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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Rwanda’s response to COVID-19 brings out the need to prepare and learn from practice

Wash your hands, wear your face mask and practice physical distancing. These COVID-19 safety measures by the World Health Organization (WHO) will probably go down in the World’s history as the most repeated and translated words of the year 2020.  Since December 2019, COVID-19 has imposed itself onto the World forcing everyone to rethink the…
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    Israel should return to UNESCO

    Israel could seek to rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), an important decision that the government should weigh in the coming months. 

    Israel left UNESCO in 2019 along with the United States over biased decisions and anti-Israel rhetoric at the organization. Problems between Israel and UNESCO came to a head under the tenure of former director-general Irina Bokova, when a series of anti-Israel resolutions erased Jewish connections to Jerusalem and other important sites in the West Bank. 

    All of this began after the “state” of Palestine was admitted to UNESCO in 2011, and through that membership began to try to remove references to Jerusalem as a Jewish site, like using only Islamic terms for the Temple Mount, for instance, or submitting resolutions that sought to erase history, like the Jewish Temple that once stood in Jerusalem, or call the Western Wall by its Muslim name of the Buraq Plaza.

    UNESCO is supposed to protect culture and history, not lead to the erasure of ethnicities and religions. Unfortunately, the organization tried to do to Jewish history in areas like Hebron and Jerusalem what ISIS was doing in the same year to historic sites in Iraq and Syria – erasing the diversity of the landscape and focusing history on the Ottoman, Mamluk and Arab eras, without reference to Jewish and other histories.

    Bokova spoke out in 2016 against the attempts to “deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions.” Nevertheless, the anti-Israel resolutions continued, some 46 of them between 2009 and 2014, according to UN Watch. In essence, UNESCO was being used as an anti-Israel tool, much as other UN organizations are. This was the context under which Israel and the US chose to withdraw.

    Israel’s decision was more of a win for the forces against the Jewish state within the organization. The new UNESCO director-general, Audrey Azoulay, who is Jewish, said in 2017 that she deeply regretted Israel’s decision to withdraw. Oddly, Israel’s move came at a time when UNESCO and Azoulay wanted to try to rekindle warmer relations and listen to Israel’s concerns. This was unfortunate because Israel has numerous UNESCO sites that celebrate the diverse history in Israel. These sites are within the Green Line because of historic UN decisions and the international community’s view of what constitutes Israel, but that doesn’t make them less significant. They include Masada and the White City of Tel Aviv. Nine sites in all have been inscribed, and some include multiple locations, such as the Incense Route in the Negev and also the Biblical Tels. One of the sites, Bet She’arim, celebrates Jewish “renewal.” 

    Now Israel could seek to return to UNESCO, and it is possible that such a move can be done alongside the United States. The US is an important voice for Israel, and President Joe Biden’s assertion that “America is back” could be leveraged to make sure that a return to UNESCO comes with promises that the organization will stop erasing Jewish history in the Middle East.

    The debate over what Israel will do comes on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords. If there is one thing the accords teach us, it is that coexistence and celebrating our unity in the region can bring peace and tolerance for all peoples here. 

    UNESCO supports these values and so does Israel’s new government. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has a key role to play as a positive voice seeking new multilateral relationships for Israel. This includes improving Israel’s image in the region and in Europe. Israel is rapidly making those new ties, cementing work with Morocco and other countries.

    There may be some hills to climb on the way back to UNESCO. As the US sought isolationism between 2016 and 2020, other countries pounced to increase their role at UNESCO. That means Israel will need to work closely with the US and other friends from around the world to see how a return might be possible with conditions and acknowledgment of Israel’s concerns.

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