Israel Takes Aim at UNESCO, Again

by Mitchell Plitnick

Israel and the United States have once again turned their fire on the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). At issue this time is the decision by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to recognize the Old City of Hebron as a Palestinian site and to add it as a World Heritage in Danger site.

According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the UNESCO resolution is “delusional” because it allegedly denies the Jewish connection to Hebron. Indeed, denying such a connection to a city that contains the Tomb of the Patriarchs would be highly offensive to Jews all over the world. The only problem is, UNESCO did no such thing.

As Orly Noy points out in +972 Magazine, “As opposed to what Israel is attempting to portray, UNESCO does not comment on the religious aspects of heritage sites, or to whom they are or are not considered holy.”

All three Abrahamic faiths consider the site holy for it is home to both the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Ibrahimi Mosque. What really bothered Israel, although it can’t say it this way, is that the resolution specifically states that the site is in Palestine, a state that does not exist in a physical sense, but which is a non-voting member of the UN and was admitted in 2011 to UNESCO.

Netanyahu can’t, for the moment, make the case that the Tomb is Israeli, because Israel has never claimed sovereignty over Hebron, even though the city is home to the most controversial, and often violent, sites of Israeli settlement and occupation. To claim Hebron would be to officially declare the option of a Palestinian state dead, and Israel is not prepared to do that.

So, Netanyahu says that this UNESCO statement erases the Jewish connection to Hebron. That’s nothing less than a bald-faced lie. The resolution does nothing of the kind. In fact, the report from the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) clearly acknowledges the Jewish religious and historical connections to the city.

But if recent events demonstrate anything, it is that Israel is far from synonymous with Judaism or Jews as a group. The Netanyahu government has recently made that abundantly clear to liberal Jews in the United States, much to their dismay. The UNESCO resolution does imply that Israel—not Jews—has no claim on the Tomb/Mosque site. No one, for instance, would consider it credible for Israel to claim as its own the Sardis Synagogue. One of the most ancient Jewish sites in the world at t 2,400 years old, this synagogue is in Turkey and is extremely well-maintained. The Jobar Synagogue in Syria, which has been mostly destroyed in the war, is a tragic loss for Jews everywhere, but not specifically for Israel.

Why, then, would Hebron be treated differently?

One reason is that the request for the site’s recognition and placement on the endangered list came from the Palestinian Authority. Another is that the report details numerous actions by Israel that raise serious concerns about open access to non-Jews, the effects of settlement and military activity on the site, and archaeological activity that has already caused damage to parts of the Old City.

Although Israel shouts to the heavens about its respect for all religions and for access to holy sites, no one could possibly go to Hebron and come out believing Israel’s claims. Nowhere is the occupation starker and more visible. There is every reason for the United Nations to focus on Hebron, to protect its holy sites, and to combat the Israeli occupation there. No security rationale can justify Jewish settlement in Hebron.

US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley said that the UNESCO resolution is an “affront to history.” Obviously, the ambassador is not well informed on the history of the city. That might be forgiven but shouldn’t we expect her to understand UN process and procedure? That is after all, her job. In this case, as Americans for Peace Now’s Ori Nir reported, UNESCO has not yet formulated its statement regarding Hebron. The press release about the World Heritage Committee’s vote may or may not reflect UNESCO’s full stance on the matter. Which also means that while Haley is performing her theatrics, she could be trying to influence that final statement instead.

In fairness to Haley, however, her ability to influence anything at UNESCO is severely limited. At one time, the US voice held considerable weight in the body. Until 2011, the United States contributed 22% of the organization’s budget. Any organization tends to listen to the provider of more than 1/5 of their funding.

But when UNESCO voted overwhelmingly in 2011 to admit Palestine, it triggered a US law that forced the Obama Administration to withdraw its funding. The US still sits on UNESCO’s executive board, but its influence is clearly diminished.

Israel, for its part, withheld another $1 million from its UN membership dues in response to the latest UNESCO controversy. This is the fourth time Israel has cut its contribution to the UN, reducing it in total from $11.7 million to $1.7 million. Meanwhile, the US is said to be “reviewing” its ties to UNESCO in response to the Hebron decision.

There was a real possibility of raising some issues about this resolution. The ICOMOS report, for example, said that in 1929, Jews fled Hebron “when violence flared.” In fact, it was a targeted massacre of 67 Jews in the city (a massacre that could have been much worse but for the intervention of some of Hebron’s Arab residents). That sort of language is, indeed, objectionable. If Israel felt that any of the charges raised in the ICOMOS report were erroneous, it could have engaged and then publicized the reality.

Instead, as usual, Israel disengaged and refused access as much as it could. The message it is sending is that it’s more important to accuse its detractors of anti-Semitism than to deal with any substantive issues it might have.

Given the nature of the occupation, the daily brutality, the false image of it projected for people who have either refused to see it for themselves or never had the chance to, it is not surprising that this is the course both Israel and the Trump administration would choose. Israeli and US hysteria over the Hebron designation was not focused on objections to Israeli actions, but on a completely bogus charge of anti-Semitism. That sort of deflection is much more typical of a guilty party than an innocent one.

Photo: Tomb of the Patriarchs (Wikimedia Commons)

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.



  1. Marc says: “Israeli Arabs obtained Israeli citizenship illegally and against international law.”

    That is a statement made from profound ignorance.

    UNGAR181 had this to say on that very subject: “Palestinian citizens residing in Palestine outside the City of Jerusalem, as well as Arabs and Jews who, not holding Palestinian citizenship, reside in Palestine outside the City of Jerusalem shall, upon the recognition of independence, become citizens of the State in which they are resident and enjoy full civil and political rights”.

    citizens. of. the. State. in. which. they. are. resident.

    So when Ben-Gurion stood up and read out the declaration of independence then “Israeli citizenship” went to everyone whose residence was inside that newly-declared state.

    It didn’t matter if you were a Jew.
    It didn’t matter if you were an Arab.
    It didn’t matter if you were a Druze.

    Made no difference whatsoever.

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