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October 8, 2019 10:14 am

After Outcry, UN Reschedules ‘Decolonization Committee’ Meeting That Fell on Yom Kippur

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The UN General Assembly meeting hall in New York. Photo: Reuters / Brendan McDermid. – The UN Secretariat, one of the main organs of the United Nations, has rescheduled a meeting conflicting with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, on Oct. 9.

A meeting set by the Special Political and Decolonization Committee (Fourth Committee), one of six main committees of the UN General Assembly devoted to a diverse set of political issues including decolonization and the Middle East, was rescheduled as to not fall on what has become an official UN holiday as well.

According to Gregory Lafitte, director of UN affairs for Brussels-based NGO European Coalition for Israel, the Secretary General and Permanent Mission of Israel found out about the conflict and urged the Secretariat to reschedule the meeting for Oct. 8, ending at 6 pm, just before the holiday begins at sundown, and resuming again on Oct. 10 at 3 pm.

Lafitte noted that the Special Committee on Decolonization is notoriously anti-Israel, singling out the Jewish state by adopting various resolutions against Israel—and only against Israel.

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Last year, the 193 member states voted in the UNGA to adopt nine resolutions against Israel, including the United Nations’ “special committee to investigate Israeli practices affecting the human rights of the Palestinian people and other Arabs of the Occupied Territories,” a body that reports through the Fourth Committee to the General Assembly.

Lafitte recalled that Yom Kippur was secured as an official holiday in the world body in 2015 and implemented a year later, with the European Coalition for Israel first coming up with the idea to petition for the recognition in 2012. Seeing an anti-Israel bias in the United Nations, Lafitte told JNS, the organization sought to “encourage EU and UN member states to have better relations with Israel” and “see what we can do to help make the United Nations a better place for Israel and the Jewish people.”

Recognition of Yom Kippur as an official holiday, he said, was “a small step that we could do to combat antisemitism and recognize how much the Jewish culture has contributed to humanity.”

He recalled, “Years ago, we had a Security Council meeting on Yom Kippur, and no one understood why the Israeli delegates were not there—everyone in New York knew it was Yom Kippur, as schools were closed, but the UN didn’t know. So we realized we needed to correct this, and went to see the Israeli government in Jerusalem and told them of our idea.”

After receiving praise for the idea from the Israeli government, the organization joined forces with Israel’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ron Prosor in 2013, and later, the current Permanent Representative to the United Nations Danny Danon, who worked alongside them to make it a reality.

Resolution 69/250, formally adopted by the General Assembly in January 2015, acknowledged that “Yom Kippur is a significant local holiday which is observed in the host city of the headquarters of the United Nations,” inviting United Nations bodies at the headquarters and other duty stations where observed to “avoid holding meetings on Yom Kippur,” and encouraged that “this arrangement be taken into account when drafting future calendars of conferences and meetings.”

According to Lafitte, UN staff get 10 holidays a year—six holidays of the host country, plus two Christian holidays (Christmas and Easter) and two Muslim holidays (Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr). UN members can choose to take off either President’s Day or Yom Kippur, which was granted status as a “floating holiday,” along with Day of Vesak, Diwali, Gurpurab, Orthodox Christmas and Orthodox Good Friday.

The adoption of Yom Kippur as a holiday, said Lafitte, allowed the other floating holidays recognition where their recognition was formerly rejected.

The European Coalition for Israel, made up of Jews and non-Jews, worked not only to have Yom Kippur recognized, but additionally has organized Yom Kippur-related events every year with the Israeli Permanent Representative to the United Nations to “show how there is a universal message in Yom Kippur” with messages of “atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation.”

“We’ve had Rwanda speak about the role of atonement after their nation returned from genocide; Secretary General António Guterres has spoken, who says he values the message of Yom Kippur; and year to year, 80 to 100 nations are present,” reported Lafitte.

Although it is but a small step in his goal to “look at antisemitism in a new way through cultural diplomacy, we have to realize that a change happened and a change can happen, even when nobody thought it would be possible,” he said. “And it happened because of the hard work of the Israeli permanent mission and has resulted in more inclusiveness. Because of this, we believe other changes are also possible within the United Nations.”

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