Alt Facts in Hebron

It is very dangerous for policy to be based on alternative facts, and even alternative realities. Whether the policymakers believe the alternative realities or merely weave a fabric of falsehoods to

build political support for their decisions, the danger is just as great.

In Washington this has been the prevailing condition for a long time. The Trump administration’s decision to leave the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is one of the most absurd examples.

In July, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee stated that the city of Hebron— and the holy site, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, located therein—were in Palestinian territory. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assailed the decision as denying the Jewish connection to the Tomb and the Old City of Hebron. The decision reflected nothing of the kind, as I explained at the time. But the US followed suit and threatened to withdraw from UNESCO, which, considering that Barack Obama was forced, by an old law, to withdraw in 2013 for other reasons, wasn’t much of a threat.

Still, the United States just followed through. It is not much of a blow to UNESCO at this point, but US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley’s statement on the matter merits some attention:

In July, when UNESCO made its latest outrageous and politically based decision, designating the Old City of Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as part of Palestinian territory, the United States clearly stated that this decision would negatively affect our evaluation of our level of engagement with the organization.

It remains baffling just what the United States finds so outrageous about a simple factual statement: Hebron is not part of Israel, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is in Hebron, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is not in Israel. This is simple and undeniable. In fact, not even Netanyahu disputes these facts. That’s why he was so quick to divert the issue to one of negating the Jewish connection to the Tomb and to Hebron, something UNESCO never did.

Yet last week, while everyone was concerned with the much more pressing matter of Donald Trump’s decision not to certify Iranian compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, Nikki Haley announced the administration’s decision to withdraw from UNESCO completely.

The decision was odd, particularly because it was done without informing, much less coordinating with, Israel. One might expect that if you’re taking an action on behalf of an ally, you’d at least tell them. In the case of the US-Israel relationship, close communication and coordination has always been the norm. Even the Obama administration, which was hardly popular in Israel, kept Israel closely informed even when the US was charting a course that Israel disagreed with.

This was not the case here. The US did not even mention the decision to Israel until after reports surfaced in the media. Netanyahu had to then inform his cabinet that they should prepare to follow the US in exiting UNESCO.

This was almost certainly a matter of incompetence. There was no other reason for Trump not to tell Israel about this. As former Obama Mideast envoy Martin Indyk said, this was “a good example of what’s happened to the State Dept. under Trump-Tillerson.”

Initial reporting from The New York Times, since updated to reflect reality, suggested that the Obama administration had decided to withdraw funding from UNESCO based on political considerations after the body admitted the State of Palestine, which had not long before gained non-voting observer status in the UN General Assembly.

In fact, Obama was compelled to withdraw the funding by a 1996 law mandating that any world body recognizing and admitting Palestine could not receive any US funding. At the time, the law seemed unimportant, a straightforward way to appease pro-Israel lobbyists. As the thinking went, by the time any international body the US was involved with admitted a state of Palestine, there would be an agreement on the actual creation of that state.

That is one of the dangers of living in a disconnected reality. Watching Trump make up his own facts to justify his assault on the Iran deal is another.

The UNESCO fiasco holds a longer-term danger. Hebron is a major flash point in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Outside of Jerusalem, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is the most significant Jewish site in Palestinian territory.

The relative silence in the United States toward Haley’s counter-factual and outrageous statement sows a dangerous seed. If Hebron becomes identified in the US collective mind as a Jewish city, or even an Israeli one, the politics around any eventual settlement of the occupation become even more fraught. There has been far too little response—in the media, in Washington, in the whole US zeitgeist—to Haley’s statements.

Hebron is not in Israel by any definition, including Israel’s. The more this idea gets whittled away, the more dangerous a flashpoint Hebron becomes. Although it may not seem like much that the US and Israel are leaving UNESCO, that question matters a great deal.

Israel Takes Aim at UNESCO, Again

Israel and the United States have once again turned their fire on the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). At issue this time is the decision by UNESCO’s

Entrance to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron

World Heritage Committee to recognize the Old City of Hebron as a Palestinian site and to add it as a World Heritage in Danger site.

According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the UNESCO resolution is “delusional” because it allegedly denies the Jewish connection to Hebron. Indeed, denying such a connection to a city that contains the Tomb of the Patriarchs would be highly offensive to Jews all over the world. The only problem is, UNESCO did no such thing.

