UNESCO and the cradle of Jewish history

If not for the Israeli security presence, Rachel’s Tomb, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and Joseph’s Tomb would be off limits to Jews today.

Tomb of Patriarchs 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Tomb of Patriarchs 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
UNESCO, the United Nations body in charge of preserving historical sites, went too far this time.
There is a lot of chutzpah in this post-modernist era of “deconstruction” and “revision.” Warmly cherished religious faiths and customs are reduced to “false consciousness.” Nations with their own unique ethnicity and proud traditions become “imagined communities.”
Foundational histories are reduced to nothing more than subjective “narratives.”
But even in this radically relativistic intellectual atmosphere, the latest UNESCO decision stands out. For this was a particularly blatant attempt to erase Jewish ties to the land of Israel.
In its biannual session which ended last week, UNESCO adopted proposals initiated by Arab member states to dub two Jewish historical sites “Palestinian.” In a 44-1 vote, with 12 abstentions, the UNESCO board declared the “Haram al-Ibrahm/the Cave of the Patriarchs and Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb” to be “an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories” and asserted “that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law.”
The move is seen in some quarters as a response to Israel’s decision in February to include the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb on a list of national heritage sites that would receive additional funding for refurbishing and for the development of educational tours.
While February’s decision was described by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as a way of “reconnecting” Israelis to their history, the UNESCO decision was denounced by the prime minister as an “absurd” attempt to “detach the people of Israel from its heritage.”
He asked: “If the places where the fathers and mothers of the Jewish nation are buried, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Leah and Rachel, some 4,000 years ago, are not part of the Jewish heritage then what is?” Particularly absurd was the decision regarding Rachel’s Tomb. As scholars such as Nadav Shragai and Prof.
Yehoshua Porath have pointed out, it was only in 2000 that the Palestinians “discovered” its historical importance.
On Yom Kippur of that year, as the second intifada was being launched, Al-Hayat al-Jadida, a Palestinian daily, published an article that blatantly departed from Muslim tradition, which corresponds with Jewish tradition, to claim that “the tomb is false and was originally a Muslim mosque.” Until then, all official Palestinian Authority references to the site had recognized it as Rachel’s Tomb. (A similar tactic was used after the 1929 Arab riots, to transform the Western Wall into the al-Buraq wall, supposedly the place where Muhammed’s winged horse al-Buraq was tied after his night-flight from Mecca.) ZIONISM IS particularly susceptible to these types of attacks. As a movement, Zionists simultaneously rebelled against tradition – particularly the Jewish religion – and exile, while incorporating concepts from Judaism that emphasized Jews’ ties to the land of Israel.
Zionism strove for normalization of the Jewish people as “a nation among the nations.” But it also co-opted the idea of “chosenness” by aspiring to create a model nation – hevrat mofet. Bitter disputes in contemporary Israel over settlements and the proper balance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic dimensions have their roots in this “split” Jewish identity.
Nonetheless, whether one is for or against Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, or for or against emphasizing Israel’s “Jewishness” at the expense of its “democratic” nature, it is an undeniable fact that the geographical area referred to as the West Bank and that includes Hebron and Bethlehem was the cradle of Jewish history.
No amount of historical revisionism or UNESCO declarations will erase this fact.
Nor is there a doubt that Israel has done a better job at maintaining equitable access to religious sites for all faiths. In contrast, Jordan denied Israel the “free access to the Holy Places [including the Kotel] and cultural institutions and use of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives” stipulated in the April 1949 Armistice.
The Palestinian Authority’s track record is no better. If not for the Israeli security presence, Rachel’s Tomb, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and Joseph’s Tomb would be off limits to Jews today.
Whatever future territorial agreements are reached with the Palestinians, it would be an intolerable and untenable injustice if Jews were prevented from visiting sites with such profound historical, cultural and religious import.