Last week I wrote about that horrific, biased article about the Temple Mount that appeared in the New York Times and explained, I hope convincingly, why it seemed to me not merely to be supportive of an alternate point of view than my own, but to constitute something darker and more sinister bordering on almost overt anti-Semitism. And now, just a week, later, we see the trend to question even the most basic aspects of the relationship of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel brought to the fore for public debate as though this were a reasonable issue for normal people to discuss. I am thinking, of course, of the disgraceful behavior of UNESCO this last week and its shameful aftermath.
I would have thought that there was no way I could be moved to think less of the United Nations than I already do. But I was wrong! This week’s debate, dressed up as a serious motion being discussed by rational, thoughtful people, was even more unabashedly prejudiced and at least as overtly anti-Semitic as anything I’ve ever seen published in a major American newspaper. And the end of the matter—which, to be fair, was marginally less bad than I expected it to be—only proves the degree to which UNESCO, an organization that theoretically exists to foster educational, scientific, and cultural (those would be the E, S, and C in its name) cooperation between nations, has given itself over to the general mandate of its parent organization: the ceaseless condemnation of Israeli policies and activities, the bolstering of an almost overtly anti-Semitic worldview, and the denigration of the Jewish claim to its own homeland.
Up for discussion at UNESCO was the question of whether the Western Wall, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and Rachel’s Tomb on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem are Muslim or Jewish shrines. At face value, the whole notion itself is ridiculous: these sites have been revered by Jews and by Muslims not for centuries but for millennia. Whether our patriarchs and matriarchs are really buried in those places is a question for archeologists and historians of antiquity to ponder. But that these places have been venerated as sites of special sanctity by Jews since antiquity cannot be seriously doubted by anyone at all. Moreover, to frame the question in terms of archeology is to miss the point entirely, something like asking a Christian worshiping in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem how he or he knows that that is actually the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. The answer, obviously, is that no one knows, that no one can know. But that too is beside the point: the point is not whether someone can say with absolute certainty that something that happened thousands of years ago happened in that specific place—although it can’t have happened far away even if that isn’t the precise place—but that uncountable numbers of pilgrims have sanctified the spot with their presence as the site of their savior’s death…and that the satisfaction a modern-day Christian pilgrim feels in that place derives from joining those countless others in seeking faith and solace in that specific place, not from having secret knowledge about the geography of ancient Jerusalem that no one has or will ever have.
The Kotel—the Western Wall—isn’t in that category, of course. There is no serious question of any sort regarding what it is or why Jews have always venerated it: it is the last remaining portion of the support wall built around the Temple Mount to support the Temple that stood atop it. In dispute by no serious archeologist or historian at all, that point meant nothing to the representatives of Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait as they submitted a proposal to UNESCO that would formally have recognized the Kotel as a Muslim shrine to be called Buraq Plaza. (Buraq was the name of the prophet’s winged horse whom Muslim tradition recalls was once tethered there.) The fact that Jews have always venerated the Wall as the last remnant of the Temple, and that the nineteen years that the Old City of Jerusalem was occupied by Jordan were the sole set of decades in millennia during which there was not a permanent, ongoing Jewish presence in that place—what could that possibly mean to Arab diplomats eager to jump the bandwagon and insist in this specific way that the entire Jewish claim to Jerusalem—and to the Land of Israel itself—is a bogus fairy-tale made up by Zionists in the nineteenth century to justify their colonialist ambitions to seize someone else’s country and make it their own? Thankfully, this specific part of the Arabs’ initiative was withdrawn after world-wide protests by Jewish groups, by Israel itself, and even by Irina Bokova, the UNESCO chief who realized that passing such a motion would only inflame tensions in the region without accomplishing anything other than even further besmirching UNESCO’s reputation. So that ended up as less of a disaster than it could have been.
