Thursday, 3 August 2017

Caterpillar Poetry: No Longer Associated with UNESCO

This March I co-ordinated an evening of international poetry at Morley Library, raising money for the mental health charity MIND, and also for UNESCO - the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization -  being timed to coincide with that body's International Day of Poetry.  On this site and on youtube, I posted videos and images in memory of the day, all of which I have taken down.
One of the things that attracted me to UNESCO was the apparent sincerity with which they seemed to support a peaceful outcome to the Israeli/Palestinian issue, and notwithstanding the various resolutions and statements they have historically passed for and against both sides, I genuinely believed that by enacting a UNESCO celebration, I was helping to support efforts aimed at secure and lasting solutions in this field.  The ins and outs of the issue was of no consequence to our event, which was based on internationalism, tolerance, and peace.  Our participants and spectators included poets and performers from the USA, Australia, Spain, Libya and many places in between.  Along with the flags of 193 other member states, those of Israel and the Palestinian territories were hung as bunting around the building.
The news a few weeks that UNESCO had passed a resolution implicitly denying any reference to the Jewish history at Jerusalem's Temple Mount, and listing the site purely by its Arab name - an act of partiality by an organization claiming to be neutral on this extremely complex matter - came as a shock to me, as did the further elements of UNESCO's biased resolution which dispute any Jewish claim to the city of Jerusalem, even describing various "so called" Jewish sites and putting inverted commas around others.  Above all, I was bemused by UNESCO's simplistic assertions, as outlined in an excellent Tablet article by Paris-based journalist Shany Mor:

UNESCO “condemns Israeli aggressions” perpetrated “against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to Al-Aqsa,” “deplores the continuous storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif by Israeli right-wing extremists,” and “deeply decries the continuous Israeli aggressions” committed by “the so-called ‘Israeli antiquities’ officials.”
There’s a long history to Arab claims that Jews or Zionists or Israelis have threatened Al-Aqsa, dating back past 1930.
The power of this lie, in inciting violence ... was first understood in the 1920s by the Mufti of Jerusalem (and future Nazi collaborator) Haj Amin al-Husseini. He saw Al-Aqsa as a way of turning a local conflict, where his side might have been at a disadvantage, into a regional, religious, and even global conflict where this disadvantage could be reversed. The claim that Jews were seeking to harm Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem in 1928 was the pretext for a wave of Arab violence against Jews, culminating in the massacre a few months later of 67 Jews in Hebron.
This served as a model for future violence following false claims of Jewish threats to Al Aqsa, which occurred roughly once a decade, particularly after Israel conquered the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967. Even during the peak years of the Oslo process, the opening in 1996 of a second exit to a tourist tunnel that (despite lies to the contrary) ran under no mosque was used as a false pretext for three days of violent rioting that included two deadly attacks on Jewish holy sites in the West Bank. Global opinion universally blamed Israel for the riots.

I have never visited the region.  I remain a strong supporter of any peaceful movement which genuinely has at its heart the security and success of both peoples, and I do not regard myself as a mouthpiece for either.  But I believe UNESCO's resolution flies in the face of this, and of history.  Mor goes on, This perceived grievance stretches the bounds of irony ... immediately after conquering the Old City, Israel handed control of the Temple Mount to the Islamic Trust, and forbade any Jewish religious rite on the entire Mount, a status quo it has maintained to this day.  The world’s only Jewish state had just scored an astonishing victory over enemies who only days earlier were promising a war of extermination against it and, in the process, liberated the Jewish people’s holiest site—and promptly handed it over.  He suggests that restrictions on access to the site are imposed on Jewish, not Muslim, visitors, and that Israeli control of the Old City in the last half century has meant that Al Aqsa, is the rare Islamic holy site not to be a stage for some kind of massacre of Muslim worshipers by one or another rival branch of radical Islam, and contrasts UNESCO's attitude to Israel with its lack of focus on other agents in the region and their impact on historical sites: The construction of the El-Marwani Mosque on the southeast corner of the Mount entailed unrecoverable destruction of archaeological treasures ranging across three millennia. Unlike the imagined archaeological damage fantasists accuse Israel of committing, this was never condemned by UNESCO or any other international body. 

I simply cannot associate myself with an organization that goes out of its way to single out individual countries - especially those caught up in interminable cycles of regional and religious conflict yet which are held to higher moral standards than would ever be expected of nations free from the concerns that states like Israel has faced  - while blithely ignoring the flaws and pitfalls of its neighbours.  Many Ancient sites have been razed to the ground in recent times, by ISIS and other forces of destruction, to resounding silences from UNESCO.
I am disappointed at this turn of events.  Along with others, I had been planning several extensive events to raise money for UNESCO over the next couple of years. I waited several weeks after the initial news, in the hope that as time went by some further statement from UNESCO might suggest they had taken the time to consider the matter somewhat less one-sidedly (as with their reversal of a cancellation on the Simon Wesenthal Centre art exhibition a few years ago), but the conclusion I have reached is that although UNESCO remains in essence an important international body (of which both Israel and Palestine are members in their own respective ways), its current stance on this matter is not conducive to peace, and is unhelpful to both Israelis and Palestinians.  As an artist I do not like to tie myself into any political organization and prefer to operate outside the ideological territory of any biased group or movement, and as such, until such a time as they modify or alter their position, a continued association with UNESCO, is not something I am pursuing.

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