As we near Tisha B’Av, an annual day of mourning, commemorating the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, UN’s cultural body, UNESCO, is challenging the very ties of the Jewish people to these temples. The upcoming vote on a draft resolution calling for the return of the “historic status quo” on Temple Mount is expected to pass the 21-member UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, convening in Paris in October. The status quo refers to the pre-Six-Day-War period when the Jordanian Waqf had total authority, including maintenance, restoration and access, over all aspects of the sites. This was also a period when no Jews from Israel were allowed access to these sites.

While UNESCO’s model to help preserve historical and cultural sites is commendable, the upcoming resolution is one of many signs that the Jewish community cannot rely solely on a UN-led program, such as the World Heritage Sites, to protect its own heritage. Rather, we recommend the creation of an Israel-led international Jewish heritage preservation system with main stakeholders being Israeli governmental organizations, such as the Ministries of Education and Culture and Sport, to provide a much-needed mechanism for protecting and preserving our cultural heritage.

Temple Mount aerial view

Temple Mount aerial view

What will the Committee vote on in October?

UN’s bias against Israel is nothing new. This resolution, however, undermines Judaism and the Jewish people. For over three thousand years, the Temple Mount (and its environs) in Jerusalem has been the holiest site in Judaism and thus, the spiritual center of the Jewish people. Yet the Palestinian-Jordanian draft resolution ignores Jewish claims to the Holy Site, only mentioning the Al-Aqsa Mosque or Al-Haram Al Sharif. Throughout the document, the Western Wall is referred to as the Al-Buraq Plaza. More problematic, the document is replete with outrageously false statements that accuse Israel of Judaification, of  “planting Jewish fake graves in Muslim cemeteries,” and converting “many Islamic and Byzantine remains into the so-called Jewish ritual baths or into Jewish prayer places.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the move as an absurd attempt at “rewriting a basic part of human history” while Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO called the resolution “a total Islamization” of a site that is revered by both the Jewish and Muslim faiths. While the Israeli government is busy lobbying some of the committee members, whose vote direction is yet to be determined, other Jewish leaders around the world are rallying against UNESCO’s resolution.

While the efforts against the present resolution are laudable, it is clear that these attacks will continue unabated into the foreseeable future now that the Palestinian delegation is part of UNESCO.  When it comes to the World Heritage List, we cannot take the passive approach and put the fate of our historical sites and heritage in the hands of a global institution that is unwilling to disassociate heritage conservation from the petty politics of nationalism. Two questions arise. What active approach can we take? And, why should we care about the notion of Jewish cultural heritage?

What is the UNESCO World Heritage List?

UNESCO World Heritage List was founded on an incredible premise: cultural heritage education can promote mutual understanding and cultural diversity, which, in turn, can decrease hatred and prevent global conflicts. Out of millions of historical sites that exist in the world, the World Heritage Committee selects and takes under its auspices only those natural and historical sites deemed to be of outstanding universal value.

The UNESCO system of cultural heritage mapping is unparalleled. Every country in the system, including Israel, has a UNESCO committee. Each national committees nominates tangible World Heritage sites, as well as intangible cultural memories and traditions, to be listed by UNESCO as culturally important.  The assumption is that the collection of these individual sites and traditions contribute to the local, national and, most important, to our collective universal heritage.

UNESCO's Brasilia office

UNESCO’s Brasilia office

The World Heritage List, specifically, would have been a great model if it weren’t for the politics underlying its voting system. Countries, not independent heritage professionals, are selected by the General Assembly to be members of an Executive Committee who make the final recommendations. What we can surmise from previous votes on issues sensitive to Israel and the Jewish people, the decisions of Executive Committee members such as Cuba, Indonesia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Tunisia and Zimbabwe will in the future be anything but politically driven.

It is because of the divisive politics inherent in the UNESCO Committee that we believe that Israel should lead the effort to create a list of historically- and culturally-significant Jewish sites inside Israel and all around the globe, curated by a knowledgeable committee consisting of conservation professionals.

Is it time for a “Jewish UNESCO,” led by Israel?

Scattered throughout Israel and the Diaspora are thousands of Jewish sites, going back to the First Temple period, telling the story of the Jewish people. Inside this story, however, are multiple narraratives with the central stories revolving around the Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Mizrahi cultures – three different narratives, one collective heritage.  Protecting the sites that embody this rich story and ensuring its preservation for future generations could be accomplished through the establishment of an organization with a mission similar to that of the World Heritage Programme. It should be adapted for the Jewish realm: safeguarding Jewish historical and cultural landmarks and promoting international dialogue through education thereby bridging cultural gaps between Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Mizrakhi Jews, and more importantly between Jews and non-Jews. Such an organization would consist of cultural heritage experts from all over the world working together to make final decisions regarding which sites and elements would make the cultural heritage list, thereby avoiding the pitfalls plaguing UNESCO.

Such an undertaking would require a public-private partnership between academic and philanthropic organizations, as well as NGOs, inside and outside of Israel. However, the biggest stakeholders in this new effort should be governmental agencies inside Israel, especially the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Culture and Sport. As mentioned before, the Israel National Commission for UNESCO already exists in Israel. Not well known is the fact that the Minister of Education, currently Mr. Naftali Bennet, serves as the President of the Commission. As Bennet also controls the funds for the Israeli-Diaspora Initiative, he would be the primary candidate to lead the efforts of this new Jewish heritage organization. A second candidate would be Miri Regev, the Minister of Culture and Sport, responsible for Jewish cultural events, museums and other cultural heritage initiatives. Both  Bennet and Regev should be lauded for recently introducing Mizrahi and Sephardic elements  into their agendas. Philanthropic organizations, such as the Jewish Funders Network, and Jewish organizations, such as the Jewish Federations of North America, could provide the bulk of the funding.

Naftali Bennett, Israeli Minister of Education

Naftali Bennett, Israeli Minister of Education

The other reason Israel should lead this effort is its technological expertise. It’s only natural that the Start-up Nation uses its human and social capital, its innovative and entrepreneurial resources to advance our collective Jewish heritage and create a digital cultural heritage ecosystem. This online ecosystem would allow every Jew in the world to access a Cultural Heritage Library, a heritage database and mobile heritage applications. A Cultural Heritage Laboratory would be a natural off-shoot of this system whereby applications could be initiated, developed, and distributed. This ecosystem would be cultural in nature and transcend politics, religion and ideologies. Its goal is simply to preserve Jewish heritage in Israel and the diaspora. In regard to the latter, one important consequence of this ecosystem would be to promote tourism to a variety of sites and cultural events that are of great importance to the Jewish heritage community.

For over 70 years, UNESCO has perfected a curation method for the list of sites of historical and cultural significance and aiding in preservation of these sites. This method is worthy of replication with one exception: the membership composition of the World Heritage Committee, which reflects the makeup and the voting patterns in the UN, biased against countries such as Israel. In order to ensure the preservation of the Jewish historical and cultural landmarks, Israel should lead a formation of an international organization that would apply UNESCO’s World Heritage model along with a major improvement, the selection of world-renowned experts in Jewish heritage as referees.  Naftali Bennet’s Ministry of Education or Miri Regev’s Ministry of Culture and Sport should lead the efforts of Jewish heritage preservation, as well as the creation of a digital cultural heritage ecosystem. Not only will such initiatives create a framework for Jewish site and tradition preservation globally, but they are also expected to have a positive effect on education, tourism, intercultural relations and, ultimately, global awareness of Jewish cultural heritage.