The outcome regarding the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron was less good. King Herod the Great, who died in the year 4 BCE, was the first to build a structure over the site revered even then as the tombs our all our patriarchs and matriarchs except for Rachel (the story of whose death on the road to Bethlehem is told explicitly in the Torah). Later on, in Byzantine times, the Christian rules of the Eastern Roman Empire built a church over the ruins of Herod’s structure. Later still, in the seventh century, when the Land of Israel came under Arab control, the church was demolished and a mosque was built there instead. In the twelfth century, the Crusaders threw the Muslims out and refurbished the mosque, turning it back into a church. Nevertheless, the place remained a place of Jewish pilgrimage. In October of 1166, Maimonides himself came to worship there, praying inside the tomb and kneeling to kiss the graves he found there. A few years later, the great Jewish traveler and diarist, Benjamin of Tudela came to call. Later on, the Muslims vanquished the Crusaders and turned the structure back into a mosque, formally forbidding Jews to come closer than the seventh step leading down from the front entrance to the street. And that is where things stood until 1967, when Hebron came under Israeli rule and the ancient Jewish right to worship at the tombs of our patriarchs and matriarchs was restored without the parallel rights of Muslims being abrogated. Indeed, the local Muslim Religious Council, called the waqf, was granted control over most of the property, with the Israeli authorities serving only to safeguard the rights of Jewish visitors to enter and prayer without being molested or bothered. And that is where things stand. Or rather where they stood until UNESCO this week took it upon itself to declare the Tomb of the Patriarchs to be a Muslim holy site, thereby choosing not only to ignore the fact that it has been a holy site for Jews for centuries longer than there even were Muslims in the world (King Herod predated the Prophet by about seven centuries) but also to indicate clearly that the mere fact that Jews venerate a site means nothing to the United Nations if there is the opportunity to curry favor with Israel’s enemies by passing even the most outrageous resolution. Yes, Muslims have worshiped there for centuries. But the site was at its inception a Jewish holy site to which Jews have always flocked. And that was the detail UNESCO chose willfully to ignore as though it were an annoying detail rather than a crucial piece of historical reality.
Moving along, the Tomb of Rachel has been venerated by Jews for so long that none can say when the first Jews came to that spot to worship there. As early as the fourth century CE, though, Christian authors noted the presence of the tomb there. But the history of Rachel’s Tomb mirrors the history of the Patriarchs’: first made into a church, then a mosque, then a church again, then a mosque. But ongoing Jewish presence is part of the story as well. The aforementioned Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173) was there and found it to be a site of Jewish prayer and veneration. A century later, another great Jewish travelers, Petachiah of Regensburg, was there as well and noted the same thing. From the fifteenth century on, the building over the tomb was maintained by Muslims as a mosque. But the place retained its place in the hearts of Jewish pilgrims always. In 1830, the Ottomans formally recognized the place as a Jewish holy site. In 1841, Sir Moses Montefiore actually purchased the site, renovating the building and providing Muslims and Jews with access to worship there. Even during the years of Jordanian rule over the West Bank, non-Israeli Jews continued to travel there and to worship there. But what does any of that mean to the ideologues of UNESCO who, blithely ignoring centuries of evidence, simply voted this week—as though their pronouncement can change the place’s history or destiny—to recognize Rachel’s Tomb too as a Muslim holy place and nothing else.
All of these resolutions, meaningless on the ground but nonetheless deeply insulting to Jews and to all who respect the integrity of historical fact, have at their core the same impetus that motivated that New York Times article I wrote about last week: the slow, steady effort to deny the fact that the Land of Israel is the homeland of the People of Israel, and to affirm—insanely but also menacingly—that the millennia of Jews’ attachment even to the most sacred of Jewish holy sites can be wiped away by other nations voting on resolutions they’ve made up all on their own. That would be a laughable overstatement of the importance of an organization like UNESCO, which like its parent organization squandered whatever moral capital it still possessed years ago. But it is also indicative of a world-wide campaign to insist that history is not what it is but what anyone with enough clout might wish it to be, that the fact that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people can itself be voted out of existence, that the fact that Jews have venerated Jerusalem as their spiritual capital since the days of David is not an indelible historical fact, but part of the malleable reality that is history in the hands of fools.
I remember my first trips to all three sites. When I undertook my first trip to Israel in 1966, when I was just thirteen, all three sites were under Jordanian occupation. But eight years later, was when I was twenty-one and the Six Day War was history, I got a job as a counselor on an American Zionist Youth Foundation bar-mitzvah pilgrimage trip to Israel and so first encountered the Kotel and Rachel’s Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron with my fellow staff members and all those children in tow. It was a bit chaotic, as I recall, but I was overcome, particularly by the Kotel but also by the other sites…and not only with the historical importance of being in those place as a Jew in post-1967 Israel, but also with the almost palpable sanctity I perceived in all three sites. The Kotel will always be in its own category—how could it not be?—but these other sites are deeply engrained in the national consciousness of the Jewish people as well. That Muslims or Christians find holiness in any of them too doesn’t surprise or annoy me. But to use that fact to denigrate the millennia of Jewish connection to them is not to speak rationally or fairly, but to use phony history in the service of bigotry to sow mistrust and enmity in places that almost by definition should be places of harmony, peace, and understanding.