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A Modest Proposal: Move the UN from NY to Jerusalem

by Paco Underhill

Place still has power over the human animal, even if many of our travels these days are confined to voyaging online. The Yankees would surely not be the Yankees located anywhere else than the Bronx; nor would Goldman Sachs or Chase Morgan Bank be the institutions they are, placed outside Manhattan.

New Yorkers understand their city in two ways—as a whole and in its constituent parts. We are a city that is renewed with each new wave of immigrants, a city dedicated to global commerce and culture. But some things we aren't. We are not the city of Brotherly Love. Casey Stengal was never a diplomat. Pete Hamill and Tom Wolfe both live here, with no apologies. New York symbolizes money and the culture of expression, but not any specific agenda or point of view.

It is in this sense that I feel that the UN may have outlived its relevance to New York City. The UN was placed here after World War II, an artifact of the US's domination of the world then, politically and militarily. Today the UN is a political and architectural white elephant, on top of some the most expensive real estate on the continent. Embroiled in the ugly scandal over Oil for Food, it now seems far removed from the issues and problems it was chartered to address. Yet for no clear reason, it still imposes a huge financial burden on some of the poorest nations of the world to be here, just to further the symbolism of internationalist presence in one of the priciest places on earth.

The UN has always been an uneasy guest in our city. New York has no history of diplomacy like Washington D.C. The Chief of Protocols Office is there, not here. The unpaid parking tickets and lawsuits over apartments by diplomats immune to local laws have irritated New Yorkers for years. The most egalitarian city on earth does not take well to the presence of an elite that puts itself above our local laws. Does New York need the United Nations? Their flagship Bauhaus office building, outgrown long ago, is not terribly noteworthy architecturally, and is in need of a renovation and expansion that will be very hard to accomplish without burdening the City even more.

Perhaps it is time for the UN to consider a move. We might miss them a little, but the UN has really never been integrated into our fabric. Like an over-aged teenager, it may be time for the UN to leave the womb and venture out into the real world.

Where might we put the UN to do the most good? I have a modest proposal. Move it from its New York City home to one far more logical. To Jerusalem. Such a move may revive an institution whose relevance may be more desperately needed today than at its inception half a century ago.

Jerusalem is a locational conundrum situated at a painful historical confluence. It is closer in the Western imagination to symbolizing all of humanity than any other single location on earth. An ancient, venerated city—the center of three ancient desert-based religions—Jerusalem sits at the bloody meeting ground of peoples at war. Jerusalem cries out for secular authority and global recognition, if only to preserve equal access for its many worshippers and visitors. It is a special city, shackled by its past—a city-state and one of our oldest political institutions. We have long sought to cut through the Gordian Knot in which Jerusalem has been held. Moving the UN there might well spur its re-birth.

If the UN moved to Jerusalem, its responsibilities and prestige would instantly change. The UN could take over administrative control of the city. It could be responsible for public security and for maintaining public access to all historical sites. A new airport, administrative buildings, schools, and housing would have to be built. With the sale of the Turtle Bay property, the UN would start with a good nest egg, financed by the turnover of New York City real estate that has boomed in value and would be sold at the top of what may be a real estate bubble. Just think of what a few eight-figure Ambassadorial residences in east-side co-ops would buy on Zion Hill. Who knows? Such a move might finance months or years of UN budgets and back-assessments.

To the world diplomatic corps, the problems of Sudan and the poverty of Gaza would no longer be at an abstract distancem but immediate and real. A global institution at the geographical nexus of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, dedicated to world peace, would be more inspirational than all the high rises in Manhattan. Palestinian construction companies could build the new Secretariat. Israeli real estate entrepreneurs could sell gorgeous new and historic homes to UN bureaucrats.

It is, in a way, a pure New York solution. We as a city have always recognized that money and economic opportunity hold the promise of putting our political and religious differences into perspective.

Paco Underhill is the CEO of the consulting firm Envirosell.

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