When UNESCO passed its draft resolution casting the Temple Mount, the most sacred ground in Judaism, as an exclusively Muslim site, Palestinian leaders were quick to capitalize. "This is an important message to Israel that it must end its occupation and recognize the Palestinian state and Jerusalem as its capital with its sacred Muslim and Christian sites," a spokesman for the Palestinian president said after the vote.
The spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, was signaling that Jerusalem is holy to Muslims and Christian not Jews. As with Palestinian claims that Jews have no history in the city, the takeaway is that Israel has no claim to Jerusalem at all, including the Western Wall and the Temple Mount. And if that's the case, it should be a straightforward exercise to demand Israel withdraw from the eastern portion of Jerusalem, or even to deny Jews the right to live in areas like Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter where, not withstanding the name of that neighborhood, they are cast as usurping settlers.
It further follows that if Israel doesn't pick up and leave eastern Jerusalem, where under this narrative the country has no spiritual anchor, it must be for no other reason than a reprehensible refusal to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Responsibility for the continued conflict, then, resides solely with Israel. And so Israel must be severely punished.
Others take the idea even further: As goes Jerusalem, so goes all of Israel. Jews, according to some anti-Israel activists, have no real business being in, or returning to, either locale. (Recall
journalist Helen Thomas's demand that Jews leave Israel and go to "Poland" and "Germany.")
Just as Palestinians understood the implications of UNESCO's word choice, so too did the resolution's many critics. And not least among those critics is the head of UNESCO. In a statement published after the vote, Irina Bokova, the organization's secretary general, protested that "to deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity" of Jerusalem. She urged that political divisions not be carried into UNESCO, and clarified that "The Al Aqsa Mosque / Al-Haram al-Sharif, the sacred shrine of Muslims, is also the Har HaBayit or Temple Mount whose Western Wall is the holiest place in Judaism."
Bokova may have had the best intentions in making the statement. But unfortunately, her claim that the Western Wall is "the holiest place in Judaism" is factually incorrect and, for the second time in as many days, downplays the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount. It bears repeating: The Temple Mount is Judaism's holiest site. The Western Wall, a retaining wall supporting the soil of the sacred plateau, derives its holiness in Jewish tradition from its proximity to the Mount and its "holy of holies."
Setting the Record Straight
It is important to get the facts right, especially when discussing so politically charged a site as this one. For that reason, CAMERA has long held the line against media renditions that misstate or downplay the Temple Mount's importance to the Jewish people.
In 2008, for example, CAMERA secured a BBC correction to its claim that the Western Wall is the holiest site in Judaism. Senior BBC officials made clear in their detailed response to CAMERA that they understood the significance of getting the story right, noting that the issue is "significant in religious terms and not without importance in the debate about territorial claims."
After CAMERA challenged The New York Times on its description of the Western Wall as "the holiest site in Judaism," the newspaper published the following correction:
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the Western Wall. It is one of the holiest sites in Judaism, not the holiest site. (The holiest is the Temple Mount.) The error was repeated in a picture caption
CAMERA prompted a similar correction from the Washington Post:
National Geographic, too, redressed its inaccuracy after CAMERA intervened.
A photo caption with a Jan. 22 A-section article about Israeli elections incorrectly described the Western Wall in Jerusalem as Judaism's holiest site. The wall is the holiest place Jews can pray. Judaism's holiest place is the Temple Mount.
Some news reports distort the Temple Mount's holiness to Jews in a slightly different way: by describing its status in Islam while inexplicably failing to note in an equivalent way its status in Judaism.
One New York Times report, for example, explained that Muslims "revere" the site. Not so for Jews, whose relationship to the hill is described in dry historical terms. A reporter stated that
The 37-acre compound in Jerusalem's walled Old City is revered by Muslims, who believe that the Prophet Muhammad's mystical journey took him from Mecca to Al Aqsa, and from there to the heavens. And it is for Jews the site of the First and Second Temples.
The newspaper corrected the article after CAMERA brought the issue to the attention of editors. The revised piece acknowledge that the compound is "the holiest site in Judaism and the third holiest place in Islam."
Another New York Times article did acknowledge that Jews "revere" the site, and yet still managed to give the impression that for Muslims it is even more sacred by positioning it as among their "holiest" sites:
In East Jerusalem, Ms. Samri, the police spokeswoman, said protesters had thrown rocks at officers who had entered the contested holy site of the Al Aqsa Mosque revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, one of the three holiest sites in Islam so they could allow non-Muslims, including Jews, to enter the area.
After communication with CAMERA, reporters added that they are also referring to "the holiest site in Judaism."
And a third time, the same newspaper referred to "Al Aqsa, one of the holiest sites for Muslims" with no reference to its place in Judaism. Again, CAMERA prompted the newspaper to amend its language.
As with the UNESCO's skewed resolution, news reports that describe the Western Wall as the holiest place for Jews, or that inform readers the Temple Mount is among the holiest areas for Muslims while neglecting to note its stature in Judaism, contribute to a distorted understanding of religious, cultural and historical factors that bind Israel to the area.
That distortion is the whole point of UNESCO's language. And the dictators' club
that helped push through the recent resolution will likely ensure similarly inflammatory wording appears in future resolutions. That's to be expected. Will journalists, for their part, make sure to get it right more consistently moving forward?