Rachel's tomb in Hebron (Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Jini)
With its decision to brand Jewish holy sites as Palestinian, UNESCO has taken one more step along the road to erasing the Jewish heritage of the Middle East. But we may have no choice but to work with the international body.
In its biannual session which ended last week, UNESCO adopted proposals initiated by Arab member states to name two Jewish historical sites “Palestinian.” In a 44-1 vote, with 12 abstentions, the UNESCO board declared the “Haram al-Ibrahm/the Cave of the Patriarchs and Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb” to be “an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories”; “ any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law.”
The news that UNESCO has voted to designate the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Shrine in Bethlehem as mosques is bad news indeed: it shows that the Arab and Muslim block in the UN only have to stake a claim, no matter how dubious, and that claim would be endorsed. If they were to put forward a resolution tomorrow that the earth was flat, that resolution would be carried by an automatic majority.
The claim that Rachel's tomb is actually the Bilal bin Rabah mosque is of recent vintage. As Nadav Shagrai has noted the Palestinians only began calling the site a mosque, named after an obscure character in the Koran, in the 1990s.
Israel's reaction has been furious. According to Jonathan Lis writing in Haaretz:
"Israel on Wednesday said it would reduce cooperation with the United Nations' cultural watchdog after the body classified Rachel's Tomb in the West Bank as a mosque.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said Israel would not cooperate with UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization - in administering five protected sites in Palestinian territory as a dispute that has escalated in recent weeks came to a head."(...)
"Speaking with journalists in Jerusalem, Ayalon blamed the Palestinians for influencing the UN to side against Israel."This is another attempt at de-legitimization by the Palestinian Authority," he said."
UNESCO was once one of the least politicised of the UN organisations. It seems inconceivable that UNESCO might today designate the White City of Tel Aviv as a Heritage site. After all, Tel Aviv too is being de-legitimised as a Jewish city: another lie is taking root that Tel Aviv was once the Arab village of Tel al-Rabia.
The politicisation of UNESCO is a serious blow to Israel and anyone who is concerned with the preservation of Jewish heritage. This heritage is under threat throughout the Middle East.
For instance, Point of No Return has documented the struggle to save Ezekiel's tomb in Iraq from being turned into a mosque. In that struggle, Jewish groups have called for the site to be handed over to UNESCO control. The international body has been considered as an infinitely preferable option to control by the Islamic religious authorities.
Similarly, Jewish groups have appealed to UNESCO to take over control of Jewish archives and artefacts in Egypt.
Now their faith in UNESCO seems sadly misplaced.
But for Danny Ayalon to cut Israel's links entirely with UNESCO in a fit of pique would seem counter-productive. UNESCO must remain a lever by which Jews might exert pressure over Arab and Muslim interests.
Belatedly, Danny Ayalon seems to have had second thoughts. Haaretz noted:" Israel's reaction was not quite as serious as it first appeared. Ayalon's spokeswoman said that Israel would cut off relations with UNESCO altogether - but shortly after said that the announcement had been made in error and retracted the statement. "
Jews heaved a sigh of relief when the antisemitic Farouk Hosni, Egypt's candidate to become UNESCO Director-General, was defeated a year ago by the Bulgarian Irina Bokova. But Jewish hopes that Mrs Bokova would preside over a more even-handed organisation have been cruelly dashed. This does not mean that Jews should despair altogether of UNESCO. It's essential to keep talking to them and working with them. We may have no other choice.