At the end of Oct, the executive committee of the Paris-based UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared that it will henceforth recognize the Tomb of the Biblical matriarch Rachel, which is located between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, not as a Jewish holy site, but, rather, as the Mosque of Bilel Ibn-Rabach.
The recognition was approved by 44 of the 58 members of UNESCO’s board. Despite Israel’s bitter opposition, 12 countries from Europe and Africa abstained. Only the US voted against the proposal.
Four other UNESCO measures passed by similar margins, all calling on Israel to refrain from archeological activities in several Biblical sites, including the Temple Mount, where Muslims have systematically destroyed priceless artifacts, sometimes burying them under layers of limestone and other times simply discarding them haphazardly.
UNESCO also demanded that Israel remove from its list of Jewish heritage sites the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where, according to Jewish tradition, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and matriarchs, Sarah, Rivka, and Leah, were buried 4,000 years ago.
In Hebron, a Jewish community spokesman, Noam Arnon, noted that the Cave of Patriarchs “was a Jewish site thousands of years before Islam ever existed.”
While there is a Muslim cemetery surrounding Rachel Tomb, the facility itself was never used as a mosque. In fact, according to most scholars, local Muslims, too, have traditionally referred to the site as Rachel’s Tomb or “Kubat Rahel,” in Arabic.
Muslim travelers in the Middle Ages used that terminology. Muhammad al-Idrisi, the great Muslim geographer of the 12th century CE wrote: “On the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is the Tomb of Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin.”
Even under Ottoman rule, the tomb was recognized as a Jewish holy place to which Jews had free access. It was never regarded as a “Palestinian-Muslim site.”
Although the PA and its supporters now claim the tomb is “a 1,000-year-old mosque,” historians say Muslims began referring to it that way only 44 years ago at most.
Nevertheless, the PA has insisted that, as part of the territory won by Israel in 1967, Rachel’s Tomb, like everything else in Judea and Samaria, must be turned over to them, judenrein, in any final peace agreement. This, they insist, includes the last vestige of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the 2,000-year-old Kotel, as well as the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
After the announcement by UNESCO, PA President Mahmoud Abbas warned that if Israel does not relinquish the tomb as a Jewish heritage site, it will set off a “holy war.” His sentiments were echoed by Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Hamas blatantly called for violence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Mr. Abbas of conducting a “deceitful campaign of lies and hypocrisy” by referring to Jewish sites as Moslem mosques.
No Jewish Prayer
Rachel’s tomb, which is located within Bethlehem’s city limits, remained under Israeli control when the rest of Bethlehem was transferred to the PA in 1995. Israel has maintained control of the part of Hebron where the cave is located as well as the Old City of Jerusalem and the Kotel.
PA leaders say that when the Jews relinquish those sites to them, Jewish prayer will no longer be allowed because they will all become mosques. In fact, the Palestinian narrative now insists that there never was a Temple in Jerusalem and that Jews have no right to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs.
Jews, of course, beg to disagree. In an ironic coincidence, the week UNESCO ordered Israel to relinquish its claim on the Cave of the Patriarchs, the portion of the Torah read in synagogues throughout the world was Chaye Sara, the chapters in the Book of Genesis which recount how Abraham, in his search for a burial site for his beloved wife, Sarah, bought the Cave and its adjacent land from Ephron the Hittite for 400 shekels of silver as a deed in perpetuity.
No Jewish Heritage
According to UNESCO director Irena Bokova, the decision to declare Rachel’s Tomb a mosque was made out of “concern” after Israel named the facility as well as the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron “Jewish heritage sites.”
In its report ceding Rachel’s Tomb to the Muslims, UNESCO appeared to support the PA’s demand for the Temple Mount as well, asking that Muslim officials be allowed to examine the Mughrabi Gate near the Western Wall. Muslim leaders have accused Israel of attempting to damage the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount under the guise of effecting repairs to the Mughrabi Gate.
Israeli officials have warned that if the gate is not properly maintained, it could collapse, putting Jewish worshippers at the Kotel at risk.
