Two sites were named UNESCO World Heritage sites this week: the Nahal Me’arot caves at Mount Carmel (a nature reserve of caves with traces of prehistoric humankind) and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (the oldest continuously operating church built over the cave that tradition marks as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth).
Israel’s hasbara (Israeli advocacy) leaders couldn’t restrain themselves and called the decision on the Church of the Nativity “political” and due to “the shifty dealings of the Palestinians” regarding a place that “in the past was a target for Palestinian terrorists.” Different commentators hinted that the Christians are a minority persecuted by the Muslims, and anyway, what do Palestinians have to do with the Church of the Nativity?
You don’t need to be an active opponent of the occupation to see the foolishness in this response. World Heritage sites are sites that transcend time and place, certainly beyond yesterday’s headlines. They are milestones of human civilization. They were designed to bring nations together. The Nahal Me’arot Caves at Mount Carmel, which contain evidence of prehistoric culture, do not belong to Judaism, even if Jewish archeologists (along, perhaps, with non-Jewish archeologists) discovered them and turned them into an appropriate site. The Church of the Nativity is an inspirational site, which, unfortunately, Israelis today can’t visit freely. There is no need to be Christian, Muslim or a member of any other religion to feel the echoes of the generations that arise from it.
Israeli hasbara is shifty and problematic by definition. It is very hard to explain to anyone who is not Israeli the relationship between the State of Israel, the Palestinians in the territories and the territories themselves. If you try nonetheless, the way to go is not by expressing ideas that seem correct to you and even absolute, but to hear the doubts of the listener and seek common ground.
So here’s the common ground. World heritage is a matter of consensus. Now is the time to welcome the UNESCO decision, unless it happens to be a corrupt organization that devours Jews, and if that’s the case, the decision on the Carmel caves should be rejected with derision. This is the moment to come out and say that there are matters that are beyond politics — and maybe even, God forbid, congratulate the Palestinians on the achievement. But the Israeli response seeks to have the best of both worlds: to present UNESCO as an institution that is all about political considerations, while also welcoming its deep understanding of matters of heritage. And the response, as usual, is a loss: Israel comes out looking petty, insipid and full of contempt for a site venerated by all the world’s Christians.
Behind the miserable response seems to be a legal consideration: If Israel acknowledges a heritage site submitted by the Palestinians, it is recognizing the Palestinians as a quasi-state. This perspective is baseless: the Palestinians have long had autonomous authority and government leaders. It also reveals the double standard applied to the status of the territories. On one hand is the claim that the situation in the territories is irreversible; the facts on the ground have been created, with almost half a million settlers living all over the place. On the other hand, the Palestinians are not allowed to create any "facts on the ground."
This double standard doesn’t work. If constructing neighborhoods hastily and haphazardly, with Ulpana or without, is the model for action in the territories, then everyone engages in seizure. In this war, the seizure of World Heritage Site status for a Christian institution by a Palestinian prime minister is a small drop in the raging river that belongs to Israel’s regime in the West Bank — and no one knows where it plans on dumping its water.