Fundamentally Freund: Hands off Mother Rachel

UNESCO’s decision is so offensive and insulting to Jewish belief that it borders on outright anti-Semitism.

cave of the patriarchs 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
cave of the patriarchs 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The truth, they say, never dies, but it sure can be made to live a miserable existence. For proof, one need look no further than the recent decisions adopted by the executive board of UNESCO in Paris.
In an astonishing display of anti-Israel bias, the group issued a statement which was anything but educational, scientific or cultural. In just a few paragraphs, it managed to parrot the most brazen and absurd of the Palestinians’ propaganda claims, blasting the Jewish state for everything from excavating the Aksa Mosque to preventing Arab children from going to school.
These are the kinds of fairy tales that one expects to read in the Ramallah media, not in official documents circulated by an international body.
But perhaps the most contemptible decision of all had to do with two of Judaism’s most cherished and holiest sites. Slapping history and logic squarely in the face, UNESCO declared the burial places of the Jewish people’s forefathers, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb outside Bethlehem, to be “Palestinian sites.”
Yes, you read that correctly. It had the nerve to say that the graves of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, are not Jewish sites, but Palestinian ones.
And the learned diplomats didn’t stop there.
According to a UNESCO press release, its board also voted “to reaffirm that the two sites are an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories.” This is so patently offensive and insulting to Jewish belief that it borders on outright anti-Semitism.
Denying the Jewishness of our ancestors is nothing less than a direct assault on the foundations of the Jewish people, and UNESCO should be roundly condemned.
Moreover, the organization has done itself a great disservice, demonstrating its sheer ignorance of the historical record.
NOW, SINCE UNESCO claims that one of its goals is “to improve education worldwide,” I’d like to give it a short history lesson about one of the sites it declared to be Palestinian: Rachel’s Tomb.
In the book of Genesis (35:19-20), the Bible says: “And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrata, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: That is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day.”
Jewish sources such as the Talmud mention Rachel’s Tomb. The midrash Bereshit Rabba (82:10), which scholars say was written in the fifth century, famously notes that Jacob buried Rachel on the road to Ephrata because he foresaw that Israel’s exiles would later pass the site, and he wanted her to pray for them.
This alone should be proof enough of the ancient Jewish connection to Rachel’s Tomb.
But it is also worth noting that centuries before Islam was founded, Jewish and Christian pilgrims visited Rachel’s burial place and made note of it in their writings.
In 333 CE, a Christian known only as the Bordeaux Pilgrim recorded having seen Rachel’s Tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem. In his Itinerary of the Bordeaux Pilgrim, he wrote: “On the right of the road to Bethlehem is the tomb in which was laid Jacob’s wife Rachel.” Jerome, the early Church father and saint who moved to Bethlehem from Rome in 386, also mentions the tomb, as did the fourth century historian and bishop Eusebius. In his Onomasticon, an alphabetical listing of biblical place names along with their descriptions, Eusebius wrote under the entry for “Ephrata”: “On the way Rachel was buried, five miles from Jerusalem... The tomb is shown still today.”
Interestingly, none of the ancient sources refer to the site as the “Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque,” as UNESCO and the Palestinians now do.
Take, for example, Epiphanius the Monk, whose volume on The Holy City and the Holy Places, which was written in 692, says, “To the south of the Holy City, along the road, is the tomb of Rachel.”
Even Islamic travelers in the Middle Ages used this terminology. Muhammad al-Idrisi, the great Muslim geographer and cartographer of the 12th century, wrote: “On the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is the tomb of Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin.” Needless to say, neither he nor anyone before him ever described it as a “Palestinian site.”
For millennia, Rachel’s Tomb has served as a place of pilgrimage and prayer for the Jewish people, who revere the person buried there.
We have wept along with our mother Rachel at the dispersion of our people, and we rejoice together with her at our return to this land. She is one of our founding figures, and no one has the right – not even the UN – to dare suggest otherwise.
So to UNESCO, all I have to say is: Keep your hands off Mother Rachel and our other illustrious forebears.
They belong to the Jewish people, whether you like it or not.