Israeli Leaders Rage Against 'anti-Semitic' UNESCO Resolution on Hebron

Netanyahu to cut $1 million from Israel's UN fees in response to UNESCO's recognition of Tomb of Patriarchs as endangered Palestinian site ■ President Rivlin: Organization keeps disseminating anti-Jewish lies

Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron
Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Ilan Assayag

Israeli leaders responded with scorn on Friday to a UNESCO vote that recognized Hebron's Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as Palestinian heritage sites, many of them accusing the organization of anti-Semitism. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the decision "surreal."

"Another UNESCO decision. This time they ruled that the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron is a Palestinian site – meaning it's not a Jewish one – and that the site is in danger. It's not a Jewish site? Who is buried there? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah. The Patriarchs and the Matriarchs," Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.

"The site is in danger? Only in places where Israel is present, such as Hebron, is freedom of religion guaranteed to all. In the Middle East, in places where Israel is not present, mosques, churches, and synagogues are being bombed.

"We will continue to protect the Tomb of the Patriarchs, to protect freedom of religion for all, and to protect the truth," Netanyahu added.

In response to UNESCO's resolution, Netanyahu decided to cut $1 million from the membership fees Israel pays the UN, his office said in a statement. The funds will instead be used to establish a museum for the Jewish heritage in Kiryat Arba and Hebron, and for other such projects involving the city. 

Following UNESCO's resolution in May criticizing Israeli policy in Jerusalem and Gaza, Netanyahu announced that he will slash UN funding by $1 million. In April, in response to a UN Human Rights Council resolution against the settlements, Netanyahu cut the fees by $2 million. 

President Reuven Rivlin castigated UNESCO, saying the resolution "proves once again that the organization is determined to keep disseminating anti-Jewish lies while staying silent as the regional heritage is being erased by brutal extremists." 

The resolution that was passed by UNESCO includes two main clauses. The first asserts that Hebron's Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs are Palestinian heritage sites, and will be registered as such in UNESCO's World Heritage List. The second asserts that the two sites are to be recognized as being in danger, meaning that UNESCO's World Heritage Committee will convene each year to discuss them. 

Twelve states on the World Heritage Committee voted in favor of the resolution and three voted against it, despite intensive diplomatic efforts waged by Israel and the U.S. in recent weeks.

According to tradition, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is the burial site of the biblical Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah, considered the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish people.

The site, known in Arabic as the Ibrahimi Mosque, is also revered by Muslims, who see Abraham as a patriarch through his son Ishmael.

Nowadays, the site is located beneath a Saladin-era mosque, which has been converted from a Herodian-era Judean structure. Most of the site is managed by the Waqf, an Islamic charitable trust, and access to Jews is mostly limited to certain areas of the site.

Naftali Bennett, Israel's education minister and chairman of the country's committee to UNESCO, condemned the decision, saying the Jewish link to Hebron goes back thousands of years and won't be severed.

"It's disappointing and embarrassing to see UNESCO denying history and distorting reality time after time to knowingly serve those who try to wipe the Jewish state off the map," he said.

"Israel won't renew cooperation with UNESCO as long as it continues to serve as a tool for political attacks instead of being a professional organization," he added. 

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman called UNESCO a "politically slanted organization, disgraceful and anti-Semitic, whose decisions are scandalous.

"No decision by this irrelevant organization will undermine our historic right over the Tomb of the Patriarchs, or our right over the country," Lieberman said. "I hope that with the help of our great friend the United States, this organization is defunded.

"The decision proves, once again, that the Palestinian Authority doesn't seek peace but rather seeks to incite against and slander Israel," he added. 

A spokesperson for Hebron's settlers called the decision "ridiculous," "anti-Semitic" and "typical of UNESCO's bunch of ignoramuses who are consumed by hate." 

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, also condemned the vote, calling it an "ugly and aggressive step against the Jewish people," adding that the group has lost any last remnant of reliability. 

The head of the Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid, called the vote "contemptible and false." 

"In the best case the decision is due to terrible ignorance, and in the worst case it's out of hypocrisy and anti-Semitism," he said in a statement.

The Palestinians hailed UNESCO’s vote, with the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs calling it “the only logical and correct decision.”

"Hebron is a city in the heart of the State of Palestine that hosts a site invaluable to world heritage and holy to billions of people around the world of the three monotheistic religions. Hebron’s Old City and holy site is under threat due to the irresponsible, illegal, and highly damaging actions of Israel, the occupying Power, which maintains a regime of separation and discrimination in the city based on ethnic background and religion.

"The State of Palestine will continue to defend and celebrate Palestine’s many important historic sites as part of world heritage and resist any attempt to hold Palestine or its history hostage to the agenda and actions of intolerance and exclusion.”