Immediately after UNESCO declared Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs as World Heritage Sites, Israel’s prime minister and right-wing politicians hastened to remind the public that this is an anti-Israeli decision that denies the historical connection of the Jewish people to its land. They even linked the decision to the Holocaust. Without getting into the question of whether the world is led by anti-Semites who deny the Jewish people’s past in the Land of Israel, we can assert that UNESCO is not an anti-Semitic organization and its decision to declare Hebron an endangered World Heritage Site is not anti-Semitic and does not ignore the Jewish connection to the Cave of the Patriarchs.
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The Palestinians themselves note that in the draft decision that the Cave of the Patriarchs is sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. UNESCO is a political organization, and therefore its decisions are political. Like all the United Nations agencies, the organization is composed of member nations that are responsible for the policy and its implementation.
In addition, UNESCO has professional groups that deal with education, science, culture and communications. The attention of the Israelis and the Palestinians is concentrated mainly on the World Heritage Committee, which is responsible for declaring World Heritage Sites. The committee’s decisions are based on criteria such as architectural uniqueness, historical uniqueness, the traditional or religious importance of the site, unique natural phenomena and areas of exceptional beauty.
There are 10 criteria for examining the importance of a site. For it to be declared a World Heritage Site at least one criterion must be met. Recognition of sites is based on the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (to which Israel is also a signatory). In UNESCO all the players combine professional arguments with diplomatic activity, which is designed to promote the interests of their country.
Responsibility for World Heritage Sites lies with the countries in which they are located, and not with tribes, nations, religions or ethnic groups. For example, UNESCO recognized the Baha’i Gardens in Israel as a World Heritage Site, although the members of the Baha’i religion represent a miniscule percentage of Israel’s population. UNESCO recognition doesn’t mean that the gardens belong to the Jewish people, but that they are located in Israeli territory, and their uniqueness makes them worthy of being included on the World Heritage List.
Similarly, UNESCO recognition of the Incense Route in the Negev doesn’t mean that Nabatean culture represents the fathers of the Jewish nation, but that the sites are important enough to be recognized. The request to recognize Acre as a World Heritage Site was based on it’s being a Crusader city that links East and West, and that it was a major Ottoman city in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Cave of the Patriarchs was recognized as a site sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam – it’s interesting that Judaism appears first in the Palestinian proposal – and the Old City of Hebron was recognized as a World Heritage Site because it preserves a unique urban fabric from the Mamluk period. That doesn’t mean that the Jewish people have no connection to Hebron, but that as far as UNESCO is concerned, the West Bank belongs to Palestine.
Since 2011 Palestine is an equal member of UNESCO. It has a right to propose places that will be recognized as World Heritage Sites. Its proposal of Hebron doesn’t eliminate the Jewish connection to the city, just as the recognition of the Baha’i Gardens as a World Heritage site located in Israel doesn’t eliminate the connection of members of the Bahai religion to their holy sites.
Israel is angry at UNESCO because Israel is in a diplomatic catch-22. From the moment a UN agency recognizes Palestine as a state, it operates according to the rule that all the member states are equal and are required to observe the convention and international law. The Palestinians use UNESCO as required and as expected. Through UNESCO they are trying to attain international recognition of their national rights. For them the World Heritage Sites are a means of fighting the Israeli occupation.
The UNESCO decision-making mechanisms have been operating according to the same procedure for decades: The countries present a site portfolio and explain why the location should be declared a World Heritage Site. The process is not related to anti-Semitism or to ignoring the heritage of one nation or another. On the contrary, UNESCO purports to protect world cultural assets from vested interests. It seeks to enhance their status as belonging to all of humanity and to distance them from wars and destruction. The responsible adult whom UNESCO chose to appoint as guardian of these cultural assets is “the state” in whose jurisdiction the site is located.
When we understand how UNESCO works, we also understand that what Israel fears is not a renewed outbreak of anti-Semitism in the world. After all, not every anti-Israel political decision stems from anti-Semitism. What Israel fears is the strengthening of the international recognition of Palestine as a state.
It’s important to recall that recognition of Palestine as a member of UNESCO does not eliminate Israel’s borders according to the 1967 lines, but refers to the West Bank only. The UNESCO decision to include the Cave of the Patriarchs on the World Heritage List is therefore not anti-Semitic. It recognizes the Jewish connection to Hebron, even if it includes recognition of the Muslim and Christian connections as well. This recognition is confined to a border – Palestine’s diplomatic border.