Sunday, October 15, 2017


Who knew a small city in Palestine could madden American officials so much that they chose to pull out of UNESCO, the educational, scientific and cultural wing of the UN.  The bone of contention wasn't so much putting Hebron's Old City on the World Heritage List, but treating it as a part of Palestine.

Back in the 1980s,  the United States similarly was upset with UNESCO, which it felt had grown too big for its britches with over 160 member countries.  All these new members diluted the "original intent" of the organization to act as a cultural propaganda arm of the United States during the Cold War.  After all, the US footed most of the bill and expected UNESCO to act in its best interests.

The US didn't return to UNESCO until 2002, which Olivia Waxman feels once again was politically motivated as the Bush administration was looking to build an international coalition against Afghanistan and Iraq.  I suppose he felt that after the Taliban had destroyed the Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan in 2001 this wouldn't be too hard to do.  However, this isn't what UNESCO is about.  It is about promoting peace and reconciliation, not revenge.

This is what led UNESCO to recognize Palestine as a member state in 2011, which also didn't go down well with the United States.  Since then the US has not been paying its dues, building up a $550 million debt, which Heather Nauert, a spokeswoman for the US State Dept, said would have to be evaluated on a cost-benefit analysis before paying any of its arrears. 

Obama was bound by Congressional law to withhold any dues to a UN agency that recognized Palestine.  I guess UNESCO did a cost-benefit analysis of its own and decided it could make up the shortfall in cash other ways.  The US lost its vote in UNESCO, not that it seemed to have any active interest in it other than to "protect" Israel's interests.

It's not like UNESCO ignored Israel.  There are several important cultural and historical sites on the World Heritage List, even the Modernist "White City" of Tel Aviv, designed by prominent Jewish architects like Erich Mendelsohn, who fled Germany before WWII.  More sites would be included if Israeli ICOMOS members took the time to prepare the evaluation forms.

The US ICOMOS branch has virtually ignored the World Heritage List with only a small sampling of its many cultural and historic sites on the list.

ICOMOS is short hand for International Council of Monuments and Sites.  It is composed of archaeologists, architects, anthropologists, planners and other professionals from around the world, who each year meet to assess the state of world heritage monuments.  Last year, I went to a conference in Istanbul.  This year, I will be going to Delhi with my wife.  I can say firsthand it isn't in the business of politicizing important cultural and historic sites.

The reason for admitting the Old City of Hebron and the Caves of the Patriarch as Palestinian sites is simple.  They are part of Palestine.  Not only UNESCO but the UN recognizes Palestine as an "observer state."  The US and Israel are the ones politicizing this decision, not UNESCO.  If you look at the new entry for Hebron on the World Heritage List, you will see that all three religions are mentioned, as the city spans three millennia of history.  The Cave of the Patriarchs has yet to be listed.

What we see is the typical knee jerk reaction to anything the UN does in relation to Palestine, no matter how benign.  This simple recognition has no impact on relations between Palestine and Israel, much less warranted the over-reaction by the Trump administration.  Bibi Netanyahu says Israel will pull out too.  Maybe the US and Israel should pull out of the UN all together since they get so easily miffed each time Palestine comes up?  It's like two unruly kids trying to rule the schoolyard.

For Hebron this is a big deal, additional tourism is associated with being a world heritage site.  Thanks to all the attention it is receiving by the US and Israel, it may get even more tourism in the coming years.  Unless, of course, Israel stands in the way.

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