Philip Reiss
Philip Reiss
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Rename UNESCO Square

The name should be one that symbolizes interfaith unity -- and he knows what that name should be

Haifa’s UNESCO Square is situated at the meeting point of the Baha’i Gardens and the historic German Colony neighborhood. Unfortunately, due to recent events, the site’s full name—UNESCO Square for Tolerance and Peace—has become a contradiction in terms. As a result, it was recently reported that a member of the Haifa City Council had demanded that the square’s name be changed to Cave of the Patriarchs Square.

It is certainly true that last week’s UNESCO decision on Hebron calls for a forceful response. And surely the Cave of the Patriarchs is worthy of having a square named after it anywhere in Israel.

And yet, to me, there is something un-Haifan about renaming the square in a manner that is so truculent, so in-your-face, so davka. When the square was inaugurated in 2011, UNESCO’s Director General expressed the hope that it would “stand for the tolerance and the peace that we seek to build and to deepen—in this region, and across the world.” And indeed, Haifa’s tradition of tolerance and coexistence is something to be cherished and celebrated. Perhaps, then, we can choose a new name that, instead of reactively communicating spite (however justified), would proactively promote the peaceful ideals that UNESCO used to stand for and that the city of Haifa continues to embody?

I believe we can. Let us rename the square Kikar Avraham Avinu—the Square of Abraham our Patriarch, the father or forerunner of the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze and Baha’i faiths. Our common Abrahamic heritage is what unites all the faith communities that coexist in the State of Israel, and with particular comity in Haifa. This idea of Abraham as a unifying figure underlies, among much else, the wonderful interfaith work of the Abrahamic Reunion organization, and a bold new paradigm for peace recently advanced by Rabbi Yakov Nagen.

The name I am proposing would, for many of us, also serve as a tribute to the Avraham Avinu neighborhood in Hebron, site of a sixteenth-century synagogue of the same name. The synagogue was rebuilt in 1976, and today a small Jewish community lives with great self-sacrifice in the neighborhood, preserving and telling the story of the incontrovertible Jewish connection to Hebron—a connection that no international body will ever have the power to break.

[Update: According to Walla!, Mr. Blumenthal of the Haifa City Council adopted a more nuanced position than claimed by the report linked to above, and stopped short of demanding that the square be renamed.]

About the Author
Philip Reiss is a Professor of Statistics at the University of Haifa. He made aliyah, with his wife and their three children, in 2015.
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