By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on Frontline.
UNESCO has postponed a Simon Wiesenthal Centre-sponsored Jewish Exhibit but gives the SWC the green light to destroy the Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem in order to build its Museum of Tolerance. By VIJAY PRASHAD
The United Nations eduational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) often finds itself in the midst of the Israel-Palestine dispute. When UNESCO granted Palestine membership in 2011, the United States and Israel stopped funding the organisation. These two states lost their voting rights last year as a result of their refusal to pay their dues. In mid-January this year, UNESCO cancelled an exhibition sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre (SWC), a long-time campaigner for Jewish rights born in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The U.S. State Department had been a co-sponsor of the SWC exhibit. It pulled out its sponsorship, and the Arab group within UNESCO sent a sharp note warning that the exhibit “could create potential obstacles related to the peace process in the Middle East”. The U.S. State Department and the Arab group in UNESCO worried that the exhibit—“People, Book, Land: The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People and the Land of Israel”—which was set to open on January 20 in the UNESCO’s Paris headquarters would undermine Israel-Palestine talks.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power and the French campaigner Bernard-Henri Lèvy criticised UNESCO for the cancellation. Levy’s essay on the matter was riddled with falsehoods and exaggerations, which earned him a very mild rebuke from UNESCO’s Director-General, the Bulgarian diplomat Irina Bokova. Apart from showing that Levy’s essay missed the mark, Irina Bokova stated that UNESCO had not cancelled the exhibit but only postponed it until June. The controversy has therefore been tabled.
In all the back and forth over UNESCO’s decision regarding the SWC exhibition, no one mentioned another SWC project which involved UNESCO. To the west of the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, the SWC is constructing a Museum of Tolerance on the historic Mamilla Cemetery, a site that is worthy of UNESCO protection. A prolonged fight over the past decade by the Campaign to Preserve Mamilla Jerusalem Cemetery has come to naught, as UNESCO has tacitly given the SWC the green light to destroy this ancient cemetery in order, ironically, to build its Museum of Tolerance. In the case of the SWC exhibit, UNESCO seems to have dithered because of conflictual signals from the U.S., but in the case of the Mamilla Cemetery it has been a willing ally of the SWC.
The postponed exhibit by the SWC makes the case for a long and unbroken link between the Jewish people and the land that Israel now controls. The link between the land and the people is precisely what bedevils the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. To host this exhibit, UNESCO said, would jeopardise the delicate negotiations in the region. Abdulla al Nuaimi, a diplomat from the United Arab Emirates and head of the Arab group in UNESCO, wrote to Irina Bokova: “The subject of this exhibition is highly political though the appearance of the title seems to be trivial. Most serious is the defence of this theme which is one of the reasons used by the opponents of peace within Israel”, namely that the land (Palestine) is given to a people (Jews) by a book (Torah).
The U.S. initially agreed with the Arab group. Kelly Siekman, Director of the Office of UNESCO Affairs at the U.S. State Department, noted: “At this sensitive juncture in the ongoing Middle East peace process, and after thoughtful consideration with review at the highest levels, we have made the decision that the United States will not be able to co-sponsor the current exhibit during its display at UNESCO headquarters.”
The SWC’s Rabbi Marwin Hier was understandably furious about what he called a “naked political move”, admitting that the purpose of the exhibit was to show that “the Jewish people did not come to the Holy Land only after the Nazi Holocaust, but trace their historical and cultural roots in that land for three and a half millennia”. The SWC first proposed to hold the exhibit elsewhere in Paris before the U.S. and Israel—countries with no formal voting powers any longer in UNESCO—insisted that UNESCO hold the exhibit in the months to come.
What makes this story so murky is not the cancellation of the show, but its production in the first instance. UNESCO and the U.S. government agreed to sponsor this show despite its clear-cut political purpose—to demonstrate a link between the State of Israel as constituted in 1948 and antiquity. There is now a considerable record on the way in which Israeli archaeology has hastened to discount pasts in Palestine that are not Jewish. The scholar Nadia Abu el-Haj, in her book Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (2001), illustrates how Israeli archaeologists used bulldozers to “get down to the earlier strata, which are saturated with national significance, as quickly as possible” and thereby avoid or even destroy strata that have non-Jewish artefacts. To make the land Jewish, it was essential to minimise the presence of other people in its ancient and more recent past (which is the reason why the eminent historian Beshara Doumani named his 1995 book Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900). UNESCO’s agreement to host the show indicates either naiveté towards the dispute or else disregard for it—until the U.S. State Department and the Arab group decided to act.
