For over two years, the Wiesenthal Centre has been tracking the odyssey of the Palestinian Museum that opened on UNESCO’s World Museum Day, May 18, 2016, in Bir Zeit, a suburb of Ramallah.
First tagged as “a safe space for unsafe ideas,” this $24 million shimmering glass building, designed by Dublin- based architect Heneghan Peng, was officially inaugurated by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – but totally empty. The museum director had been fired, while the chairman pointed to future exhibitions that “explore the cultural meaning of martyrdom, the debate over who inhabited [the land] first... If we as an independent institution can’t tread into these tricky areas, then who is going to? ...Nobody is. That’s the power of culture.”
Since Palestine entered UNESCO in November 2011, it has turned that UN agency’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) into a battlefield, with an insatiable appetite for Jewish and Christian sites. Beginning with a 2012 claim to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem – based on a letter of endorsement from its three custodians, Coptic, Armenian and Franciscan. Palestine received the site despite a dispute over the letter’s bona fides.
Jewish-revered sites such as the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Tomb of Rachel have been rebaptised in UNESCO as mosques. Their wish list includes Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
A Saudi historian recently claimed that the Jews never entered the Holy Land – their true narrative developed in Arabia.
Imagine a delusional claim by Israel for the two mosques and Kaaba Rock in Mecca as a Jewish heritage site. Yet,the Islamicization of Jewish heritage has become par for the course.
In 2011, the Wiesenthal Centre exposed a book on the Qatar stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair entitled The Buraq Wall. A Hamas-backed text, published in Egypt, the contents told of Buraq, the winged steed which – according to Muslim tradition – bore Muhammad from Mecca to Al Quds (Jerusalem), where it was tethered to a wall during the Prophet’s night ascent to heaven. The book describes that wall as the “Kotel,” Judaism’s holiest site – the Western or Wailing Wall – “stolen by a Jewish conspiracy and which must be returned to the eternal embrace of Islam.”
Buraq first appeared in a Palestinian-Jordanian resolution, as “the Buraq Plaza” at the 2015 World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany.
In April 2016, it was regurgitated together with the deletion of “the Temple Mount” in favor of the Arabic “Haram al-Sharif” (the Noble Sanctuary). The same formula is repeated several times in a “Palestine-Jordan” draft which was to be submitted at the WHC in Istanbul, to a vote by its 21 member states.
Due to the failed military coup d’etat in Turkey, the WHC was suspended and the debate was postponed as an add-on to follow the UNESCO Executive Board at the end of October in Paris.
Due to the horse-trading among the member states (promises of support for UN appointments, offers of investment, even threats or blackmail) and, of course, the logic of regional bloc solidarity, a majority vote seemed all but certain as abstentions and absences are not taken into account.
Nevertheless, lobbying matters. It refocuses and sets the tone, even providing a mortgage for the next round.
Lobbying the Indian delegate in the context of the Golden Temple of Srinigar created a bond of complicity.
Speaking of the Temple Mount to the Vietnamese did not – “We have so many temples!” was the response In October, at the 58 states Executive Board, with effective lobbying, the resolution may be reformulated or abbreviated, or postponed sine die.
In Istanbul, acrimony surrounded the issue among delegates and within the UNESCO Secretariat, while the rumor mill was spinning: • A Latin American ambassador told me in confidence: “Palestinian mischief draws attention away from our own issues... They have poisoned the WHC from the day of their entry!” • Certain countries were bruited in the press as aiding Israel “to shelve” the issue – not a chance. Many emanated from organizations absent from the Istanbul fray.
Indeed,their presence would be welcome to augment our networking.
One element is certain: the ID theft of the Jewish narrative will continue to perpetuate a conflict that could be resolved by recognizing the Jewish authenticity of Israel.
Palestinian policy recalls the early Church’s Replacement Theology: supercessionist Christianity as the new Israel, not in the flesh, but in the spirit (“non in carne, sed in spiritum.”) As long as the validation of Palestine requires the deletion of Israel, the now empty Palestinian Museum will serve as another arm in the conflict, with the proposed exhibitions on martyrdom and who first inhabited the land. A museologist who would build a pride in Palestinian folklore and what UNESCO denotes as “intangible heritage,” from music to literature, from cuisine to architecture, would probably – like his predecessor – be fired.
Such a Palestine, that would eschew the need for de-Judaization to extol its own autochtonous identity, would be an asset and conform to the club rules of the WHC. Its museum would then truly serve to project “the power of culture” for peace.
The author is director for International Relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.