15 academics linked to the UN agency urge it to consult people 'with relevant expertise' before passing resolutions on sensitive matters

A group of scholars affiliated with UNESCO criticized the agency for recent one-sided resolutions on Jerusalem, calling for a new approach to sensitive holy sites that takes into consideration everyone’s religious sensitivities.

“The UNESCO decisions on the holy sites in Jerusalem have failed to draw on expert scholarship and knowledge,” the scholars said in a joint statement, issued Thursday at the close of a conference in Israel’s capital.

“The reality in Jerusalem is complex. Complexity is the solution, not the problem. To understand the multi-layered situations and to avoid simplistic, inadequate and divisive responses that can, and do, have harmful consequences, scholarly expertise is required.”

The 15 scholars who issued the statement are members of UNESCO’s UNITWIN network for interreligious and intercultural studies. They include experts in intercultural studies from the US, Israel, France, Tajikistan, New Zealand, Russia and India.


A few days before last week’s conference, on October 11, the agency’s Executive Board voted unanimously to delay two more anti-Israel resolutions, an unprecedented move hailed by Israel as a potential harbinger of positive change.

A group of scholars affiliated with UNESCO discussing the agency’s recent anti-Israel resolutions at a Jerusalem conference, October 2017 (courtesy)

“Applying the power of political pressure to holy sites undermines UNESCO’S credibility,” said one of the statement’s signatories, Alberto Melloni, chair for Religious Pluralism and Peace University of Bologna, Italy.

The meet, co-organized by the Jerusalem-based Elijah Interfaith Institute, the Jerusalem Press Club and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, “was called to respond to recent UNESCO decisions and the crisis they have generated, a crisis that goes to the very heart of the UNESCO World Heritage process and the credibility of UNESCO itself,” the scholars said in their joint statement.

“In response to the present crisis we recommend the following: A new process be developed so that UNESCO maximize its resources and potentialities, especially by consulting its academic chairs with relevant expertise. Such consultation must precede decisions made by the organization to ensure decisions and recommendations are made in an informed manner, as befits UNESCO.”

Any situation as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “must accurately reflect the multiple narratives of those involved,” the statement read. “To be effective, it must be based on all sides feeling they have been heard and for processes of understanding to emerge out of fair-minded, historically balanced presentations of all sides to a conflict.”

Past decisions have already damaged UNESCO’s reputation and efficacy, the scholars noted. Future harm to the organization can only be avoided if the concerns are taken into consideration, they argued. “Our statement is a voice of concern and hope for the future of UNESCO,” the statement concluded.

The Elijah Interfaith Institute’s Alon Goshen-Gottstein called the scholars’ statement a balanced text that does not take sides in the conflict.