The Palestinian Authority achieved another milestone on their quest for UN membership on Monday when UNESCO voted to make them a full member. Despite the fact that the organisation now stands to lose 22% of its budget as the US cuts its funding, this has been seen as a righteous victory for an oppressed people on their way to independence.
I would argue, however, that unlike the other UN bodies, UNESCO holds a particular role in this conflict that might be bigger then even membership to the general assembly. The major role of UNESCO for most people outside the diplomatic world is for the establishment of World Heritage sites. It lists different places and states their history and significance.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be seen as one of connection vs. control. Each people claim an undisputed connection to the land in which they live and which the other people live in two. Each pursue their historical narratives to justify their claims over various swaths of territory. One of the solutions to this conflict that I advocate is the splitting up of connection and control.
As a religious Jew I have a deep connection to Shechem and Hebron even if Palestinians’ call these cities Nablus and Al-Khalil. Yet my connection to these parts of the land does not lead to my control over them. I am a fervent believer and advocate of the two state solution and recognise that though I will never give up my connection to the land that falls in the West Bank, I have to give up my want to control it for the sake of peace.
This argument is the same for Palestinians who find their natural homes in what is now Israel. No one should ever deny their connection to the land, but for peace their control over it must be given up.
Exactly this time last year, UNESCO declared that the Tomb of Rachel, the biblical matriarch, which lies just outside Bethlehem, is to be recognised as a mosque. Nowhere in its deliberation did it point to its historical significance to the Jewish people, only that to the Islamic residents of the land. This historical scrubbing out of Jewish connections to different parts of the land is what the Israelis base much of their fear on and use it as proof of a grand Palestinian plan to uproot the whole of Israel.
In any peace deal, the tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron will have to be under Palestinian control. This is the second holiest site in Judaism. Will the PA insist on it being seen as a site of Islamic and Christian worship only to UNESCO? Looking at President Abbas speech at the UN last month where he purposefully ignored the Jewish connection to the land, it seems that this is a distinct possibility.
More than any other UN agency, UNESCO has the ability to further this conflict by reclassifying different sites in the West Bank to ignore their Jewish heritage. If they do this, they will make the painful compromises that the Jews of Israel need to make even harder to get to.
No-one has the right to deny Jewish, Islamic or Christian connections to the land. I hope that UNESCO and its newest member recognise this and do not proceed to rewrite the Bible.