To: Irina Bokova
Director-General, United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Dear Ms. Bokova,
I’ve got a riddle for you. Who is buried
in Grant’s Tomb?
As you didn’t grow up in the US, it’s unlikely that you’re
familiar with this rather nonsensical brainteaser that has become part of
American folklore. So I’m going to tell you the answer. But first, I want to
tell you a story.RELATED:Arabs 'bullied' UNESCO to make landmarks resolutions Rattling The Cage: UNESCO is right, Israel is wrong
Centuries ago, there was a tradesman who lugged his
wares from village to village on the back of a donkey. The animal was his only
steady companion, and over the years he naturally grew very fond of him. One
day, as the two were climbing a hill, the donkey collapsed and
died. After burying him by the side of the road, our protagonist sat
there and wept, heartbroken as he considered how he might manage on his own. Two
passersby took notice of the man, saw the fresh grave and enquired, “A friend of
“What a friend!” he responded. “What was too heavy for me to bear, he
would willingly carry himself, without ever a complaint. When I would go astray,
he would always return me to the proper path. I don’t know how I’ll be able to
go on without him.”
The two travelers listened to the merchant’s praises,
did what they could to console him and went on their way.
righteous man lies buried there,” said one to the other.
his companion, “and without so much as even a simple stone over his
The two determined to place a monument on the grave and began
tending it regularly, searching their own hearts as they did so. As others saw
how their time at the site affected these men so profoundly, they, too, began to
come to it to meditate and pray. Word of the powers of the burial place began to
spread, and eventually an extravagant sanctuary was built over it to accommodate
the pilgrims who came from far and wide, there to be fortified in grappling with
Years later, having acquired a new donkey and once more
happy with his lot, the merchant happened this way again. Recognizing the two
men who had comforted him so long ago, he gaped open-mouthed at what he saw
before him. “What... what is all this?” he stammered.
and holy friend,” they explained. “We come here to do him honor and he,
in turn, looks upon us in favor from his heavenly abode.”
broke out in uncontrollable laughter. “My dear friends,” he informed them, “you
are praying to a jackass.”
Incensed, the devotees fell upon the heretic
and demanded he retract the insult. He would only tell them the truth. They, of
course, refused to believe him and, enraged by the sacrilege, stoned him on the
spot and went on worshiping.
The answer to the riddle, then, is that it
doesn’t much matter who is buried in Grant’s Tomb, or if anyone is buried there
at all. By extension, I suppose I’ve got to admit that the same might be said
about Rachel’s Tomb.
BUT OUR parable doesn’t justify the inanity of your
board’s recent decision to declare a spot that for centuries has been referred
to even in the Muslim world as “Kubat Rachel” as a Palestinian cultural site.
And it certainly doesn’t explain the absurdity of your declaration that the
structure is actually the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque, which no one had ever even
heard of prior to its invention in 1996, and that you now claim is “endangered
as a result of Israeli occupation.” Nor does it substantiate your demand that
the edifice be removed from Israel’s list of national heritage sites. Quite the
contrary on all counts.
While neither you nor I know if anyone, never
mind who, is really buried at this place that has suddenly become so
controversial, I do know what I read in last week’s Torah portion. And so do
you: “And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.
And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto
this day” (Genesis 35:19-20).
And you know as well that over the
centuries no one has ever claimed otherwise. In fact, throughout recorded
history the spot has been universally venerated as the final resting place of
our matriarch by Christian, Muslim and Jew alike. A remarkably extensive
collection of personal testimonies, declarations and legal documents exists
attesting to this from the fourth century onward, including several issued by
prominent Arab leaders.
Does any of this mean that Rachel is really
buried there? No, I haven’t forgotten the allegory of our traveling salesman,
but neither should Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was he who
prompted your irrational pronouncement with his claim that the Cave of the
Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb “were not and never will be Jewish sites, but
On second thought, perhaps your pronouncement was not
irrational at all, only ridiculous. Every civilization, culture and
religion has its myths that fortify, making perception more irrefutable than
reality, belief more compelling than truth. And what you have attempted to do is
undermine one of ours.
You have calculatingly acted as do those who would
deny the Holocaust or delegitimize the very right of the Jewish people to a
homeland of its own. Undoubtedly, you have also knowingly struck at one of those
myths that is inextricably tied to our longing for return. “A cry is heard in
Ramah..., Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted... Thus
said the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears,
for there is reward for your labor... Your children shall return to their
borders” (Jeremiah 31:15-17).
These verses are integral to the Jewish
people’s narrative of national redemption, embraced by the left and the right,
the religious and the secular among us. They have sustained us throughout the
centuries and are not subject to censorship. This blatant and transparent
attempt on your part to sever us from our history shall prove
Wherever the borders might finally be drawn on the map of that
elusive peace agreement that we so fervently desire, we will be pained by the
inevitable necessity of withdrawing from parts of the territorial cradle of our
consciousness. The vast majority of us are ready for this, but you are not
bringing either side to the conflict any closer to the point of compromise by
denying the legitimacy of our narrative in favor of theirs. Be warned: Mutual
recognition is a prerequisite for conciliation. The cause of peace is not being
served by your composition of new riddles as to who is buried in ancient
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and
a member of the Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed in this
column are his own.