Israeli UNESCO Head Ousted for Preserving Heritage Sites

During his tenure, Chairman of UNESCO's Israel World Heritage Committee Prof. Michael Turner had run-ins with Israeli government agencies.

The chairman of UNESCO's Israel World Heritage Committee was recently fired from his post, a move sources say came as a surprise and was done for political reasons. Prof. Michael Turner, a key figure in Israeli preservation circles, served in the nonpaid position, for which he suspended his private activities in the field, for a decade.

Officially, Turner was forced out because of Education Ministry regulations limiting the term to two years, but members of the Israel World Heritage Committee claim he was forced out after clashing with officials.

As head of the Israeli committee in the international agency, Turner was directly responsible for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognizing several Israeli locales as World Heritage sites, including Masada, the Old City of Acre, Tel Aviv's "White City" Bauhaus architecture; the Biblical Tels of Megiddo, Hatzor and Be'er Sheva; the Nabatean Incense Route and Baha'i holy sites in Haifa and the Western Galilee.

In 2007 Turner was also named vice chairman of UNESCO's international World Heritage Committee, which is based in Paris.

During his tenure, Turner had run-ins with Israeli government agencies.

"Israel is often attacked in international preservation circle, sometimes on professional grounds and sometimes on political grounds," said attorney Gideon Koren, chairman of the Israeli branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. "Some people thought all expressions against us should be dismissed, to say that Israel is always all right and that everything is fine. Mike thought that professional arguments should be taken seriously."

The most recent major flareup was over four projects in the area of the Western Wall in Jerusalem: The Mugrabi Bridge, Beit Haliba (the Western Wall Heritage Center ), Beit Strauss and the controversial plan to excavate around the foundations of the Western Wall.

Because Jerusalem's Old City is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Turner's opinion on these projects was solicited. He insisted on holding extensive professional discussions, and even held up the projects.

Senior municipal officials implied that the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, who also heads the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, had a hand in Turner's removal, saying that some figures at the holy site viewed him "as Satan himself."

In an opinion piece, Turner determined that no "comprehensive planning" had been done for the Western Wall projects. He wrote that the following questions must be asked about this process: "Who will determine the values used in the planning: the Jewish people, the Jewish people living in Zion? What purposes must be served: worship, pilgrimage, tourism? Public gathering, or a temporary place until the coming of the Messiah? These questions, even though they were raised in meetings of the district planning and building committee, were not considered seriously, creating the impression that the comprehensive planning was tailored around these projects."

"I don't know if that was the reason for his dismissal," said architect Uri Barsheshet, who opposes the Western Wall Plaza projects, "but if it's true then it's another step by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation to dictate its positions in the most important place of the Jewish people."

Rabinowitz responded that he had no hand in Turner's dismissal.

"There were disagreements between the rabbi and Mr. Turner on the grounds of different opinions and planning perspectives, connected to Turner's position as liaison with UNESCO," a statement he released read.

At its most recent meeting, the Israel World Heritage Committee - which includes representatives from academia, government ministries and the Israel Antiquities Authorities - voted unanimously in support of Turner keeping his post, and issued a sharply worded rejection of "the attempt to force [him] out for unprofessional considerations."

Prof. Nitza Smok, the former head of Tel Aviv's preservation department, called Turner's dismissal "a blow to Israel's interests in the area of preservation abroad."

She and the rest of the members of the Israel World Heritage Committee are weighing their next moves, which could include resigning in protest. Most of their criticism is directed against the Education Ministry, under whose aegis the committee operates, and ministry director general Shimshon Shoshani, by virtue of his position.

Every member of the committee, including all of the ministry representatives, attended a goodbye party for Turner on Sunday.

"The World Heritage Committee received no real explanation for this dismissal," Koren said. "We asked the Education Ministry unanimously to renew his appointment but our recommendation was not approved."

Turner, described by one committee member as having "Israeli hutzpah and British dignity," declined to comment on his dismissal.

"I have nothing to say about it, what's important to me is where the issue of preservation is going in Israel," Turner said.