As the ideological and political battle rages in the headlines over the “Jewishness” of the Holy Land, I found myself walking on a street known as Kaf-Tet B’November, translated “November 29,” in Jerusalem last week. Streets with this name exist in most cities across Israel, as the date marks one of the most significant events on the road to establishing the Jewish state.
On this date, sixty-three years ago at Lake Success in New York, the United Nations decided to terminate the British Mandate and partition the land into two independent states; Jewish and Arab. The Jewish leadership in Israel accepted the partition plan, and the UN decision was met with joy and celebration by Jewish people around the world. In Rome, the Jewish community held a special prayer at the Arch of Titus, named after the Roman leader Titus, who, with his legions, exiled the Jewish people from the land of Israel 2,000 years earlier.
In the Middle East, the response was different. The partition plan or Resolution 181 was rejected by both the Arab states and the Arab leadership in then-Palestine. Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Yemen and Saudi Arabia as well as Pakistan and India all voted against the resolution during the UN General Assembly. Thirty-three countries, including the United States, Norway, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador, all voted for the plan.
This past week, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina declared their recognition of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, the territory captured by Israel in the Six Day War during its battles with Egyptian, Iraqi, Jordanian, and Syrian troops.
It is not the first time that such a declaration has been made. In June 2009, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed a Palestinian state alongside Israel on two conditions—that the state would be demilitarized and that the Palestinian people recognize Israel as a state of the Jewish people.
But this is precisely the problem–the recognition and acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state in the Arab world is the underlying reason why the Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be instantaneously solved through peace negotiations and land deals. As long as the state of Israel is Jewish in its identity, most Arab countries will continue to refuse to accept it. This reality hasn’t changed since November 29, 1947.
Last week on November 27, the Fatah Revolutionary Council concluded its fifth convention with a declaration refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. “The council affirms its rejection of the so-called Jewish state or any other formula that could achieve this goal,” said a statement issued by the council, which also praised Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who helped found Fatah, considered to be the moderate party in Palestinian politics today.
Even more disturbing now are the attempts to deny any Jewish historical claim to the land by Palestinian officials. It is not by mere coincidence that the holiest sites to the Jewish people, such the Tomb of Rachel, the Western Wall and the Caves of the Patriarchs in Hebron, have all been recently attributed as holy sites exclusive to Muslims. The Palestinian Authority published an official report on its website in November asserting that the Western Wall is Islamic property and not a holy site for Jews. The report was taken down after condemnation from the US and Israel, who cited the report as “incorrect and provocative.” The author of the report, Al-Mutawakil Taha, a civil servant in the PA Information Ministry still stands by his study despite the fact that the Western Wall has been the holiest site for prayer for the Jewish people for centuries as it was the outer wall of the biblical Temples.
But the international community in general is showing more and more support for the Islamic narrative of events. The Paris-based United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared at the end of October that the Tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel, located between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, was not a Jewish holy site, but the Mosque Bilel Ibn-Rabach. UNESCO, made up of 193 member states, also demanded that Israel remove from its list of Jewish heritage sites the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where in Jewish tradition the biblical Patriarchs were buried 4,000 years ago
UNESCO states that its main mission is “to build peace in the minds of men and women” and “encourage international peace and universal respect.” It is difficult to understand exactly how this UN organization aims to fulfill that lofty goal here in the Middle East if it aims to deny the traditions of one people in favor of another. By rewriting thousands of years of age-old biblical tradition and catering only to one narrative, the UN concept of “universal respect” is merely fancy rhetoric in print.
A “just and durable peace in the Middle East” will only happen when there is international and local respect and acknowledgment for the roles that all three major religions have played in the region and this includes the role of Judaism.
As I walk on the street known as Kaf-Tet B’November in Jerusalem this Chanukah and see the flickering candles in the windows of Jewish homes, I think back to a time 2,000 years ago, when my ancestors here were denied their rights to follow Jewish tradition by the Syrian-Greeks who then occupied the land. In the state of Israel today, however, freedom of religion exists for every person of faith. It is the one spot in the Middle East where Muslims, Christians, and Jews are democratically guaranteed freedom of religion, a fact that many in the international community would do well to remember.
Anav Silverman is the international correspondent at Sderot Media Center: www.SderotMedia.org.il and an educator at Hebrew University’s Secondary School of Education.