falsification and a coarse form of colonialism." (http://palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=490 In this politicized narrative, even the ancient stones and texts are challenged. On June 19,2011, Salim al Za'anoun, Chairman of the Palestine National Council refers to ancient Jewish Temple as "alleged"' (http://palwatch.org/site/modules/print/preview.aspx?fi=605&doc_id=5465),and on July 2011,Ishaq Feleifel, another PA daily columnist claims that "The Jews changed the name to the 'Wailing Wall' because the Jews are always trying to change Arabic names into Hebrew names...For example they call al Quds, Jerusalem...Tel al Rabia, Tel Aviv. Even the Torah falsified changed and forged. This is the way of the Jews." (http://palwatch.org/main.aspx?fi=490) It is evident from the words of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas himself that these statements are part of an orchestrated policy, and not just the isolated opinion of radical elements. Speaking at the UN this past September, Abbas spoke of a Holy Land that was denuded of its historical Jewish presence. He referred to "the ascension of the Prophet Mohammad and the birthplace of Jesus Christ," but had no room for the Jewish political leadership of King David or King Solomon or the prophetic inspirations and moral exhortations of Isaiah or Jeremiah.

In a video that the SWC presented on CNN and FOXNEWS, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJARFGAX_a4), we called upon President Abbas to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a move that would go a long way to building the necessary confidence needed to underlie the two- state solution. Unfortunately, by these latest developments in the campaign to delegitimize Israel, the Palestinians have moved further away from the direct negotiations, and in the process have turned UNESCO into a tool of extremist politics that has destroyed the credibility of that organization.

While ancient history should not necessarily dictate today’s political borders, but Israelis are right to demand that their potential peace partners recognize the Jewish people’s rights to embrace their past and to pursue their destiny as a Jewish, democratic state. The U.S. must stand on their side on its effort—even if it means standing up to UNESCO. From Hitler’s Germany to Stalin’s Russia, the battle for the Past has also been the battle for the Future. In the words of Big Brother from George Orwell’s 1984: “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” The vote in UNESCO is part of a campaign that attacks the very roots of our society. It is an attack on the common heritage of Jews, Christians and Muslims, and it is an attack on the truth of history itself. As such, it must be forthrightly condemned and vigorously fought. If today’s Mideast extremists, with the tacit approval of UNESCO, are allowed to invent and officially market a bogus and baneful past, the future of not only the Holy Land will be grim indeed.