Heritage or sovereignty?

Palestinian and Iraqi Trojan horses at Paris Restitution Committee

June 12, 2018 21:40
2 minute read.
Heritage or sovereignty?

A general view of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The Simon Wiesenthal Center has saluted the new director-general of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, for assiduous denunciation of politicization throughout her first six months in office. Azoulay’s commitment to bring back the organization to a policy of depoliticization and consensus sends a powerful message to the United States and Israel to consider postponing their notices of departure.

Her success depends mostly on the cooperation of the Arab States and, markedly, the Palestinians who – since their entry to UNESCO in 2011 – have manifested a voracious appetite for Jewish and Christian heritage. Indeed, their claims go beyond the State of Israel and are the concern of Judaism and Jews worldwide.

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Palestinian fast-track claims of emergency at sites on their wish list have engendered a pronounced “Palestine-fatigue” among Sunni states and also many delegations from Latin America, Africa and Asia that have waited years for their own sites to be acknowledged.

A meeting at UNESCO in Paris of the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRC) was a case in point.

The Palestinians presented a seemingly innocuous demand that carried a hidden sting: the transfer of the Dead Sea Scrolls – described by UNESCO itself as having “provided us with valuable information about the history of Judaism and the early phase of Christianity” – from their home in the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, from one side of the city to the other.

If they are freely accessible to all Jerusalemites, what is the point of the transfer? Why not go the whole way and claim the Scrolls for the Museum of Palestinian Heritage in Bir Zeit-Ramallah? No! As Rockefeller is in east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ ostensible claim can be perceived as a creeping move on the entire city.

Another Trojan horse in a similar vein came next. This time, a request from Iraq to return a Torah scroll from the Israel Museum for “a beautiful exercise in Jewish-Muslim inter-faith harmony.” The particular Torah requested, came from Iraqi Kurdistan. One cannot but consider the Iraqi motive as abuse of a Jewish holy object in order to claim sovereignty over the autonomous Kurdish Region.

In the shadow of the 1941 Iraqi Farhud (“violent dispossession” in Arabic) mass Nazi-inspired pogrom and the forced exodus of 130,000 Jews in 1950-52 to Israel, to request a Torah scroll seems discordant. Unless this, too, is a stratagem for a “sovereign” re-appropriation claim on Kurdistan, from where the Scroll originated.

This is a conundrum for the former Iraqi Jewish community to consider. If asked, I would suggest sending the scroll to the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Erbil, where there is a warm memory of its dispossessed Jews and an admiration for Israel.

We hope the UNESCO director-general will not be plagued by such poisonous stratagems in maintaining depoliticization at the forthcoming World Heritage Committee.

 The writer is director for international relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

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