Israel to Push UNESCO to Declare the Kibbutz a World Heritage Site

The project is being advanced as the year-long centennial celebrations of the Kibbutz Movement come to a close.

The Israel National Commission for UNESCO is set to promote the kibbutz and its heritage as a World Heritage Site, Haaretz has learned.

The initiative, which will focus on the unique social, cultural and architectural aspects of the kibbutz, is being promoted by a group of Israeli scholars led by architects Yuval Yaski, Shmuel Groag and Galia Bar-Or, of the architecture department of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Yaski and Bar-Or, who is also the director of the Kibbutz Ein Harod Art Museum, recently curated the exhibition "Kibbutz - Architecture Without Precedent" at the International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

The project is being advanced as the year-long centennial celebrations of the Kibbutz Movement come to a close.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, inscribes sites as World Heritage if it deems them uniquely important to human culture. The inscription has special significance in terms of image for the country in which the site is located, as well as economic importance; the chosen site may also be granted special funding by the World Heritage Fund.

The inscription process involves two stages. Each of the member countries in the United Nations can prepare a list of tentative sites for inscription, and during the annual meeting of UNESCO they may be put to a vote. The current initiative seeks to include the beginnings of the kibbutz or a group of kibbutzim on Israel's tentative list and to then promote inscription through international institutions.

Only one kibbutz, Israel's first - Degania - is now included in the group. However, Yaski said they will not be inscribing only one kibbutz, such as Degania or Ein Harod, "because each of them represents a different phase in the development of the kibbutz. We think we may need to promote a group of kibbutzim, each of which expresses the physical and historical importance, or a group of kibbutzim in a particular geographic region, like the Jezreel Valley or the Menashe plateau," Yaski said.

Either way, Yaski said they will not be seeking recognition of all 274 kibbutzim.

He added that inscription is important particularly in light of the significant changes made to the kibbutzim in recent years, including the abandonment of public buildings.

"I believe the move will increase the importance of the kibbutz, both among decision makers as well as among members of the movement," Yaski said.

The experiences undergone by sites such as Tel Aviv's White City, however, demonstrate that UNESCO inscription might also drag kibbutzim into expensive conservation and renovation projects, making things even more difficult for those in tough economic straits.

Nevertheless, the Kibbutz Movement says it welcomes the initiative. "This will be a great honor for us: global recognition of the work of the pioneers, the founders of the kibbutzim, who created something unique in the world," the secretary of the Kibbutz Movement, Ze'ev Shor, said.

Prof. Michael Turner, chairman of the Israel Commissions for UNESCO, explained that the road to inscription is a long one.

"You must remember that UNESCO is not a beauty contest," he told Haaretz. "Before a site is inscribed, their unique value must be understood. Does it represent rare architecture? Where is it located? Does it reflect only a special social structure? With regard to the kibbutz, of course many questions come up. For example, how many kibbutzim should be inscribed and which of them should be conserved? Answering that requires a great deal of preparation."

The commission said it is waiting for a proposal in writing from the team of scholars, and that the initiative had "wall-to-wall support," according to one member.

UNESCO has so far inscribed six World Heritage Sites (or groups of sites ) in Israel: Masada; the Old City of Acre; the biblical tells of Megiddo, Hazor and Be'er Sheva; the Bahai Gardens in Acre and Haifa; the Nabatean cities on the Incense Route in the Negev; and Tel Aviv's White City.

In addition, the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls were inscribed to the list in the 1980s. The inclusion of Jerusalem was made on the recommendation of Jordan at the time, and UNESCO does not note the name of the country that controls it.