Critics Slam Heritage Plan for Omitting non-Jewish Sites

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The national heritage proposal that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented to the cabinet this week is attracting criticism for including only sites that are part of the Jewish and Zionist narrative.

The NIS 400 million heritage project, which is geared toward supporting the preservation of Jewish artifacts and teaching schoolchildren about Jewish and Zionist history, includes 37 archaeological sites - all of which the program ties in to Jewish tradition.

For instance, though Tiberias is a pilgrimage site for many Christians, it is the city's history during the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras that the program emphasizes.

In addition, all three of the Golan Heights heritage sites are ancient synagogues, and the Jerusalem locations, which include the tombs of the Sanhedrin, the City of David and Jason's Tomb, are also Jewish in character.

The heritage project contributes to the alienation of Israel's non-Jewish minority, even though "the heritage of the country is very much multi-layered," said geographer Oren Yiftachel of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

The plan is "a small but very symbolic step to the effect that the dominant group is not capable of maturely including the other groups that live here," he said, adding that it is "another small nail in the alienation of the non-Jewish population of the country."

Noting that some are battling to preserve a Negev mosque, one of the largest from the Ottoman period, Yiftachel asked: "If the dominant group were surer of itself, then what would it care if they preserved the mosque in Be'er Sheva?"

Cabinet Secretary Tzvi Hauser, who was responsible for putting together the heritage program, defended the plan as a revival of "our unifying historical story."

"Just as there are programs for the Galilee that don't deal with the Negev and programs for dental hygienists that don't deal with dentists, there is also this program," he said. "The good news is that if up to now these topics were budgeted at a few tens of millions [of shekels], now there is a one-time supplement of several hundred million, and that is what will make the difference. That we are reviving our unifying historical story doesn't mean that the other sites don't exist or are not important, but this action addresses a certain need at this time that [we] should not be ashamed of."

Sites such as the Old City of Caesarea, which are not explicitly Jewish, will have their Jewish character highlighted.

Architect and preservation expert David Kroyanker said the list of heritage sites would look different if it were based purely on historical and architectural criteria, without regard to the sites' Jewish or Zionist character.

"It is the government's right, of course, to assemble its list, but in Jerusalem, for example, if I were to rank the contribution of Muslims, Jews and Christians to the architecture, I would give the Muslims a rating of nine, the Christians a seven and the Jews a six."

A booklet prepared by the heritage project's planners states that proposal will encompass about 150 locations, including the 37 archaeological sites as well as museums, archives and cultural institutions.

The planners said their intent was to emphasize only the Jewish and Zionist history of the country.

The program has also given rise to Palestinian protests for including Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on the list.

The program, which will include a school curriculum component, focuses on four types of national heritage: archaeological sites, heritage buildings, museums and a broad category that includes theater, song, dance and film. The school curriculum deals only with Jewish and Zionist heritage. Students will study, for example, about the archaeological history of the country up to the destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kochba revolt, and will then skip ahead to the early Zionist history of the 19th century.