Op-Ed: UNESCO needs a course correction

WASHINGTON (JTA) — How’s this for a philosophical question: Can you hold a conference dedicated to the open debate of some of the biggest issues in society in a nation that is among the least amenable to any free and open public discussion?

Apparently the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization thought you could, and chose Tehran to host its ninth annual World Philosophy Day scheduled for this month.

After an international outcry, and just weeks before it was to start, UNESCO withdrew its support from the Tehran location. The decision by Director-General Irina Bokova was the right one, and we commended her for it.

Still, it is hard not to wonder about UNESCO’s initial choice — just one in a string of recent puzzling UNESCO decisions.

In late October, UNESCO’s executive board decreed, in a 44-1 vote with 12 members abstaining, that Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs should not be included on Israel’s list of national heritage sites. UNESCO’s resolution read that “the two sites are an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, responding to the UNESCO decision, said that "The attempt to separate the nation of Israel from its cultural heritage is absurd."

Historians — Jewish, Christian and Muslim — have long recognized Rachel’s Tomb as the burial place of Rachel, a matriarch in Jewish history. And historians also recognize the Cave of the Patriarchs as the grave site of Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebecca; and Jacob and Leah — Judaism’s forbearers.

The two ancient locations are uncontestable Jewish holy sites.

UNESCO’s executive board also concluded its 185th session last month by passing a resolution condemning Israel’s security fence, which has had success in preventing terror attacks emanating from the West Bank. The resolution made no mention of Palestinian terrorism.

These incidents demonstrate how this U.N. body, like too many others, succumbs to political pressures. UNESCO needs to be a better steward of its own mission “to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples based upon respect for commonly shared values.”

It is impossible to fathom how Iran was tapped to host a conference at which philosophers from around the world would, according to a UNESCO official, hold “debates in which each and every person should feel free to participate according to his or her convictions.”

That is something not even remotely possible in Tehran, where protesting the government can at best send you to prison and, at worst, end in a state execution. As state policy, Tehran continues to violate even the most minimal standards of human rights.

As the global leader in state-sponsored terrorism, Iran arms and funds terrorists. Its leaders defy the demonstrated will of the international community by continuing to pursue an illicit nuclear weapons program in violation of U.N. sanctions and numerous U.N. Security Council and International Atomic Energy Agency resolutions.

Hosting a prestigious global event, particularly one with the U.N. imprint, is an honor and elevates the host in stature. How can any legitimate international institution have considered bestowing this honor on Iran, a nation that much of the free world has condemned?

Iran publicly and defiantly — even proudly — threatens to destroy Israel, another U.N. member state. And yet a U.N. body, even if temporarily, deemed it a worthy host to an international gathering.

Choosing Iran to host this meeting of the minds sent a significant message that its authoritarian regime is acceptable, and that a nation can simultaneously defy the United Nations in one arena and be honored by one of its agencies in another.

This is a moral line that UNESCO should never have crossed. The Tehran government represents the polar opposite of free and open discussion.

Philosophy is the study of wisdom and rational argument. It’s about questioning what we think we know and the way things could be. It’s about debating ideas. The United Nations should have known that the free will and independence required in philosophy are unknown in Iran.

UNESCO’s track record in its just-concluded session bodes ill for its neutrality. Without a serious course correction, UNESCO will soon be defined by these bad decisions, and its ability to provide the opportunities to open doors and minds through cultural exchange will be severely damaged.

(Daniel S. Mariaschin is the executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International.)

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