Jewish worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee decision on Friday to inscribe the Old City of Hebron including the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque as a World Heritage Site sent off the usual chorus of the “whole world is against us.” I would argue that more than anything the automatic outrage demonstrates how central cultural and religious heritage sites have become in justifying Israel’s sense of righteousness about holding onto the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction to the decision, that “this time they ruled that the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is a Palestinian site – meaning it’s not a Jewish one,” shows just how far we’ve come in approaching heritage sites as a zero-sum game.
The decision itself, by the way, specifically says that the “al-mosque Ibrahim/ Tomb of the Patriarchs” “became a site of pilgrimage for the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” While the name “al-mosque Ibrahim” is mentioned before the “Tomb of the Patriarchs” Judaism is mentioned first in the list of religions for which the site is significant. The truth is that Hebron and particularly the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque is a quintessential example of a shared heritage site, sacred to Jews, Muslims and also Christians, and of clear universal historical value. What a pity that it is falling victim to the awful feuds over “who was here first.”
Site inscriptions through the World Heritage Committee are based on the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World’s Cultural and Natural Heritage to which Israel is a signatory. Responsibility for World Heritage Sites lies with states, not with religions, nations or ethnic groups. Over the years, Israel has successfully submitted several sites that are associated with a history, culture or religion that is not Judaism. So, for example, the Bahai Gardens in Haifa, inscribed in 2008, is a World Heritage Site in Israel despite the fact that Israel is not the nation state of the Bahais. Same for the Old City of Acre, which was recognized as a World Heritage Site due to the unique remains from the Crusader period and the later Ottoman city. Did anyone question Israel’s right to nominate sites significant to other cultures or faiths?
What Netanyahu and others are really worried about is not that the Jewish identity of the site will be lost, but that a large part of the international community recognizes that Hebron is in Palestine. This is unacceptable, and any scare tactics, including the conflation of religious and cultural attachment to a site with the right to political sovereignty, is acceptable in this smorgasbord of faulty reasoning and spin.
UNESCO also bears responsibility for the breakdown of trust between Israel and the organization. There have been plenty of decisions on the Old City of Jerusalem (declared a World Heritage Site in 1981, and a World Heritage Site in Danger in 1982) that have underplayed the significance of Jerusalem for the Jewish People. But lately Israel has proven that even decisions with much more inclusive wording will not be tolerated.
UNESCO is a political body with member states just like other UN bodies. It also comprises professional bodies. There are 10 criteria based on which a site can be admitted as a World Heritage Site. In order to qualify, the site needs to meet at least one of these criteria. From a heritage standpoint, the Tomb of the Patriarch merits being inscribed as a World Heritage Site because its sanctity is archaeologically evident from the Herodian period, because it preserves remains from the Fatimid, Crusader, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman periods and because the tomb became a principal site of pilgrimage for the three monotheistic faiths. The Palestinians also included the Old City of Hebron in the nomination for its unique Mamluk characteristics.
The professional body which advises UNESCO, ICOMOS, found problems with the Palestinians’ nomination dossier. It questioned why it did not include Tel Rumeida, which would have reinforced the nomination’s multicultural character. It also criticized the focus on the Mamluk history of the town itself at the expense of the Canaanite, Roman and Crusader eras and regretted that the dossier underplayed the association with early Jewish and Christian societies as well as other Islamic periods. And while justified, these kinds of criticisms are often leveled at nominations when there is a focus on specific historical layers. It is definitely a pity that the Palestinians did not include Tel Rumeida, the ancient town which dates back to 4000 BCE, in their nomination.
ALTHOUGH VERY Few would dispute the fact that Hebron merits World Heritage Site status, it’s probably safe to say that those who voted in favor on Friday were driven primarily by a desire to support the Palestinian right to establish a state along the pre-1967 borders. As such it was a protest vote, not against the age-old Jewish connection to Hebron, but against 50 years of Israeli occupation. Ancient Hebron can be Jewish. Yes, as well as Muslim and also of significance for Christians and others. But it is not Israeli territory.
Ever since Palestine was admitted to UNESCO in 2011, the Palestinians have used the forum as a vehicle for winning symbolic recognition for their right to statehood. Israel has been fighting the Palestinians at UNESCO for daring to make a bid for sovereignty over sites of Jewish attachment. In an ideal world, UNESCO votes would be driven purely by professional considerations. In such a world Israel could vote in favor of recognizing Hebron as a World Heritage Site in Palestine and Israeli and Palestinian professionals would plan together how to protect and cultivate this shared cultural treasure. But as long as there is no solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, UNESCO will no doubt continue to be a central stage where Israel and the Palestinians fight their wars of precedence and rights.
The author works for Emek Shaveh, an NGO that promotes a shared heritage approach to archaeological sites and ancient monuments.