01 November 2010


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is charged with preserving historical sites around the world.  UNESCO ended its biannual session by adopting several Arab proposals which classified Jewish and Muslim holy sites.

Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron
UNESCO proclaimed that the Cave of the Machpelah (a.k.a. Cave of the Patriarchs)  in the West Bank city of Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb near the West Bank city of Bethlehem are actually Muslim holy sites. This UNESCO judgment comes after Turkish Foreign Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb “were not and never will be Jewish sites, but Islamic sites.”  UNESCO requested that Israel take those sites off the Israeli National Heritage list.

The Cave of the Patriarchs is the place where Jewish forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were buried, so it is understandable that Muslims include it as part of their heritage, but certainly not exclusivity as the Al-Ibrahimi Mosque.  But UNESCO’s 44 to 1 vote with 12 abstentions on the "Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel's Tomb" was dubious.   The site had been known in Arabic as Qubat Rachel until 1996 when Muslims started referring to the site as Bilal bin Rabah Mosque. UNESCO proclaimed that Rachel’s tomb was "an integral part of the occupied Palestinian territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law."  The fact that Rachel’s Tomb is Judaism’s third most sacred site where tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims still visit was inconsequential to the majority of the international body. 

Rachel's Tomb, near Bethlehem

Israeli Prime Minister Binyahmin Netanyahu was incensed at UNESCO’s absurd decision.  Netanyahu stated: “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?”  Netanyahu expressed regret that the international organization charged with protecting historical heritage sites would play politics and try to delink the Jewish people from its heritage.  

There are several factors at play.  Certainly, international organizations have a bias against Israeli and use supposedly non-controversial UN activities as a buttress for antisemitic ends.  This UNESCO ultimatum inserts the cultural organization into international political territorial disputes. 

Counterintuitively, the Palestinian Authority opposed the UNESCO ukase as it was deemed political and that interfered with the West Bank settlement negotiations.  That sounds noble but the PA has no standing in the UN and there is no reason to sully your reputation when your allies can win your fight themselves.   But the Palestinians, may also view this UNESCO finding as an easy way to secure more international aid while sticking a political poker into an enemy’s eye without direct involvement.  The Palestinian Authority recently announced an ambitious multi-million dollar restoration project for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  The birthplace of Jesus is suffering from architectural age stresses as well as scars from the 2002 incident during the 2nd Intifada where Palestinian militants sparred against the Israeli Defense Force from within the Catholic section of the Church. 

Is it any wonder why the United States pulled out of UNESCO for 19 years?  I am not sure that President George W. Bush’s re-entry to UNESCO in 2003 has made any difference to the organization or its stated mission. 

As for the curious cultural claims, it is curious how Islam is granted exclusivity for anything it desires in the Holy Land.  The aforementioned Church of the Nativity is jointly claimed by Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Churches.  But considering that Muslims also consider Jesus as a Messenger of God, I suspect that it is only a matter of time before the site is also proclaimed as a mosque. 

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