UNRWA was founded under UNGA Resolution 302 in 1949. Set apart from the UNHCR that deals with all the world’s refugees, UNRWA is unique and only deals with Palestine refugees. Its separateness and absurd definition of inherited refugee status is reminiscent of Augustine’s “eternal witness,” whereby Jews were permitted to exist, but only in perpetual impoverishment. UNRWA does not merely permit ongoing refugee status: it demands and encourages it.
In the fourth century, Church founder Augustine coined the term “eternal witness” to proscribe the purpose of Jews. Under this dictum, Jews were cast into a pariah status of rejection, homelessness, loathing and impoverishment. This status developed with European culture, expressed not only in church sermons, but also in the arts and socio-political structures. In 1215, The Fourth Lateran Council decreed that Jews wear distinguishing clothes and badges to be identified as objects of loathing.
While some changes occurred after the Enlightenment including Napoleon’s liberation of Jews, Augustine’s stigma remained. Consequently, about half of German and Austrian Jews converted to be accepted into mainstream society, Heine and Mahler being well known examples. The Hep-Hep riots, the Edgardo Mortara and Dreyfus Affairs as well as the Holocaust, significantly occurred afterthe Enlightenment.
The arts, maintained the image of the homeless Jew. Writers such as Goethe, in his Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre wrote of a new society in America, that excluded Jews. Wagner’s operas reflected his political beliefs such as the metaphor of the wandering Jew in the Flying Dutchman. Despite Jewish assimilation, artists such as Manet, Cezanne and Degas publicly supported French popular incitement against Jews while Renoir considered Jews to be “natives of no country.” The theme of “eternal witness” prevailed well after the Holocaust—in the popular Arthur Mee Childrens’ Encyclopaedia, Jews were depicted as having been condemned to wander for having rejected Christ.
In 1904, Pope Pius X advised Herzl that he could not support a Jewish state, “as Jews had not recognised our Lord, therefore we cannot recognise the Jewish people.” He further said that while it was unpleasant to have the Turks in control of Jerusalem, Jewish control was out of the question.
In 1964, Pope Paul Vl, visiting Jerusalem, declined to refer to Israel by name, meet the Chief Rabbi or visit places of Jewish significance. The following year, he promulgated Nostra Aetate which absolved Jews of collective responsibility for the death of Christ and decried antisemitism. Yet the Vatican only established relations with Israel in 1993. The present Pope, Francis usually refers to Israel as “the Holy Land” rather than by its name which implies sovereignty.
Leon Poliakov referred to Israel as “the Jew among the nations.” The implication was that Israel as a sovereign state, experiences similar pariah status as envisaged by Augustine.
Accordingly, Israel is singled out for multiple condemnations at various UN bodies. Displaying its anti-Jewish bias, UNESCO dejudaizes the Judaism’s holiest places, reassigning Arab names to the Western Wall and other Jewish sites. The EU, whose constituent states mostly do not vote against such resolutions, also insists on special labelling of Israeli products from the disputed territories, ignoring all other territorial disputes. The ICRC only permits Israeli membership without its Star of David insignia. The list is by no means exhaustive, but illustrates the extent to which “the Jew amongst the nations” has to struggle against isolation.
UNRWA, originally meant as a temporary refugee agency for displaced Arabs in the 1948 war with Israel, is the only refugee agency that specifically has an agenda that differs substantially from the other UN refugee agency, the UNHCR. Whereas UNRWA employs nearly 30,000, to service some 5 million people, uniquely including the descendants of the original 650,000, UNHCR has 8500 employees to service 65 million worldwide and does not include descendants of resettled refugees.
Unlike UNHCR, UNRWA has politicised its role, colluded with Hamas and continues to perpetuate the plight and uncertainty of refugees and their destinies. It has tailored its refugee programs to enhance the misery of these people for its own dubious ends. UN Watch has documented UNRWA staff posting anti-Semitic cartoons while UNRWA school pageants proudly incite and demonise Jews and their state.
Some seventeen centuries after Augustine’s “eternal witness,” contempt and loathing have morphed into many forms including the current concept of UNRWA. The purpose was always to shame the Jew. UNRWA has enthusiastically adopted this role, reinforced by annual commemorative events such as Nakba (catastrophe) Day that encourages resilience and hope to return to Palestine, rather than resolving the refugee crisis per se. Noteworthy are rejections of offers such as by Canada in 2001,to absorb Palestinian refugees. In other words, UNRWA primarily seeks to replace a UN member state, rather than improve lives.
UNRWA encourages Nakba events in order to label Israel as a nation of guilt, shame and born in sin. Encouraging Palestinians to be resilient and hopeful, instead of fomenting new lives as UNHCR does, Palestinians are openly encouraged to await their “return to Palestine”—a euphemism for Israel’s dissolution.
UNRWA’s role is the “Jew badge” of Israel—a modern manifestation of Augustine’s “eternal witness,” primarily meant to shame and loathe.
Some US lawmakers are reviewing the efficacy of UNRWA which is to be welcomed. Yet UNRWA’s purpose goes beyond refugees and a balance sheet.
The time has come for the US and EU, both committed to fighting antisemitism, yet also UNRWA’s largest donors, to take a sober and honest look as to what exactly they are funding. Denial and rationalisation are no longer defensible.
Ron Jontof-Hutter is a writer and fellow at the Berlin International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism. His satire on political correctness and antisemitism, “The trombone man: tales of a misogynist,” was recently published.