by Lyn Julius

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It's been a terrible few months for the Middle East's Jewish heritage, among others.


In May, after several false rumours, came reports of the destruction of the ancient synagogue of Jobar near Damascus.  Looters and iconoclastic Islamist rebels  have long been threatening the priceless ruins at Dura Europos, which includes the site of an ancient synagogue.

 In July the radical nihilists of Da'esh (Islamic State - IS)  stormed into Mosul. As well as churches, Assyrian palaces and Shi'a mosques, they blew up  the tomb of Jonah.

A group of determined young Assyrian Christians has stayed behind at al-Kosh in northern Iraq to defend the tomb of the Biblical prophet Nahum.

 According to latest reports, IS have pitched up a mere 30 kilometres from Ezekiel's tomb, the most revered of Jewish shrines in Iraq.

Islamic State holds to the fundamentalist belief that  shrines ought to be destroyed lest they encourage idol-worship.

Now, however, there are flickers of light in the darkness - an international consensus is beginning to emerge to stem the damage.


Most remarkably, the UNESCO director general, Irina Bokova,  has spoken of the need to take urgent action to protect Jewish  heritage in the Middle East.

 “Islamic, Christian, Kurdish and Jewish  heritage, among others, is being intentionally destroyed or attacked in what is clearly a form of cultural cleansing,” she warned at a meeting held on 29 September 2014 at UNESCO's Paris headquarters. “We are gravely concerned about the scale of trafficking in cultural goods, from which Iraq has already greatly suffered over the past decade,”she said.

Campaigners for the rights of Jewish refugees say that Mrs Bokova's specific mention of Jewish heritage may have resulted from a meeting they had with her in June to express their concerns about the destruction of Jewish sites in the Middle East.

"Our message has got through,"  Dr Stan Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, noted with satisfaction.

A joint delegation of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) and le Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF) had submitted to Mrs Bokova  up-to-date reports on the dire status of 100 Jewish holy sites remaining in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, as well as recognizing some positive developments to preserve sites in Morocco and Tunisia. The World Jewish Congress, a consultative NGO at UNESCO, also played its part.

Dr Urman  welcomed the setting up of a multifaith Commission by UNESCO, one of the Jewish delegation 's key demands at the June meeting. One month later, UNESCO brought together leading experts and partners to launch an Action Plan for the Safeguarding of Iraq’s cultural heritage.

Shortly before her encounter with JJAC and CRIF, Mrs Bokova expressed her “dismay at the destruction of the historical synagogue of Eliyahu Hanabi (Jobar) in Damascus” and called “on all parties to halt immediately the destruction of Syrian heritage”. She re-iterated to the Jewish delegation that the destruction of this 400-year- old synagogue is “not acceptable”.

At the 29 September meeting, delegates described how Iraqi cultural sites are being destroyed and looted. Concerns are mounting that pillaged goods will be trafficked internationally. Protecting this heritage, even in conflict, is imperative, they insisted.

Why should we care about cultural heritage, you may ask, when hundreds of thousands have died in Syria and Iraq?

The French ambassador to UNESCO, Philippe Lalliot, echoed  a point which the Jewish delegation had made to Mrs Bokova in June: a conflict against culture is by extension an effort to erase the identity of a people, especially vulnerable non-Muslim minorities.
“We may feel uneasy about denouncing crimes against heritage when horrifying acts of violence are being committed against people. Is it right to be concerned about cultural cleansing when the dead are being counted in the tens of thousands? Yes, absolutely,” said Ambassador Lalliot. “Because the destruction of heritage that carries with it the identity of a people and the history of a country cannot be considered as collateral or secondary damage that we can live with. It is on par with the destruction of human lives.”
 
Qais Hussein Rashied, Director of the Baghdad Museum, confirmed that Da'esh were selling priceless artefacts through middlemen abroad "to finance terrorism.”
 
Iraq's ambassador to UNESCO, Mahmoud Al-Mullakhalaf, called on all States, parties to UNESCO’s Conventions, including the 1954 convention on the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict, the 1970 convention on illicit traffic of cultural goods, and the 1972 World Heritage Convention “to fight terrorism, defeat it and help us to restore our heritage.” 
 
In collaboration with the Iraqi authorities, UNESCO has called for utmost vigilance from the world’s great museums, the art market, Interpol and other partner organizations in the fight against illicit traffic and has shared information relevant to Iraq’s cultural heritage with all parties involved in air strikes.

UNESCO has also requested that the Security Council adopt a resolution to outlaw all commerce of Iraqi and Syrian cultural goods.

Of course a few supportive statements at UNESCO will not save the Middle East's Jewish heritage, but we know they have listened to us and taken our concerns on board. And where there's an international will, there's a way.


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