For once, we should be thankful for UNESCO.
Just as global Jewry was tearing itself apart over the Western Wall and fundamental questions about who gets to pray where and who gets to make that decision, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization did what it does best: Let anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic, sentiments drive it to deny history.
In the process of pretending that Jerusalem and Hebron are endangered Palestinian cultural sites without historical ties to the Jewish people, UNESCO enabled us to unite in righteous indignation and pretend, at least for a few days, that we’re not at our own throats over our shared legacy.
The two latest resolutions from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee are so routinely offensive as to be almost unworthy of response.
A new attack came in the second resolution, enacted Friday, July 7. It declares the city of Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs — the Cave of Machpelah purchased by Abraham in Genesis 23 — to be endangered Palestinian world heritage sites.
Even Palestinian Muslims who want to deny the overwhelming evidence of a destroyed Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, such as that Western Wall we’re bickering over, revere the Tomb of the Patriarchs as the burial place of Abraham and his family. Apparently, UNESCO recognizes Abraham as the ancestor of the Arabs but not the Jews.
Three days earlier, the World Heritage Committee again criticized Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and endangerment of its holy sites through such heinous practices as conducting scientific excavations to reveal and preserve the city’s history and protecting the rights of people of all religions to worship as they see fit.
Well, all religions except Judaism. Jews aren’t allowed by Israeli law to pray atop the Temple Mount. And, of course, there’s that dispute about the Western Wall.
Sadly, if we weren’t so busy being outraged by UNESCO’s pro-Arab, anti-Jewish, counterfactual resolutions, some U.S. Jews might agree with the agency’s characterization of the Kotel as being occupied by the Israeli government in denial of the cultural site’s history.
National sovereignty is the primary argument I’ve heard from Israelis in defense of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to delay the institution of a permanent egalitarian section and pluralistic oversight at the Wall.
The Wall is Israel’s, the argument goes, and Israelis get to decide how to manage it. If non-Orthodox Jews want to change the status quo, they should make aliyah, but they’re not true lovers of Israel if their financial and political support for the Jewish state comes with strings meant to treat the prime minister as a puppet of Diaspora pluralism.
That attitude ignores the fact that the Wall is the cultural and religious heritage of all the Jewish people, not just Israelis. It ignores that mixed-sex prayer has a long tradition at the Wall. It ignores that diversity in Jewish practice existed even when the Second Temple towered above the Wall and that infighting over who was right cleared the way for the Romans to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple 1,947 years ago — a three-week period of devastation we began commemorating Tuesday, July 11.
But the Wall dispute itself bothers me far less than what underlies it: an angry dismissal of non-Orthodox Jews by many Orthodox Israelis. Our opinions don’t matter not only because we live 6,400 miles from Jerusalem, but also because we’re inauthentic in our Judaism.
We who participate in progressive streams of Judaism may be misguided in our attempts to adapt our religion to modern times, just as Orthodox practice has changed over two millennia of post-Temple exile and now ingathering. But it is a mistake, one that endangers the unity of the Jewish people, to equate level of traditional observance with level of religious belief.
We can disagree and debate without disrespect and without deceiving ourselves that we somehow can see into the hearts and minds of others.