Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Heritage Site is Jewish, Not Just Palestinian

On Monday, the New York Times reported about the effort by Palestinians to have the village of Battir designated as a World Heritage site because of the unique ecological nature of the ancient terraced irrigation system at work there. The terraces might be endangered by the construction of Israel’s security fence that in the area runs right along the 1949 armistice lines. While it is not clear that the barrier would actually damage the area, ironically the greatest obstacle to the designation of the site by UNESCO is that the Palestinians are also seeking to get the same honor for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

But as bloggers Elli Fischer and Yisrael Medad have pointed out, the problem with the article isn’t so much its acceptance of the Palestinian argument against putting the fence there (which is also ironic because Israel’s critics have objected when the barrier was placed anywhere but at the old green line), but that it completely ignored the Jewish heritage of the area. Battir is not just a Palestinian village with an old irrigation system but was the site of the ancient Jewish fortress of Betar, the site of the last organized resistance to Roman rule in 135 C.E. during the Bar Kochba revolt. Moreover, far from the irrigation system being, as the Times claimed, a remnant of the Roman presence, it predates their presence in the country and is clearly the product of biblical-era Jewish settlement. As Medad put it, “Romans, Shmomans.”

Medad also points out that a closer look at the accounts of the dispute there shows the villagers’ problem has more to do with their faulty sewage system than any threats from Israeli construction crews in a nearby valley.

But the main point here is not so much the argument about the location of the fence as it is the willful erasure of the Jewish connections of a place that Palestinians are seeking to have honored for its historical significance. Betar was the last gasp of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel for 1,800 years and a place where tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered by the Romans.

As Fischer notes:

In fact, the Talmud offers an alternative explanation for the fertility of Battir: “For seven years [after the fall of Betar] the gentiles fertilized their vineyards with the blood of Israel without using manure.”

In this respect the promotion of Battir as a memorial to the supposed history of the Palestinians is stereotypical of the way their supporters have done their best to ignore or actually deny the Jewish connections to this land.

UNESCO stands alone as the only UN agency that recognizes the Palestinian Authority as an independent state. It has in the recent past recognized Jewish religious shrines such as the Tomb of Rachel outside Bethlehem as mosques, so there is little hope it will treat Israel or the Jews fairly. But if it is to grant this site the World Heritage designation, it should, at the very least, declare it to be important to the history of both Jews and Palestinians. In doing so, it would give the lie to the claim that Jews are usurpers or foreigners in the West Bank. And that is probably reason enough for it to continue denying Jewish history and heritage.