As Orly Noy points out in +972 Magazine, “As opposed to what Israel is attempting to portray, UNESCO does not comment on the religious aspects of heritage sites, or to whom they are or are not considered holy.”

All three Abrahamic faiths consider the site holy for it is home to both the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Ibrahimi Mosque. What really bothered Israel, although it can’t say it this way, is that the resolution specifically states that the site is in Palestine, a state that does not exist in a physical sense, but which is a non-voting member of the UN and was admitted in 2011 to UNESCO.

Netanyahu can’t, for the moment, make the case that the Tomb is Israeli, because Israel has never claimed sovereignty over Hebron, even though the city is home to the most controversial, and often violent, sites of Israeli settlement and occupation. To claim Hebron would be to officially declare the option of a Palestinian state dead, and Israel is not prepared to do that.

So, Netanyahu says that this UNESCO statement erases the Jewish connection to Hebron. That’s nothing less than a bald-faced lie. The resolution does nothing of the kind. In fact, the report from the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) clearly acknowledges the Jewish religious and historical connections to the city.

But if recent events demonstrate anything, it is that Israel is far from synonymous with Judaism or Jews as a group. The Netanyahu government has recently made that abundantly clear to liberal Jews in the United States, much to their dismay. The UNESCO resolution does imply that Israel—not Jews—has no claim on the Tomb/Mosque site. No one, for instance, would consider it credible for Israel to claim as its own the Sardis Synagogue. One of the most ancient Jewish sites in the world at t 2,400 years old, this synagogue is in Turkey and is extremely well-maintained. The Jobar Synagogue in Syria, which has been mostly destroyed in the war, is a tragic loss for Jews everywhere, but not specifically for Israel.

Why, then, would Hebron be treated differently?

One reason is that the request for the site’s recognition and placement on the endangered list came from the Palestinian Authority. Another is that the report details numerous actions by Israel that raise serious concerns about open access to non-Jews, the effects of settlement and military activity on the site, and archaeological activity that has already caused damage to parts of the Old City.

Although Israel shouts to the heavens about its respect for all religions and for access to holy sites, no one could possibly go to Hebron and come out believing Israel’s claims. Nowhere is the occupation starker and more visible. There is every reason for the United Nations to focus on Hebron, to protect its holy sites, and to combat the Israeli occupation there. No security rationale can justify Jewish settlement in Hebron.

US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley said that the UNESCO resolution is an “affront to history.” Obviously, the ambassador is not well informed on the history of the city. That might be forgiven but shouldn’t we expect her to understand UN process and procedure? That is after all, her job. In this case, as Americans for Peace Now’s Ori Nir reported, UNESCO has not yet formulated its statement regarding Hebron. The press release about the World Heritage Committee’s vote may or may not reflect UNESCO’s full stance on the matter. Which also means that while Haley is performing her theatrics, she could be trying to influence that final statement instead.

In fairness to Haley, however, her ability to influence anything at UNESCO is severely limited. At one time, the US voice held considerable weight in the body. Until 2011, the United States contributed 22% of the organization’s budget. Any organization tends to listen to the provider of more than 1/5 of their funding.

But when UNESCO voted overwhelmingly in 2011 to admit Palestine, it triggered a US law that forced the Obama Administration to withdraw its funding. The US still sits on UNESCO’s executive board, but its influence is clearly diminished.

Israel, for its part, withheld another $1 million from its UN membership dues in response to the latest UNESCO controversy. This is the fourth time Israel has cut its contribution to the UN, reducing it in total from $11.7 million to $1.7 million. Meanwhile, the US is said to be “reviewing” its ties to UNESCO in response to the Hebron decision.

There was a real possibility of raising some issues about this resolution. The ICOMOS report, for example, said that in 1929, Jews fled Hebron “when violence flared.” In fact, it was a targeted massacre of 67 Jews in the city (a massacre that could have been much worse but for the intervention of some of Hebron’s Arab residents). That sort of language is, indeed, objectionable. If Israel felt that any of the charges raised in the ICOMOS report were erroneous, it could have engaged and then publicized the reality.