The action taken by UNESCO has angered Jews throughout the world, many of whom feel particularly devoted to the matriarch Rachel and her tomb. On the 11th of Cheshvan, which, this year, fell on Oct 19, thousands of Jews visit the tomb to mark the traditional anniversary of the matriarch’s death, her yahrtzheit.
In the Talmud, written centuries before Islam was founded, it notes that Jacob buried his beloved Rachel on the road to Efrat because he foresaw that future generations of Jews would later pass the site on their way into exile and he wanted her to pray for them.
In 333 CE, a Christian known as the Bordeaux pilgrim recorded seeing Rachel’s Tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem, as did Jerome, the early Church father who moved to Bethlehem from Rome in 386 CE.
“The attempt to disconnect Israel from its heritage is absurd,” said Mr. Netanyahu. “If the locations in which the mothers and fathers of the Jewish people were buried are not part of the Jewish heritage, then what is?”
He called it “unfortunate” that UNESCO, which was “established to promote historic sites around the world is trying, for political reasons, to uproot the connection between Israel and its heritage.”
He also stressed the difference between Israel and its Muslims neighbors regarding holy sites. “The State of Israel, in contrast to its neighbors, will continue to maintain freedom of worship for all religions at these sites, as well as their preservation for posterity,” he said.
Under Israeli sovereignty, the administration of the mosques on the Temple Mount has been allocated to the Muslim Waqf, which, ironically, forbids Jews to utter even silent prayers at the site. Israel has agreed to share space with Muslims at the Cave of the Patriarchs, an arrangement the Muslims say will end when the Jews vacate the area.
Not surprisingly, Jewish religious leaders received the news of the UNESCO statement with fury. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, spiritual leader of the Western Wall and other Jewish holy sites, called it “an outrageous distortion of history” and advised the Israeli government to consider curtailing any further cooperation with the UN group.
Even secular groups reacted with indignation. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the World Jewish Congress, and the Zionist Organization of America, among others, issued scathing denunciations of UNESCO, arguing that its statement flies in the face of the organization’s mandate, is one-sided, and presents “an affront to history.”
Mort Klein, president of the ZOA, noted that it was “particularly dishonest and offensive” of UNESCO to issue its proclamation in light of the many Jewish holy sites that have been destroyed, vandalized, or left in disrepair by the PA.
Nablus and Jericho
The Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva at Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem (Nablus), for example, was destroyed in 1996 by Palestinian rioters and the tomb itself was demolished in 2000 by Palestinian mobs as soon as IDF forces were temporarily withdrawn. Another Jewish site, the Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue in Jericho, which was discovered only after the 1967 Six-Day War, was also deliberately devastated by Palestinians in 2000.
Despite claims that Rachel’s Tomb is holy to Muslims, the site has been the target of extensive Palestinian shootings, bombings, rioting, rock-throwing, and vandalism.
“The Palestinian denial of Jewish history and rights only too clearly underscores why peace is unfortunately not possible with Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah-backed PA. UNESCO’s similar denial only underscores its complete servility to the Arab-Muslim war on Israel and invalidates it as an organization worthy of Western funding or participation,” said Mr. Klein, noting that this episode “is simply the latest, albeit one of the most egregious chapters in the history of Israel-bashing by UNESCO.”
According to some reports, the UNESCO actions against Israel’s holy sites were instigated by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last spring after the flotilla incident. American diplomats reportedly tried to ward off the UNESCO decisions, telling colleagues that the actions would hurt not only the Jews and Israel but also the credibility of UNESCO itself.
By its actions, UNESCO has given a gift to those who oppose US membership—and dues—to support the group. In 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan withdrew the US from UNESCO, arguing that American funds were being wasted on a group known for excess and corruption. In 2003, the Bush administration rejoined.
By issuing its newest anti-Israel announcement, UNESCO has presented the new US Congress with its first post-election test. The new presumptive Speaker of the House, Rep John Boehner (R-OH), and the new majority leader, Rep Eric Cantor (R-VA) were among the first to call on the US to withdraw from UNESCO.
According to Messrs Boehner and Cantor, terminating American support for UNESCO would save taxpayers an annual $78.1 million.