Earlier today I wrote about the implications of an important new archeological discovery that highlights the 3,000-year-old Jewish heritage in East Jerusalem. Such finds have political significance specifically because the whole focus of Palestinian nationalism has been to deny Jewish ties to the land and to attempt to rewrite history in such a way as to expunge the historicity and continuity of the Jewish presence.
But the reason why this issue is so important was brought home again today by a statement coming from Robert Serry, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. In it, Serry went out of his way to condemn the recently announced National Heritage Plan announced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because two ancient Jewish religious shrines were included in the list of sites to be preserved and protected. Serry objected to the inclusion of Rachel’s Tomb outside Bethlehem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the list of essential places in Jewish history, because the two are in the West Bank and thus, in his view, “occupied Palestinian territory.” The fact that they are located on land that is subject to dispute between the two parties is of no interest to the UN official who, despite his status as a peace mediator, is ready to dictate where the borders of a putative Palestinian state must be. But Serry’s argument is not merely one of borders, because in the same statement he claimed that the sites “are of historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam, and to Christianity as well.”
It is true that Christians and Muslims have an intrinsic interest in any biblical site. And since Muslims, like Jews, consider Abraham to be one of their patriarchs, they have a religious stake in the Cave of the Patriarchs. But Muslims have never been willing to share this most ancient of Jewish shrines with other faiths. Throughout the history of Muslim control of the land of Israel, through the Ottoman era and even during the time of British rule, Jews were forbidden to enter the cave and were, instead, constrained to ascend no higher than the seventh step of the entrance to the sacred place. Jewish prayer inside the cave only resumed in June 1967, after the Israeli conquest of Hebron, after which the two religions have shared the place despite the history of tension and bloodshed in the Hebron area.
As for Rachel’s Tomb, it is simply a lie to consider it anything but a Jewish synagogue. No faith but Judaism has ever held worship services in the place or considered it a shrine. Palestinian propaganda that has attempted to portray it as some sort of a Muslim site are of recent vintage and utterly false.
But much like the history of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where Jews were forbidden even to visit while it was under Muslim sovereignty from 1949 to 1967 during Jordan’s illegal occupation of East Jerusalem, the only thing that has guaranteed Jewish access to both the Hebron and Bethlehem sites has been Israel’s control of these areas. Moreover, and this is a crucial point, the only time in the history of Jerusalem or Bethlehem or Hebron that these religious sites have been kept free and open to all visitors of all faiths has been the 42 years since the Six-Day War. Netanyahu’s Heritage Plan is no threat to other faiths, because only Israel is committed to religious freedom and the protection of all religious shrines.
Should the UN coordinator have his way and Rachel’s Tomb or the Cave of the Patriarchs ever fall under the control of the Palestinian Authority, let alone Hamas, we know very well what would happen. Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, a longtime site of Jewish worship and study, was sacked and burned by a Palestinian mob aided and abetted by PA policemen in 2000 at the outset of the second intifada. The PA has prevented the reconstruction of the site. An ancient synagogue in Jericho, also under PA control, met the same fate.
By opposing the Jewish Heritage Plan, the UN isn’t merely sniping at Netanyahu. It is signaling its backing of a Palestinian and Muslim approach to the history of the land in which Judaism is systematically erased. If indeed Serry and the UN are actually interested in preserving these sites for members of all faiths to visit, rather than in merely chasing the Jews out of them, the only formula for their preservation lies in continued Israeli control.