Instead, as usual, Israel disengaged and refused access as much as it could. The message it is sending is that it’s more important to accuse its detractors of anti-Semitism than to deal with any substantive issues it might have.

Given the nature of the occupation, the daily brutality, the false image of it projected for people who have either refused to see it for themselves or never had the chance to, it is not surprising that this is the course both Israel and the Trump administration would choose. Israeli and US hysteria over the Hebron designation was not focused on objections to Israeli actions, but on a completely bogus charge of anti-Semitism. That sort of deflection is much more typical of a guilty party than an innocent one.

US Charitable Donations Funding West Bank Settlements

A great deal of support for Israeli settlements comes from the United States in the form of tax-deductible contributions from private donors. The Obama administration, like all administrations before it, opposes Israeli settlement in the West Bank and considers it an obstacle to peace. Yet, at the same time, the United States government effectively incentivizes support for the settlements by allowing American charities to disburse millions of tax-deductible dollars in support for them.

This problem has not gone unnoticed, even though it continues unimpeded at this point. The Israeli daily, Ha’aretz, is publishing a series of reports and data uncovered by journalist Uri Blau SettlersSoldiersIraqBurindetailing the extent of private American support for the settlements.

This investigation by Blau pushes forward efforts that a number of US-based groups have made in the past. Most recently, T’Ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights brought attention to this issue by filing a complaint against one such group, Honenu, in New York. Earlier in 2015, the group Avaaz petitioned the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of The Hebron Fund, which directly supports the flashpoint Israeli settlement in that Palestinian city.

As we wrote in September, “It is no secret that American charities send tax-deductible donations to Israeli settlements. And, while supporting settlements may be contrary to the stated policy of the United States, sending such donations is neither illegal nor a violation of IRS regulations governing tax-deductible charitable donations…[But] Stigmatizing such organizations can have a significant impact.”

This Ha’aretz investigation is bringing important information to light, but if it is to become more than an interesting series of articles, it will be crucial for Americans who recognize the settlements as a problem to bring greater attention to how the US tax code being used to entrench Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. In order to facilitate that discussion, FMEP has assembled the resources below. Read more at FMEP’s web site

**Note: The FMEP page will be updated as more information is published or brought to our attention**

A False Dichotomy: Security vs Human Rights

In the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris last week, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon remarked on the tension between security and liberty. “In the United States until the events of September 11, the balance between security and human rights favored human rights on the issue, for example of eavesdropping on potential terrorists,” he said. “In France aBtselemnd other countries in Europe, [a shift toward security] hasn’t yet happened. Countries fighting terrorism have no alternative in this other than shifting in the direction of security. I assume that we will see a large number of steps [to carry out] inspections: passport inspections, inspections at the entrance to public places.”

As in the U.S. this dichotomy between security and human rights is at the very heart of the debate in Israel. ”We believe not only are these not contradictory, but that human rights provides security,” said Hagai El-Ad, the Executive Director of B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights groups monitoring its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, on a recent press call. “Indeed, we think that human rights are the reasons for which we have security, they are why people have a society that must be protected. So one has to wonder what kind of society do we end up with (in Ya’alon’s framework) and would that society be worth defending if you take Ya’alon’s idea to extremes. I hope that idea will work differently in France. Time will tell.”

Eifo George?

This video was produced by T’Ruah: The Rabbinic Call For Human Rights, and it is one that should be shared far and wide.

It is thoroughly unacceptable that the Jewish National Fund (JNF) is funding projects outside the Green Line. As with any other organization that uses charitable donations, it should not be allowed to maintain its tax exempt status and fund settlement projects.

But that’s a bigger fight. No doubt, many donors to the JNF are very comfortable with, or even enthusiastic supporters of funding settlements. But many others are simply responding to very familiar, innocuous-looking and, one would even say, traditional JNF call to “plant tress in Israel.” If nothing else, the JNF is morally obliged to let people know that their donations might not be funding projects in Israel, but could also be funding projects in the settlements.

If the JNF won’t do the right thing and make this clear (and they won’t–in fact, they go to considerable effort to keep it quiet, as the video points out), then it is up to Jews of conscience to do it for them. Please share this video, let people know it’s worth a minute or two to watch it. And after you do, please take action here.