Though Judaism, Christianity and Islam all consider the Temple Mount to be a holy site, the UNESCO resolution referred to the area exclusively as al-Aksa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif, except for two references to the Western Wall Plaza that were put in parentheses. The Western Wall was referred to as al-Buraq Plaza, after the black horse that according to Muslim tradition carried the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem on an evening flight.
Not just UNESCO, which is dominated by the voting power of a bloc of Muslim countries, is susceptible to the politicization of ancient history. The question of historical claims to land – particularly the holy real estate in Jerusalem – is so politically charged and the stakes are seen as so high that even an experienced journalist working at a respected publication with editorial oversight can be pressured into distorting the truth.
After publishing a piece in October 2015 about the Temple Mount titled “Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place,” The New York Times was forced to issue the following correction: “... the article implied incorrectly that questions among scholars about the location of the temples potentially affected Jewish claims to the site and Israel’s broader assertion of sovereignty over Jerusalem.
In fact, as the article was later corrected to clarify, the scholarly debate is a narrower one, focused on the precise location on the Temple where the long destroyed temples once stood...archeological and historical uncertainties about the site – unlike assertions by some Palestinians that the temples never existed – do not directly challenge Jewish claims to the Temple Mount.”
After being duped into entering a twilight zone dominated by narratives with no basis in fact, the Times found its way into the light of truth, and this is commendable. Even in its correction, however, the Times remained captive to the problematic claim that archeological and historical certainties, or uncertainties, had the power to affirm or undermine Jewish claims to sovereignty in Jerusalem.
But should Jews’ claims to sovereignty in Israel be based on the veracity of archeological finds? We can think of no other nation in the world whose sovereignty hinges on the remains found at an archeological dig. True, Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in a territorial dispute. But referencing ancient history does not clarify the conflict, it only complicates it further by engaging in a game of who was here first, when the question at hand is how can we live together now.
No intellectually honest person seriously doubts that the Jewish people has religious, cultural and historical ties to the Land of Israel. Attempts to deny these ties are a perversion of science. That UNESCO is engaging in such perversion is a tragic testimony to the sorrowful state of UN institutions. But all of this is irrelevant and counterproductive to the real issue: finding a way in which Israelis and Palestinians can coexist peacefully on a tiny slab of land that happens to be endowed with a rich, resonant history.