How the Hebron issue led to the US Leaving UNESCO

A biased vote regarding Hebron led to both Israel and the United States quitting a UN body.

19.10.20, 13:23
(PHOTO: Member of Knesset Tzipi Hotovely displays a picture of Hebron during a Knesset session on the UNESCO vote.)

The summer of July 2017 was when the town of Hebron became the focal point of a controversy that resulted in the United States and Israel leaving the United Nation's UNESCO body. Today, the UN officially considers the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs a "Palestinian World Heritage Site in danger," but the political fallout from their bid had lasting ramifications.

What started as a proposal to delegitimize the State of Israel and its Jewish history, resulted in an international fiasco involving heads of state, ambassadors and diplomats.

In 2017, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization held the 41st Session of the World Heritage Committee in which World Heritage Sites are determined. Designating a location as a World Heritage Site is a long process, but the Palestinian Authority was able to sidestep the process by submitting a bid to consider the ancient site a "World Heritage Site in Danger" and thus bypass other criteria.
The Jewish community of Hebron was instrumental in garnering supporters which eventually led to UNESCO being dropped by two powerful countries. Yishai Fleisher, international spokesperson for the Jewish community of Hebron remembers contacting Member of Knesset Tzipi Hotovely, then Israel's Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the issue. The Hebron team quickly assembled literature and information for MK Hotovely to present at  a special session in the Knesset. The assembled foreign ambassadors met in Jerusalem as MK Hotovely explained the historic and religious significance of the city for the Jewish people.

This was just the beginning of a stream of elected officials voicing their opposition to the incredulous claim that Hebron was strictly a Palestinian heritage site.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the issue several times, calling the PA's proposal "fake history" and quoting excerpts from the Torah about the ancient city.

He later ordered a further reduction in Israel's annual UN membership fees by $1 million and said the money would be better used to fund Jewish heritage projects in Hebron.

MK Tzipi Livni, a staunch Netanyahu rival, released a video voicing her support for Jewish Hebron while attending the UNESCO women's conference in Paris.

Calling it a "terrible resolution," regarding the Tomb of Machpela she stated, "I am here not only for women's empowerment. I want them to hear what one woman from Israel thinks about the UNESCO decision."

In response, to UNESCO's vote, Israel left the UN body and the United States followed suit. US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called the decision an “affront to history" that “discredits an already highly questionable UN agency."

Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon praised the move stating “UNESCO is a body that continually rewrites history."

Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren added that UNESCO has joined a long list of those who sought to sever the Jewish people's connection to their heritage. "Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Ayatollahs… UNESCO like all those who came before it, will fail," he said.

Fleisher, in his capacity as Hebron spokesperson, travelled to Poland for the UNESCO vote where he met with popular American Jewish author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Israel's envoy to the UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen, and other representatives. In an interview with the American magazine Newsweek, he blasted the vote as "national identity theft" and said the PA had hijacked UNESCO for their own political gains. "They have taken one of the foundational landmarks of Jewish history and have appropriated it as their own," he said.

Fleisher and Rabbi Boteach also noted the significance of the vote taking place in Krakow, Poland which has historical significance for Jews as one of the Nazi ghettos from where Jewish civilians were shipped off to the gas chambers.

Shama-Hacohen provided one humorous instance during the stormy voting session on that summer day in 2017. During his speech condemning the UNESCO vote, he was interrupted several times by his phone. He summed up his speech by stating that the plumber was calling to inform him there was an urgent problem with his toilet. "This is far more important than the resolution you just passed," Shama-Hacohen quipped.
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