On October 12, the US State Department notified UNESCO that it was withdrawing from the organization. “This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects US concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and the continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO,” said the State Department in a press release.
The withdrawal will not happen until next year.
Israel is likely to follow suit. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the US decision as a “brave and moral choice, because UNESCO has become the theater of the absurd.” Instead of preserving history, it has distorted it, Netanyahu claimed.
On the face of it the US decision seems reasonable.
UNESCO, which is supposed to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture, has become politicized, like other parts of the UN. It has become a slave to state politics at its annual summit.
In Krakow, Poland, in July, 12 countries voted to inscribe Hebron’s Old City as a World Heritage Site.
Three opposed and six abstained. The International Council on Monuments and Sites, a professional association that works with UNESCO to evaluate sites, noted in its evaluation of Hebron that there were problems with the way it was to be inscribed. “A further weakness is the definition of the property as a Mamluk town as this excludes the extremely important time depth of Hebron,” the report notes. “This means that the association of Hebron with Jewish and early Christian societies is given little recognition.”
The final inscription places emphasis on “Hebron/ Al-Khalil during the Mamluk periods between 1250 and 1517. The [center] of interest of the town was the site of Al-Ibrahimi Mosque/The Tomb of the Patriarchs whose buildings are in a compound built in the 1st century AD.”
The Israeli and US critique that UNESCO’s Hebron decision, as well as other decisions about Jerusalem, are imbued with anti-Israel bias and constitute an attempt to erase Jewish history, is evidenced by the way other cities like Hebron are inscribed.
There are many cities that have layers of religious history. In Cordoba the inscription informs readers that “Cordoba’s Great Mosque was turned into a cathedral.”
It emphasizes the mosques and Moorish Islamic heritage. The cathedral in Seville is also referenced as a site with Moorish and Almohad civilization influences.
The Great Mosque of Damascus is noted as being “built on the site of an Assyrian sanctuary.” Historic Istanbul is inscribed with mentions of churches and mosques.
Only with Hebron is history denied. It was a Jewish site, built by Herod and later expanded by the Fatamids, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Mamluks and Ottomans. Focusing on the Mamluk era conveniently ignores what came before.
Although Israel and the US are correct to be outraged about the perversion of history that has taken place at UNESCO, withdrawing from the organization is the wrong way to express this outrage and is not likely to have the desired impact. This is especially true after the organization chose Audrey Azoulay as its new head.
Azoulay is French and also Jewish. “She has all the qualifications to make changes. She is very talented, educated and professional,” said Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama HaCohen. She has also expressed willingness to “work to restore [UNESCO’s] credibility, restore faith of its members,” she said. Foreign Policy mocked the irony of the US withdrawing for anti-Israel bias just before Azoulay emerged as the likely next head of organization. One could argue, however, that the US decision to withdraw has influenced the member states to support France’s candidate over Qatar’s Hamid Bin Adulaziz al-Kawari.
Israel is in a different position than the US because it is in Israel’s interest to register more World Heritage sites. Israel currently has nine sites inscribed between 2001 and 2014. Even during the height of the intifada, Israel registered several sites. In 2005 it registered the biblical tels of Hazor, Megiddo and Beersheba and the Incense Route that includes numerous ancient cities in the Negev.
However, in recent years as Israel has decided to spend its time bashing UNESCO over Palestinian politics, it has scuppered opportunities to put forward new sites. This is short sighted. The Palestinians will have an automatic majority for sites they want to register and it is entirely appropriate that Palestinians seek to register sites such as the Old Town of Nablus, ancient Jericho, Mount Gerezim and Sebastia, which are all on Palestine’s tentative list. Instead of working against the Palestinians, Israel should embrace shared archaeological efforts in the spirit of UNESCO’s commitment to peace, education and culture. By embracing the Palestinian effort, Israel can highlight its cooperation and put forward the numerous sites on its own tentative list.
These include Timna, the Crusader fortresses, Degania, the Sea of Galilee, sites associated with Jesus and other places. If Israel is so worried about Jewish heritage being erased by biased decisions, why not emphasize Jewish heritage as was done with the Necropolis at Bet She’arim, which is inscribed as a “landmark of Jewish renewal.”
Israel’s politicians have sought populism and encouraged ignorance in the attacks on UNESCO. How many Israelis have a knee-jerk hatred of UNESCO today and don’t even realize the organization has inscribed and supported “Jewish renewal” and Jewish history at Masada? Yes, UNESCO has inscribed Jewish history. It is an accident of history that Hebron and Jewish sites in the West Bank and Jerusalem are outside the colonial- era lines the UN drew on a map to partition the country in 1947. But those lines are a sunk cost, they won’t be moved, just as the Golan will likely never be recognized as part of Israel. That is ridiculous accident of history.
But at least Israel has a strong and robust country, unlike other peoples in the world still struggling for freedom and statehood, such as the Kurds. With statehood comes responsibility. Instead of jettisoning UNESCO, Israel should renew its embrace of the organization and invite the new director for a tour of Israel’s incredible heritage sites. It should showcase how it preserves the architecture of the “White City of Tel Aviv” and seek to aid other nations in preserving their urban landscapes. In so doing Israel will seem like a mature country seeking constructive dialogue, and the Palestinians’ attempt to erase Jewish history and politicize archaeology in places like Hebron would receive less applause at UNESCO. The US has made its strong point, now is the time to work to reform UNESCO and make it live up to its goals.Follow the author @Sfrantzman