Israel-Diaspora Relations Part III Palestinians
In addition to her TV interview last Wednesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) also addressed the Knesset on the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that recently passed a resolution declaring Hevron and the Cave of the patriarchs (Mearat Hamachpelah) as “endangered Palestinian heritage sites.” UNESCO is an esteemed international agency based in Paris. Its declared objectives are “to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific, and cultural reforms in order to increase universal respect for justice, the rule of law and human rights.” Was the resolution, widely considered in Israel to be so, an anti-Israel motion? If so, why is UNESCO engaged in such activities?
This was not the only resolution of this type passed by UNESCO. In the same week, in Kraków, Poland, of all places, where the scene of the Nazis ruthlessly clearing out the ghetto of Jews and shipping most residents to the gas chambers in Belzec, were portrayed in Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (remember the girl in the red coat), the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (UNESCO-WHC) voted to have the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the Old City of Hevron inscribed as a Palestinian world heritage site. The Committee also determined that the site was also “in danger.” From what and why?
The latter motion establishing the tomb as an endangered heritage site was passed by the 21 countries [Angola, Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso, Croatia, Cuba, Finland, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zimbabwe] 12-3 (those 12 are easily picked out of the list since they regularly support anti-Israel motions) with 6 countries abstaining. Though the vote usually takes place by a show of hands, Poland, Croatia and Jamaica requested a secret ballot. Israeli Ambassador Carmel Shama-Hacohen stormed the chair, accusing the Polish diplomat in charge of failing to conduct a truly secret ballot. The vote was not held behind a curtain; ballots were placed in an envelope in full view of the delegates. The chair called in security.
The issue was NOT declaring Hevron, the Cave and the Tomb heritage sites. Hevron was declared to be an Islamic city. It was the third site recognized by UNESCO as located in the “State of Palestine.” Whatever the history being recognized or not recognized, the resolutions were clearly political rather than educational and cultural in nature. Israel was deliberately disassociated from a site widely recognized, certainly in the Torah, as the burial grounds of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel. Israeli diplomats called it “an ugly display of discrimination, and an act of aggression against the Jewish people.”
Upon passage of the resolution, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki hailed a Palestinian diplomatic victory. “Despite the aggressive Israeli campaign, spreading lies, distorting and falsifying facts about the Palestinian right, the world recognized our right to register Hevron and the Ibrahimi Mosque under Palestinian sovereignty and on the World Heritage List.” For Maliki, the issue was about Palestinian sovereignty and NOT about the location of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs.
The issue was also about sovereignty when the same committee earlier in the week explicitly denied Israel’s claim to the Old City of Jerusalem. In May, UNESCO’s executive board ratified a 2016 resolution denying Israel, not only legal, but also any historical link to Jerusalem. Israel was deemed an “occupying power,” a designation never applied to Jordan when that country overran the Old City in the 1948 war. UNESCO regularly criticizes Israel for its archaeological work and excavations in Jerusalem and Hevron.
However, the Committee did not explicitly deny the connection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem. The Jerusalem resolution recognized “the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls for the three monotheistic religions.” Further, the Temple Mount compound was not referred to solely as “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif” as in a 2016 resolution that called the Temple Mount “a Muslim holy site of worship.” Hevron, Bethlehem and the Old City of Jerusalem were all defined that way.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry decried the decisions and insisted that Jerusalem remained the capital of the Jewish people. “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and no decision by UNESCO can change that reality. It is sad, unnecessary and pathetic.” For Palestinians, UNESCO votes offered additional proof that in the minds of the international community, Jerusalem was “the capital of the occupation.”
Did it matter that Avraham and Sarah, Yitzhak and Rivka, Yaakov and Leah, and even Adam and Eve, were allegedly buried in the cave, or that Avraham bought the Cave from Ephron the Hittite long before Islam existed? One has no sense from the debate that this belief and cultural identification was relevant let alone crucial to the decision. Recognition of Palestinian sovereignty was at stake.
However, whatever the myth or historical reality, the debate upped the ante in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Reuven Rivlin of Israel may have tweeted: “UNESCO seems intent on sprouting anti-Jewish lies, while it remains silent as the region’s heritage is destroyed by brutal extremists,” but Palestinians could boast of another significant political victory in an important international forum piled on top of winning membership in UNESCO in 2011. The cost, however, has been another repeated gesture politicizing a cultural and historical issue. When debates over memory, history and culture are brought into the centre of a conflict, the stakes are raised enormously. With regard to the sites mentioned above, unlike any other one recognized as a heritage site (Aztec sites in Mexico City are but one example; Cordoba in Spain is another), there was never any attempt to deny the historic connection to the site. In all three cases in Israel/Palestine, the Jewish connections to the sites were omitted. The Ibrahimi mosque in Hevron, known as the Sanctuary of Abraham, built in the 14th century, however, is identified.
In UNESCO commemorating sites, Battir, called Beitar in the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome and even in Arabic dubbed “Khurbel al-Yahud (the Jewish ruin), is recognized to be “representative of many centuries of culture and human interaction with the environment.” Cultural genocide is the systematic destruction of traditions, values, language, and other elements which make a one group of people distinct from other groups. It is both the height of irony that an organization like UNESCO, in order to advance a Palestinian political position, finds it fit to extinguish Jewish historical and cultural links to sites in Israel and Palestine. Why would even Jews who defend the right of Palestinians to have their own state be complicit in cultural genocide? There are also political repercussions. The more Israelis and other Jews alienated from around the world, the less likely they are to support a Palestinian state alongside Israel if cultural genocide is a consequence. Are any of these sites “culturally endangered” as Palmyra has been in Syria?
