Andrew Freedman
Andrew Freedman

UNESCO is sacrificing Jewish heritage on the altar of political machinations

January, always a gloomy month, took an even darker shade this year when the Palestinian delegation to UNESCO submitted a request for Hebron to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Centre’s List of World Heritage Sites in Danger. This draft resolution was voted in approval on July 7 2017. It is bitterly ironic that in the shadow of Oskar Schindler’s Krakow factory, in a place witness to such devastation, despair and persecution further persecution – more specifically, a persecution of memory – has taken place again. Because that is what this resolution signifies: an attempt to whitewash any Jewish connection to a place and a site of deep religious and historical significance.

The decision that was adopted today was two-fold. The first asserted that Hebron’s Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs- where the forefathers and matriarchs of all Abrahamic people are buried- were in fact solely Palestinian heritage sites and as such, would be registered in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The second stated that the site was said to be “in danger” and should be safely ensconced under UNESCO’s watchful eye. Well, now we can all breathe a sigh of relief: It is done.

What, though was the danger? Was it placed on the list for conservational purposes like the Historic Centre of Vienna was a few days ago, due to high–rise projects in the middle of the capital? Or, perhaps it was for purposes of conservation, like that one-time capital of culture, Liverpool. The birthplace of the Beatles was placed on the danger list due to its redevelopment of the docklands and alteration of the skyline.

The risk to Hebron? Hebron was under the wicked Israeli boot. The sites are in fact under Israeli responsibility as per the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (or more commonly known as the Oslo II Accord).

In the days leading up to today’s vote, there had been much diplomatic lobbying by the Israeli and American governments, and the World Jewish Congress also reached out to numerous member states to urge them to vote against the resolution. However, something is out of joint: the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation has become something of a forum for the Palestinians to champion their arguments. It is an easy target, a symbolic sop for them. Such politicisation demeans and devalues its origins and its intent.

UNESCO, you see, has form: in 2016, it passed a resolution denying any legal or historical Israeli links to Jerusalem and called Israel an “occupying power”. Just as with the pernicious BDS movement, which targets anything from Israeli academics and musicians to actors and students, it perverts the apolitical. In a world of ‘fake news’, such a phrase seems sadly apt for today’s resolution.

In Krakow, the vote was couched in confusion and chaos: from the outset Lebanon issued a point of order to revert to an original draft of the resolution, which incidentally failed to acknowledge crucial shortcomings of the Palestinian nomination dossier as reflected in the ICOMOS report; that request was adopted, due to support from other member states, When the time came to vote, a secret ballot meant to be conducted in a confidential setting, behind a curtain, as requested by Israel, was in fact only partially secret, with delegates dropping their ballots in the front of the room.

The vote will have no impact on policy. It helps not a jot to the stagnant peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. It was a petty statement of public intent to deny Israel its legal and historical heritage. Notably, there was no mention of the importance that the sites carry for Christians too, whom, it seems, have been elided at the expense of Palestinian politics.

At the WHC’s opening ceremony on Sunday, the Polish president paid tribute to the organisation and, in a nod to the devastation of the Second World War said:

Today we understand better what is happening elsewhere because of our past”.

Alas, Poland did not heed the words of its president. It is notable that, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said in the House of Lords recently: what eventually became the modern day state of Israel was the only non-artificial creation among a host of artificial states, among them Jordan (which was one of the initial proposers for the resolution), Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Libya, that had never been states before and thus still exist in a state of ethnic, religious and tribal strife. Only the modern day state of Israel had previously existed as a nation state, which it had done millennia ago.

That fact, that right, that heritage has been sacrificed on the altar of political machinations. Let us not forget.

About the Author
Andrew Freedman is a communications consultant from London. Prior to embarking on a career in public relations, Andrew practised as a solicitor for a couple of years. Before that, Andrew read Classics at Oxford. He is a member of the World Jewish Congress Jewish Diplomatic Corps and is also active on behalf of several Jewish charities within the UK.