It's a journalistic truism that mixing biblical archeology and religious claims with contemporary Middle East politics generally condemns a story to a tar pit of irreconcilability. But of course it's done all the time by all involved parties, with deadly consequences. It's standard fare in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Some Palestinians argue that they're indigenous -- and hence the rightful political heirs -- to what today is Israel/Palestine. Their claim -- dubious, I'd say, given the scarcity of provable evidence -- is that they descend directly from the ancient Canaanite tribes that once roamed the area. That, despite the region's thousands of years of history involving marauding armies and cultural upheaval -- not the least of which was the 7th Century C.E. Arab Muslim conquest of the Levant.
Most traditional Jews (supported by some Christians but not by some anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects) point to the biblical Book of Genesis that says God promised Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) to the patriarch Abraham, making Israel the rightful political power.
This takes us into the realm of theology; either you believe it or or you don't.
Islam, of course, has its own narrative about the land -- and in particular Jerusalem -- further complicating the picture.
Get the United Nations involved and it becomes even more of a briar patch -- which is what's happened of late with the UN's chief cultural agency, the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organizational (UNESCO).
I'm referring to the recent series of votes by UNESCO and its World Heritage Committee that referred to what Jews -- and, hence, Israel -- call (in English) the Temple Mount, and what Muslims -- and, therefore, the Palestinians -- call the Noble Sanctuary. In addition to criticizing Israeli actions there, the resolutions referred to the sites using only their Muslim names.
For those needing a quick geographical refresher, here's a link to some Temple Mount-Noble Sanctuary background.
The votes inflamed Israeli officials, and their allies, including the United States, who said the Arab and Muslim nations behind the resolutions were trying to erase Jewish, and Christian, ties to Jerusalem and to advance the Palestinian political agenda. Senior UNESCO staff officials, who have little control over the votes taken by UN member nations, also denounced the voting.
In the midst of this, the Israel Antiquities Authority said it had found a papyrus fragment from the 7th Century B.C.E., written in ancient Hebrew, that mentions Jerusalem by name, lending archeological support to Jewish claims on the Holy Land.
Note the "B" in B.C.E.
The bottom line: That's a millennium prior to the above-mentioned Arab Muslim invasion.
Of course, archeological finds are also subject to dispute over their authenticity. That's the case with this find, as well. However, there's also this lending, it seems, some early Islamic corroboration to Jewish claims to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
Confused? Here's a New York Times news piece that nicely sums up the saga.
I've been following the story for the last several weeks. For the most part, the coverage outside the Middle East -- where the story has received major play day after day -- that I've seen in the elite international news media has been sparse. By that, I mean it's been limited, in the main, to intermittent staff-reported stories, wire copy place holders, and op-ed pieces written by observers far from the scene of events.
I think the story -- because of the centrality of Jerusalem's holy sites to the Abrahamic religions and their prominent role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- is worth far closer attention. I'll say more about why in a moment.
But first some additional journalistic truisms, or at least my understanding of how the profession acts.
In normal times, the UNESCO story might have received additional attention.
But these are not normal times in the world of journalism. The most bitter and bizarre American presidential election in many a decade is, quite understandably, the all-consuming story of the day. Meanwhile, Syria, Iraq and, increasingly, Yemen gobble up those media resources still devoted to the Middle East.
There's also a fatigue aspect to the lack of coverage. I believe a large percentage of the American media-consuming public is tired, perhaps even damn tired, of the tit-for-tat, going nowhere Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Body counts alone seem to attract attention these days, and fortunately these figures are relatively low in this conflict for the moment.
The same goes for UN involvement in the drama.
I've noted here the UN's repeated and politically driven criticism of Israel more than once. It makes for a "not again" attitude among journalists keyed toward the "new" in the news.
These are all reasonable excuses for the story not getting its due. However, there's much at stake in these seemingly inconsequential UN votes that should be made crystal clear to news consumers.
The UN is a politically hobbled, mostly ineffectual body. However, for better or worse, it's the only international body of its kind in existence, so I'm not agitating for its demise or for the United States to withdraw.
Still, it needs to be said as often and as loudly as possible that Arab and Muslim nations, and their self-serving, status quo-minded enablers, have turned the UN into a political hammer that's used over and over to pound Israel, even as nations that act far worse toward their minorities or neighbors receive a relative pass, including the likes of China, Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia and even North Korea.
UNESCO, which has accepted Palestine as an associate non-state member, is particularly egregious in this regard.
There's a second reason the UNESCO vote story needs more attention from mainstream journalists, writing hard news.
Islam presents itself as the Abrahamic religion that's closest to Abraham's pure faith. That means traditionalist Muslims see their faith as having supplanted Judaism and Christianity -- both regarded as having been corrupted -- as God's favored path.
Looking at UNESCO pronouncements, it's not difficult to conclude that Muslim-majority nations are trying to use the supposedly secular UN to advance its purely religious as well as its political agenda.
At the very least, its an angle for religion writers and UN correspondents to check out. Starter questions for reporters and editors might include:
What do non-Muslim nations, in particular those in the global West, have to say about this? Is it a concern? Do they even regard the UNESCO votes as having a religion component or see them as purely political?
What other issues before the UN are impacted by Muslim religious beliefs? Two to start with are gender and sexuality issues.
Finally, will any Western nation's UN delegation even address the question of Muslim beliefs? My guess is that most if not all won't touch it, at least not on the record, because their prime concern will be diplomatic niceties.