UNESCO does recognize many other sites in Israel as having a Jewish connection and as heritage sites – Tel Aviv as the White City and foremost representative of the Bauhaus or International style, Masada, the Necropolis of Beit Shean, and six others, but none on the other side of the Green Line. When the fight becomes a cultural and historical one and not simply political, the very purpose of UNESCO is threatened. But perhaps that is inherent in UNESCO. In its charter, culture, science and education are viewed as ways to advance political objectives, even as those objectives are spelled out in the lofty language of freedom, rights and the rule of law. UNESCO memorialized Ernesto Che Guevera in the World International Documentary Collection even though he has been widely accused of committing massacres by the Cuban community in Miami. On the other hand, it was Israel which could be said to have instigated the process by designating the Cave of the Patriarchs, Hevron, Rachel’s Tomb and Bethlehem, as “national” heritage sites in 2010.
Ever since that date, UNESCO and Israel have been engaged in a cultural war, but one in which UNESCO has engaged in fostering cultural genocide. In January 2014, UNESCO escalated the conflict beyond Israel and swept all Jews into the maelstrom when Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, initially and indefinitely postponed a Paris exhibit promoted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center on the 3,500 year relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. On the basis of this totally obvious bias, indeed official endorsement of cultural genocide, last month both Israel and the US announced that each would be withdrawing from UNESCO, the US for the second time – it had rejoined in 2002 after an absence of 18 years. Even Christians have become upset with UNESCO when it named the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as a “Palestinian” heritage site, ignoring the fact that Jesus was a Jew.
It is against this background that the venom Tzipi Hotovely spewed against UNESCO should be viewed as well as Princeton University Hillel’s cancellation of Hotovely’s speech on the day it was to be given at Hillel’s Center for Jewish Life. The speech was cancelled under pressure from the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP). Hotovely belongs to the Israeli hard-right. She is opposed to creating an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. She does not disregard any Palestinian sovereignty claims to the land as AJP stated; she strongly opposes such claims. She was in Princeton to explicitly make the case that settlements are not an obstacle to peace. (Even though I oppose the settlements, I would even insist that they are not the prime obstacle to peace.)
The effort to deny Hotovely the right to speak (she did speak, but under the auspices of Chabad) blackens the reputation of progressives at the same time as it deepens the chasm between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. AJP claimed that Hotovely’s stance damages the prospect of peace, something on which I would agree. Nevertheless, I defend her right to advance her position just as I defend the right of Palestinians to advocate their own One State solution. I do not have to attend, I do not have to participate in such occasions. But they do not foster violence or cultural genocide. Both sides offer fundamental differences over sovereignty.
However much I disagree with Hotovely, however much I oppose the government’s claims on behalf of the settlements, however much I declaim her contention that peace has not yet been achieved between Israelis and Palestinians because of incitement and a generation of young Palestinians who were not educated for hope, I have not read any evidence that she practices cultural genocide and denied any Islamic connection to the Haram al-Sharif in her address in the Knesset directly aimed at Palestinian MKs. Was it not enough to disagree with her over giving priority to Jewish claims to the site? Even if one radically disagreed with her, she was not being uncivil as she claimed that Palestinians are “thieves of history” and accused them of attempting to Islamicize Jewish history. I go further than her. I claim that the Palestinian efforts are part of a campaign of cultural genocide. I strongly support a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Should I be silenced if I characterize the efforts in UNESCO as advancing a program of cultural genocide even it if is for what I regard as a worthy political purpose?
AJP in its open letter in The Princetonian expressed its shame that the Committee on Jewish Life (CJL) at Princeton misrepresented “our Jewish community’s politics and values. We will not sit by quietly as the Israeli government continues to entrench its control over Palestinians. We will not be silent as members of our Princeton community further these hateful and racist policies.” Subsequently, AJP claimed that it was not its intention either to censor MK Tzipi Hotovely or to cancel the event, but “to highlight the CJL’s systematic silencing of leftist voices on campus through uneven application of its ostensibly neutral Israel policy.” There was no evidence that I found that they supported Hotovely’s right to speak.
Further, no one said that AJP should be silent. No one said they should not oppose the Israeli government efforts to control Palestinian land or to even deny that it is Palestinian land. But that does not make the opposing position racist. Even more importantly, no group, absolutely no group, can claim to speak for the Jewish community as a whole, especially for its values.
Nothing so exacerbates the Israeli-Diaspora divide than the claim that Jews should speak with a singular voice, that Jews should be united. Hotovely to her credit, however disagreeable I find her views, has not insisted on a unified Jewish voice but a clearer opportunity to have the hard-right voice heard. In my view, nothing is more divisive among Jews than the argument about Jewish unity and who is most responsible for promoting that disunity and who is in the best position to defend that unity. The reality is that Jews have never been united.
Nor should nor need they be. The quest for unity is a chimera and itself a very divisive issue.
With the help of Alex Zisman