My thoughts on the UNESCO decision regarding Jerusalem

“Building Peace in the Minds of Men and Women”?  Is UNESCO Fulfilling its Constitution?

Aren M. Maeir

The lofty goals of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as defined in its constitution are: “… to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations”, or as succinctly summarized on the UNESCO website – “Building Peace in the Minds of Men and Women.”

But are these goals being attained? And is UNESCO acting in a manner that will build peace for men and women?

The recent, and much debated, UNESCO decision regarding cultural heritage in Jerusalem, Gaza and Hebron, seems to indicate otherwise. The decision, which was crafted by various Arab states, accepts the Arab/Palestinian narrative on a broad range of issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in particular, on issues regarding the historical and cultural heritage significance of the most important site in Jerusalem – the Temple Mount/Haram esh-Sharif. This location is holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam (which is stated briefly in the beginning of the UNESCO text), but throughout the extended discussion in this decision about this site, including various factually false claims of Israeli mis-doings, it is never called the “Temple Mount” (as Jews call it) but only “Haram esh-Sharif (as Muslims do). In addition, when referring to the “Western Wall” – currently the most important religious site for most Jews, this site is referred to as the “El Buraq Plaza” (the Muslim term for this area) – with the term “Western Wall” appearing only with quotation marks.

This, and other points, in this decision, point to an extremely one-sided approach to the contentious issues at hand, issues relating to probably the most complex issue, in a region wrought with complexities. The across-the-board condemnation of this decision by just about all Israelis – including by groups such as “Emek Shaveh” that are usually very critical of Israeli activities in east Jerusalem – is particularly telling.

But more so, this is unfortunate, and so nonconstructive, to the prospects of building, sustaining and hoping for a peace process, especially coming from an organization that professes to “build peace for men and women.”

Such an organization, with such lofty and admirable aims, must exercise a much more level-headed approach when dealing with a complex and contested narrative. The very fact that the recent UNESCO decision is seen as very one sided by most Israelis, creates a situation where the average Israeli will feel that the UN (or other international institutions) are not “fair brokers.” If the UN, and UNESCO, aim to have a potentially constructive role in moving the Middle East, and Israelis and Palestinians, towards a process of rapprochement and peace, this is not the way.

Without a doubt, over more than a century, archaeology has been used and misused for political purposes, in the Middle East in general and Israel/Palestine in particular. Already in the 19th cent., the archaeological expeditions of various European colonial powers in the Middle East were a reflection of this, in which archaeology was but a thin camouflage for colonial intentions. And since then, in some cases until this very day, the various national ideologies and subsequent nation states (such as Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan) have used and/or misused the archaeological remains to push their national agendas.

As an Israeli archaeologist it is clear to me that archaeology was, and is, a central part of the Zionist ideological narrative, and very often, the Jewish historical roots in Israel/Palestine were accentuated, at times exaggerated, and occasionally, done so at the expense of other historical narratives. This situation continued during the first decades of the State of Israel and many examples abound. Nevertheless, despite claims to the contrary, throughout the history of modern Israel/Palestine, archaeologists (including Israelis) have excavated, researched, published and developed archaeological remains relating to a broad range of cultures, periods and heritage narratives.

An excellent example of this can be seen in Jerusalem itself, where a previously unknown, important phase in the history of Jerusalem, during the early Islamic Period was revealed by Israeli archaeologists working just outside the Temple Mount/Haram esh-Sharif, with the discovery of a previously unknown series of palaces of the Umayyad caliphs (ca. 8th century CE).

Nowadays, most Israeli archaeologists have chosen to have a much more inclusive approach to the archaeological sites. Monuments and remains from all periods of the history of Israel/Palestine, from early Prehistoric to Modern are actively and intensively excavated and studies.

Nevertheless, politics and archaeology can be enmeshed – and in particular when politicians attempt to use the archaeological evidence to push their agendas. But this is not only an Israeli problem – it can be seen throughout the Middle East, and in fact, throughout the world.

To illustrate this how archaeological can and should be conducted in an inclusive manner, I can give an example that is close to home. The excavation that I have been directing for the last twenty odd years – at Tell es-Safi/Gath ( – is at a site that was settled, virtuously continuously, from late Prehistoric times (ca. 5000 BCE) until modern times, with cultural remains from many periods, and heritage that can be connected to many different groups. In our research and excavation, while focusing, for the most part, on the Bronze and Iron Age remains (due to research foci), we just as carefully and meticulously excavate and study Crusader and early Islamic levels as those of other periods, or the remains for the village and cemeteries of the Palestinian village of Tell es-Safi, which existed at the site until 1948, as those of the Philistines of the “biblical period.”

Similarly, the team that works on the site is a multi-national team, with participants of many religious, political and ideological backgrounds. On a regular basis, during our summer season, you can find Jews, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, and an occasional Buddhist, working together in the same excavation square, and people with very different life styles and political views developing close friendship and long-lasting camaraderie. All this done through a policy of mutual respect and inclusiveness. And as we are now in our 21st year of the project – it is clear that this works!

In fact, I would argue that despite the dangers of enmeshing archaeology and politics, archaeologists, as custodians of the past, should not hesitate to utilize the archaeological remains to teach about, and forge connections, between communities of today, and the heritage and cultural memory of the past (even if this is at times fabricated). The human need to search for one’s roots, and to find meaning today – based on the past, can be seen in all societies throughout the world. This gives archaeologists a unique role, enabling them to utilize the archaeological remains to enrich the meaning and group cohesiveness of peoples today. Enabling a young Jewish child to connect to her history by holding a coin from the time of Maccabees, or a Christian boy through learning about tombs from the time of Jesus, or a Muslim girl by showing remains from the time of Muhammad, can have an enormous impact on the development of their cultural roots and identity. Anyone who has ever seen the excited eyes of someone discovering an archaeological object that can be connected to a tangible past and one’s personal identity, well knows the power of this educational tool. Without a doubt, this is one of the major ways in which archaeologists can “give back” to the societies that enable them, the archaeologists, to study the past. One should not let the misuse of the archaeological remains for political ideologies let us shed these tangible educational opportunities. But we must make sure that this is done in a manner which respects, and does not deny, the various, and at times conflicting narrative. This may be difficult – but it can be done!

So then, in the end, what’s the problem(s) with the UNESCO decision? By choosing a non-inclusive approach to the complex problems of heritage, politics and identity that exist in Jerusalem (and the Middle East in general), and by opting for the easy way out, and caving in to the demands of one of the sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they have not helped move the peace process, or any aspect of reconciliation, forward. In fact, paraphrasing UNESCO’s own credo, more than anything else they are “Building Discord in the Minds of Men and Women.”

Too much is at stake, and too many live are in danger, for such an organization to take such an irresponsible stance.

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