Until its liberation in the Six-Day War, Jews were not allowed to climb beyond the seventh step outside Ma’arat HaMachpelah, the Cave of the Patriarchs. Despite being built on land purchased by Abraham almost 4000 years ago, despite being the burial place of the patriarchs and matriachs of Judaism, despite the stone walls around the location being erected under King Herod, successive Arab and Islamic occupiers forbad Jews access to their second holiest site.
Unesco has kicked Jews back down the steps. The UN body nominally responsible for promoting peace through culture has voted to designate Ma’arat HaMachpelah a Palestinian heritage site. It is a grim act of historical revisionism, an effort to negate the millennia-old Jewish connections to the tomb and the surrounding land. The Palestinian Authority pressed for the Cave and the old town of Hebron to be listed on the register of world heritage sites currently in danger – and listed as Palestinian. The International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the recommending body, objected to the listing in part because the Palestinian application largely presented the area as an exclusively Muslim holy site.
But there was de-Judaization to be done and to an anti-Zionist agency like Unesco, few things are more important than eliminating the Jewish history of the Land of Israel. So ICOMOS’s reservations were dismissed and a vote pushed through. It was an incendiary act in a part of the world that could do with a little less heat.
As the US representative to Unesco said: ‘The decision to inscribe Hebron/Al Khalil Old Town on an emergency basis is divisive, confusing and impossible to justify. The site is not under any real or immediate threat. The only urgency here is the urgency to express political anger. Had the committee shown patience, this inscription might have represented , at some time in the future, an example of the World Heritage Committee as the international community’s best tool for cultural dialogue, mutual understanding and peace. Instead, the politically-motivated decision today to inscribe only further stains Unesco’s reputation and further divides this house.’
Unesco’s reputation when it comes to Jewish history and Israel is justly infamous. In 2016, it passed a resolution declaring Har HaBayit (Temple Mount), the holiest site in Judaism, to be a purely Muslim religious setting, Haram al-Sharif. The Western Wall, which formed part of the Second Temple before its destruction by the Romans, was reclassified with the Islamic terminology ‘Buraq Plaza’.
This latest offensive is, if anything, more provocative. In announcing Ma’arat HaMachpelah to be ‘Palestinian’, Unesco is not only robbing Jews of one their most sacred places but severing their links to Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Leah and Jacob. It is a wilful desecration by an organisation charged with preserving the past. Where Palestinians’ cruder methods have failed, their champions across the UN estate have perfected a cleaner, more effective, war on Israel. In place of incitement, denial and instead of violence, rejectionism. Without lifting a finger or pointing a gun, Unesco has driven Jews out of their national and religious story. It is an altogether more respectable form of ethnic cleansing.
Israel could respond in kind. If the tomb is Palestinian and not Jewish, then Baruch Goldstein did not murder 29 Palestinians in the 1994 Ma’arat HaMachpelah massacre. The killings could not have happened for why would a far-right Israeli settler object to Muslims attending a Palestinian heritage site during Ramadan? In these times of Instagram attention spans and documented facts demolished by Facebook memes, it shouldn’t be difficult to drown the evidence in cries of ‘smear’ and ‘fake news’. The world may have survived nuclear stand-offs only to succumb to mutually assured destruction of the truth.
That will be the primary effect of this inflammatory decision — to inflame and encourage others to act inflammatorily. That is how these things work. By their constant slights and slanders against Israel, the international community undermines Israeli confidence in that community and the norms and conventions it aims to promote. It boosts support domestically for the nationalist right, whose lawmakers are protesting loudly today but know this insult will be good for a few TV ads in the next election. They will point to actions like the one taken today and contend, not without merit, that Jewish religious and cultural rights in Hebron can only be guaranteed by Israeli sovereignty. If Jews can be told they don’t belong at Ma’arat HaMachpelah when they have an army there, what would happen if the army pulled out?
Unesco, like much of the rest of the UN, should be required to register as a donor-in-kind to the Likud Party.