In case you missed it, the UN’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently declared that Rachel’s Tomb is a Palestinian cultural site which is “endangered as a result of Israeli occupation.” UNESCO doesn’t call it an Israeli site, or a Jewish site, despite it being situated only 460 meters south of Israel’s capital. The UN, by claiming that Rachel’s Tomb is also a mosque, is endangering Jewish claims to our homeland.
In last week’s parasha, Vayetze, Jacob Avinu (our forefather) is marrying Rachel Imeinu, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin and is buried just outside of Efrat. As it is written in Bereshit 35:19-20. “And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Efrat, which is Beit Lehem. And Yaakov set a pillar upon her grave.” This pillar would stay there for generations. Benjamin of Tudela, the 12th century traveler, described the tomb as eleven stones on the grave, with a cupola on four columns covering it. He told how the Jews passing by would write their names on the stones of the pillar.
This biblical account is not believed only by the Jewish people, but is accepted as truth by Christians and Muslims alike as the history of the Jewish people is also the history of Christianity and Islam.
Rachel’s Tomb may be holy for Muslims and seen by Palestinians as a cultural site, but only due to its identity as a Jewish holy site.
We share a common heritage, and attempts by the Palestinians and the UN to attack our ancestry are deeply offensive. Rachel’s Tomb is first and foremost a Jewish landmark, although it is open to all.
It takes a lot of nerve to claim that Israel’s attempts to protect the burial site of the Jewish People’s maternal figure amounts to “Israeli consolidation of Palestinian heritage sites.” This politically motivated decision is wildly inaccurate, insensitive, and about as far from an objective conclusion as one could make. It is quite literally against what UNESCO stands for. This is another shot fired against the legitimacy of the State of Israel, and an attempt to tweak history to pursue a political agenda.
Jews have always come to Rachel’s gravesite. Even during Ottoman rule, it was still officially regarded as a Jewish holy site. From 1830 until 1948, the keys to the site were held by Jewish caretakers. Ironically, the first area that Muslims used as a prayer room on the site was only built in 1841 by none other than Lord Moses Montefiore, a prominent Jewish Englishman who also served as Sheriff of London.
Muslims historically respected the sanctity of the site, but never attempted to convert it into a mosque.
Every scrap of historical evidence contradicts the UNESCO decision, showing just how crazy and dangerous it is to call Rachel’s Tomb a Palestinian cultural site. I’m not sure what documents UNESCO was looking at, but a legal document signed August 10th, 1830 by the governor of Damascus states that Jews “are accustomed to visit it from ancient days, and no one is permitted to prevent them or oppose them (from doing) this.” It goes on to specifically grant ownership of the site to “Jerusalem’s Jewry.” Since the early 19th century, the only time Rachel’s Tomb has been inaccessible to Jews was from 1948-1967, when the Jordanian army controlled parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank.
So why did UNESCO call the site “the Mosque of Bilal ibn Rabah”?
Bilal ibn Rabah was an Ethiopian slave who was freed by Mohammed and became the first “Muezzin” of Islam. Muslims universally consider Damascus to be ibn Rabah’s resting place.
While Rachel’s Tomb can be found referenced as the name of the site in seemingly every document in history, no “Mosque of Bilal ibn Rabah” is mentioned anywhere until 1996. The effort that year by Palestinians to change the site’s name was part of an initiative to claim the land for Islam exclusively. This was in no way nationalistic or patriotic but an aggressive, ignorant gesture meant only to offend their Jewish neighbors. Furthermore, attempts to Islamicize the site do a disservice Muslims, for they ignore what makes the site so special. Rachel, as the maternal symbol of the chosen people, is thus also an important figure in the development of Islam.
The beauty of the Torah is that it is regarded as the word of G-d by all three monotheistic religions. Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike read and respect our Bible. Thus, when the Land of Israel was controlled by the Muslim Caliphates, they respected Jewish sites, as our culture and history is an integral part of their identity. No one would even think to argue that Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia, one of the world’s most stunning examples of Byzantine architecture, has always been a mosque. Muslims prayed in the Hagia Sofia for centuries, but it does not change the fact that the building was built before Islam even existed, as a Christian church in a place called Constantinople. Claiming that the Tomb of Rachel has no ties to the Jewish people is as crazy as claiming that Istanbul and the Hagia Sofia have no ties to the Christian Byzantine Empire.
Muslims have respected and revered the burial site of Rachel for centuries not in spite of, but because of its Jewish heritage.
Dwelling on UNESCO’s declaration misses the larger point. This story is about more than international classification of a cultural site. It is about ignoring history and embracing ignorance. By rewriting history, they are attacking the legitimacy of the Jewish people to live in their homeland. When Hamas, Al Qaeda, or Ahmadinejad say they wish to “wipe Israel off the map” it is not only nuclear weapons we need to be afraid of. Whitewashing Jewish history is the first step towards removing Israel. While we need to worry about dictators like Ahmadinejad trying to carry out their own “final solution,” we need to be aware that the campaign of delegitimization pursues the same goal. Forcibly separating Jewish and Israeli history through propaganda and lies allows one to be openly anti-Semitic, choosing to bash “Israel” as a codeword for the Jewish people.
UNESCO and the Palestinians behind this stunt should be ashamed of themselves. Our Palestinian neighbors can join us and share this wonderful land, and we hope they will, but they cannot uproot us from the land of our ancestors.
Therefore we will not cooperate with UNESCO on this biased decision.
I end with the famous words of the prophet Jeremiah, which are so relevant to us today, Jeremiah 31:14:
“Thus said Hashem: A voice is heard on high, wailing, bitter weeping, Rachel weeps for her children; she refuses to be consoled for her children, for they are gone. Thus said Hashem: Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for there is reward for your accomplishment – the word of Hashem – and they will return from the enemy’s land.
There is hope for your future – the word of Hashem – and your children will return to their borders.”
Rav Joel Lion is Consul for Media and Spokesperson at the Consulate General of Israel in New York
The OU’s Institute for Political Affairs (IPA) issued a condemnation of UNESCO’s decision. To read the full body of this text, please click:
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.