UNESCO's July 7 decision to name the old city of Hebron a World Heritage site in danger has been reassuring to many faithful believers around the world. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Foreign Minister Riyad Malki welcomed the vote while Israeli officials angrily attacked it and even mocked the decision by the UN agency.
The UNESCO decision used the English word Hebron and the Arabic word for the city, Al-Khalil. Al-Khalil means companion, a reference to the biblical words that called Abraham God’s companion. Safeguarding such a holy place should be a goal of members of all faiths. Palestinians argue that attempts at monopolizing such sites to one faith or using religion as an instrument of political power is not a helpful move.
Subsequent to the resolution, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “delusional” in a Facebook post, and said that “this time they determined that the Cave of the Machpela (Patriarchs) is Palestinian, meaning it is not Jewish.” But the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal, however, correctly reported that the resolution did not mention the Cave of the Machpela, and does not designate the site as Palestinian. It said Netanyahu may be inferring that designation based on the committee’s decision to accept the request from the “state of Palestine.” (UNESCO is one of the only international bodies to recognize Palestine as a state).
Israel had blocked a UNESCO delegation from visiting Hebron late last month.
After the vote, Israeli Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen stormed the desk of the session’s chairman to protest how the secret ballot was conducted. The Times of Israel reported, “The kerfuffle ended after the chairman, a Polish diplomat, called in security.”
Press reports from Krakow, Poland, also said that in the immediate aftermath of the vote, Shama-Hacohen took out his cellphone and scornfully informed the committee: “It’s my plumber in my apartment in Paris. There is a huge problem in my toilet and it is much more important than the decision you just adopted.”
Determining a particular religion's ownership of a site is often complicated, particularly for many holy places in Palestine and Israel. The Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are unified in looking to Abraham as a giant prophet who had faith and courage to obey God’s commandment even when Abraham was called to sacrifice his own son. While Jews and Christians believe the son was Isaac, Muslims hold that the story told in the Quran about the event shows the son was Ismael.
On its main website, UNESCO says, “World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.”
After a secret vote engineered by Israel, the committee members voted 12-3, with six abstentions, meeting the two-third majority needed to pass such important resolutions.
According to The Economist, among the 1,052 locations designated by UNESCO as World Heritage sites — of universal value to humanity — perhaps 20% have some connection with worship. Still, Alessandro Balsamo, a UNESCO official who processes new applications for World Heritage status, was quoted in The Economist as saying the UN cultural agency “has no mandate to deal with religion as such.”
Not every country in the world that has Jewish or Muslim or Christian sites must turn those sites over to the sovereignty of a country that has some kind of connection to that religion. Today, there are Jewish and Christian holy sites in Jordan, for example. Should Jordan relinquish these sites to Israel and the Vatican respectively? Of course not.
Palestinians in Hebron for centuries have kept and protected the Ibrahimi Mosque, where Abraham and his family are said to have been buried.
The Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO, Elias Sanbar, told The Guardian on July 7 that the question of religion had not been part of the so-called inscription process. “Palestine has not inscribed a religion on the World Heritage list. Religion cannot be inscribed on such a list,” Sanbar was quoted as saying.
The governor of Hebron, Kamel Ahmed, in a public statement distributed to the press, said, “This decision shows that Hebron, with its cultural and human heritage, is important to the entire world and not just Palestinians.”
Declaring Hebron as an endangered World Heritage site should not be seen as being anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic or pro-Palestinian. Instead, it should be seen as the governor of the city saw it, that the heritage of the city is much bigger than Palestinians and Jews. It should be preserved for generations to come.
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