Middle Israel: Who targeted UNESCO?

The farce in Paris was less about Israel and the world, and more about an evolving clash between the political elites of a troubled Europe and an embattled Arab world.

A VIEW of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A VIEW of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘You remain above all political conflicts between nation and nation,” said the first president of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to its festively assembled founding plenary.
It was naive enough, considering the Paris-based agency’s current embroilment in the Mideast conflict, but this was autumn 1946, and the founding father waxed prophetic: “You,” he told UNESCO’s diplomats, “are the instrument of a policy which is common to all the associated nations and which can but unite them more closely.”
One can hardly fault this founding father for failing to foresee a scenario like last Tuesday’s, when UNESCO’S diplomats used it to attack the very scientific truth that this venerable agency was sworn to cultivate, and the cultural heritage that it was built to defend.
Yet that is what happened this week as UNESCO, pitting one another its Arab and European diplomats, passed a resolution rejecting Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, declaring “null and void” its attempts to shape its character, and calling for the cessation of Israeli archeological digs in the capital.
The irony about UNESCO’s founding father’s statement in 1946 is less in what he said, and more in who he was: the revered Frenchman, proud Jew, and card-carrying Zionist Leon Blum.
THE MAN who had been France’s president twice and would return for a third stint shortly after launching UNESCO was a member of the Jewish Agency’s executive board and one of a select few who in May 1948 advised David Ben-Gurion to declare Israel’s establishment.
Probably the most previously famous Holocaust survivor, Blum emerged from Dachau as an engine of France’s recovery from its defeat, and a symbol of its resolve to be its racist enemy’s humanistic antithesis.
The newborn UNESCO’s quest to preserve historic landmarks, nurture cultural institutions and encourage scientific research thus came to Blum naturally. As things stood the morning after the Holocaust, his twin identities as a Jew and a Zionist were not only no liabilities for his role in founding UNESCO, they were assets.
UNESCO indeed earned respect over the years for defending culture, education and science. Now, however, this legacy is challenged by the Palestinian strategy of spreading its war on Israel’s legitimacy to any arena into which this agenda can be forced.
The Algerian, Qatari, Sudanese and other Arab diplomats who this week steered the organization’s wheel in this direction doubtfully know much of Blum, but they have dragged his brainchild into a shooting range that effectively targets UNESCO’s original aims.
THIS WEEK’S resolution did not come out of the blue. It followed last fall’s resolution that denied the historic tie between the Jewish people and Temple Mount, including the Western Wall, and a 2011 resolution that admitted Palestine as a member, in disregard of American and Israeli protestations that such recognition must follow rather than precede a peace settlement with Israel.
UNESCO already paid dearly for its agenda’s hostile takeover by Arab diplomacy, when the Obama administration withdrew its 22% share of the organization’s $320 million budget. The US consequently lost its voting rights in the organization, but Israel still followed this example, and this week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered to slash Israel’s annual payment to the UN from $10.7m. to $2.7m.
Seen through the narrow Israeli prism, there are actually several rays of light in this vote’s evolution.
First, following pressure from Jerusalem, including phone calls from Netanyahu to the leaders of Italy, Greece, Kenya, Ukraine and Paraguay, the anti-Israeli vote declined, from 32 to 26 states in last fall’s resolution, and to 22 in last Tuesday’s.
Second, the resolution’s wording was toned down, thanks to German-led European pressure, ultimately lacking the previous resolution’s denial of the Temple Mount’s significance to Judaism.
A defiant Jerusalem thus recalled for consultations its ambassador to UNESCO and also summoned for a reprimand the ambassador of Sweden, the only European country that backed the resolution.
Yet the UNESCO saga’s significance lies not in Israel’s response, but in Europe’s.
THE EUROPEAN bloc’s resistance of the anti-Israeli effort was led by Italy, which is at the maelstrom of Europe’s migration crisis. The formal implication of Italy’s decision to oppose the resolution, namely, the loss of the consensus it needed to become binding – was less important. The more meaningful implication was the exposure of a growing European frustration over how the Arab world is governed.
The resolution’s backing by hardly a third of UNESCO’s executive board – opposite the 22 ayes, there were 10 nays, 23 abstentions and three absentees – is part of something larger than impatience with Arab diplomacy’s habitual hijacking of international forums.
Arab diplomacy is staffed by the very elites whose leadership the Arab masses have this decade confronted.
This elite’s loss of political legitimacy, animated by public self-immolations in Arab cities by desperate citizens like Tunisian grocer Mohamed Bouazizi, sparked the multiple civil wars which in turn uncorked the migration crisis that is pressuring Europe’s borders, cohesion, stability and security.
In other words, the Arab elites’ management of the Arab states’ domestic affairs has become a major problem for Europe, much the way Islamist terrorism, which is also fed by what is happening within Arab societies, is now a global scourge.
Ironically, the Arab world’s domestic mismanagement is precisely about what UNESCO was meant to treat.
The state of science, education and cultural tolerance throughout the Arab world is abysmal, underscored by some of the world’s highest rates of illiteracy and lowest rates of scientific fertility, economic productivity and industrial inventions, as cited and decried by the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Reports, which are written by Arab experts.
Arab fear of archeological digs in Jerusalem is therefore a case in point, as it represents a broader fear of the truth that science reveals, and the power it helps transfer from aristocracy to meritocracy.
THE ARAB ELITES are of course diverse, and many among them would like to see an enlightenment revolution of the sort that led Europe from the Middle Ages to modernity. Yet they are overpowered.
For now, Arab governments are at best indifferent, at worst hostile, to academic freedom and to accessible quality education. Such popularization of knowledge would spawn the kind of social mobility that has empowered the masses not only in Europe but also in Turkey, China and Japan, and empowered masses will threaten the elites’ inherited grip on power.
It follows that UNESCO’s original raison d’être threatens many, perhaps most, in governments across the Arab world, whose fear of the Arab masses as potential rebels is the same as Europe’s fear of the same Arab masses as potential migrants.
This is not to say that the Arab attack on UNESCO is a conscious plot to steer it away from its destinations; the ploy is more likely subconscious. Even so, the attack indeed deforms UNESCO’s agenda and also saps its resources.
It follows that if UNESCO is to restore its control of its agenda, it will have to confront its hijackers.
Judging by the European conduct in the face of UNESCO’s reinvention as an anti-Israeli weapon, there is reason to believe that the Palestinian-led effort in this arena has backfired. Votes like last Tuesday’s fail to change what they are out to affect, but they do intensify hostility to the UN and to the Arab diplomacy that undermines it.
The budding European resistance of the Arab conduct at the UN pales compared with the new American leadership’s attitude.
A letter sent last week to Secretary-General António Guterres by all 100 US senators called “unacceptable” the UN’s “continued targeting of Israel” and demanded that the Jewish state be “treated neither better nor worse than any other UN member.”
A former prime minister of Portugal, Guterres arrived at his job from under the clouds that the Arab world’s political management has gathered above Europe’s skies.
Deeply aware that the Arab crisis inspired Britain’s departure from the European Union last year, and France’s vote of no confidence in its entire political establishment last month, Guterres is part of the European political elite that, like the Arab political elites, is now fighting for its life.
What happened at UNESCO was therefore less about Israel and the world, and more about a clash between the Arab elites that created the Middle East’s social powder keg and the European elites that would not confront them, if not in the name of justice then at least in the name of self-interest.
And as history’s ironies go, neither the Arab nor the European political elites are likely to survive the march of the forces that they have jointly unleashed.