Jerusalem’s Mamilla Cemetery is a burial ground from early Islamic times with important Sufi shrines and Mamluk and Crusader tombs contained in it. In 1927, the Supreme Muslim Council ceased to allow any more burials here and demarcated it as a historical site. The State of Israel seized it in 1948, and it has over the years encroached upon what should, based on international and Israeli law, be a protected site. In 1964, a section of the cemetery was bulldozed and converted into a parking lot and a toilet. Not only has the cemetery not been protected or treated with dignity, but part of the land has since 2004 been suborned for the SWC’s Museum of Tolerance.
Rabbi Hier, who was so outraged by the cancellation of the U.S. and UNESCO sponsorship of the exhibit, was cavalier when he said in 2010 that the museum would be built not on the cemetery but “on an adjacent 3-acre site where, for half a century, hundreds of people of all faiths have parked in a three-level underground structure without any protest”. But half a century before this, the three-acre site had been part of the cemetery, as noted by Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University historian and one of the leaders of the Campaign to Preserve Mamilla Jerusalem Cemetery.
A stay order from the Islamic Court, which is a part of Israel’s justice system, was ignored by the government. The Al Aqsa Association of the Islamic Movement and the Campaign to Preserve Mamilla Jerusalem Cemetery continued to raise awareness with marginal effect—architect Frank Gehry left the project, but the museum itself remained on track. The Campaign sent numerous letters to UNESCO, asking its Director-General to do an on-the-ground study, but to no avail. At most, UNESCO said that it had urged the Israelis not to despoil the cemetery, but nothing of this correspondence is in the public domain.
The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) conducted a secret dig in the south-west perimeter of the cemetery as bulldozers entered the site on June 26, 2011, to dig up over a hundred graves. Gideon Suleimani, Chief Excavator of the IAA, wrote that the entire expedition into Mamilla had resulted in “significant archaeological transgressions that go to the heart of the ethical issues in the archaeology profession”.
Israeli laws—such as the 1978 Antiquities Act and the 1994 regulations by the Ministry of Religious Affairs on removal of human remains—have been violated. Heiner Bielefeldt, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, wrote to the Israeli government asking for information on the cemetery to ensure that “excavations and construction works on Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem respect and promote cultural heritage and cultural property as well as freedom of religion or belief”. When Bielefeldt sent in his final report to the U.N. he regretted “that he has so far not received a reply from the Government of Israel”.
The Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York and the Campaign to Preserve Mamilla Jerusalem Cemetery wrote to UNESCO on several occasions, but heard back only once. In August 2010, Francesco Bandarin, Assistant Director-General for Culture of UNESCO, said that UNESCO had twice reached out to the Israelis since 2006, but it seemed to have received no reply. He also said that Mamilla was not in the mandate of UNESCO since it was outside the Old City. The latter point is remarkable since UNESCO’s mandate is much wider than that.
Indeed, in 1986, UNESCO had taken a clear position for the protection of the cemetery. UNESCO’s Special Representative, Raymond Lemaire, wrote then: “With regard to the cemetery, it was confirmed to me that no project exists for the deconsecration of the site and that, on the contrary, the site and its tombs are to be safeguarded. The site is due to be improved in the near future. The municipality wishes to carry out the conservation and restoration of the tombs and the mausoleum in full agreement with the Waqf authorities.” The Israelis broke this compact not long afterwards, and certainly the plans to build the Museum of Tolerance are now far from their 1986 undertaking to UNESCO.
Irina Bokova did nothing visible to prevent the building of the Museum of Tolerance. Despite repeated calls on UNESCO to act since 2010, it did not even sent a Special Representative to study the situation on the ground. This was not from lack of mandate or resources. When Mali’s Ansar Dine destroyed Timbuktu’s ancient tombs, Irina Bokova took to CNN where she wrote a strong essay titled “Timbuktu Tomb Attack is an Attack on Our Humanity”. The attack on these tombs, she wrote, “is not only an attack on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage but also its values of tolerance…. It is an attack against the physical evidence that peace and dialogue is possible…. We call it an attack against humanity.” Irina Bokova went personally to Mali, calling for the reconstruction of the mausoleums “as soon as possible”. In February 2013, along with French President Francois Hollande, Irina Bokova returned to Mali and called for the cultural restoration to be done immediately as an essential element for national unity and reconciliation.
No similar enthusiasm was visible for the destruction of ancient tombs in Jerusalem, also a sign of tolerance —Mamilla is home to the tombs of Christians and Muslims (including Sufis). The destruction of one set of tombs is a “crime against humanity” while that of another is received with silence. One brings the Director-General of UNESCO to the site of the destruction, but the other does not even merit a visit by one of her representatives.
That UNESCO had to cancel—not postpone—the SWC exhibit is a marginal issue compared with the much greater crime, namely UNESCO’s turning a blind eye to the systematic destruction of the Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem.