Last week, a UNESCO conference was hastily convened at its Paris headquarters to discuss what can be done to preserve what's left of heritage sites in Iraq and Syria. But is it too little, too late, for Jewish heritage sites? Lyn Julius writes in Arutz Sheva:
Frescoes from the Dura Europos synagogue, now in the Damascus National Museum, are thought to be safe
iconoclastic jihadists of Islamic State - or Da'esh (ISIS) - had
captured a region in northern Iraq which contained 15 percent of Iraq's
registered archaeological sites. Believing that shrines ought to be
destroyed lest they encourage idol-worship, they have already blown up
or burnt to the ground shrines such as the tombs of Jonah and Seth, Christian churches and Shi'a mosques.
Like most UN agencies, UNESCO has blown hot and cold towards Israel
and the Jewish people. On the one hand it has admitted Palestine as a
member and backed Palestinian claims to Jewish holy sites like Rachel's
tomb. On the other it has named Tel Aviv "creative city for media arts". On the one hand, it hosted an exhibition on "the Holy Land."
On the other had it insisted that the word Israel not appear in the
title and that "politically incorrect" aspects of the Jewish state, like
wars and Jewish refugees from Arab lands, were left out.
But this time, UNESCO had made a point of including the Jews in its
conference. The UNESCO director-general, Irina Bokova, has condemned
the destruction in May 2014 of the Jobar synagogue near Damascus, which,
legend has it, goes back to the time of Elijah the Prophet.
When a JJAC delegation, accompanied by CRIF, the body representing
French Jews, submitted a list of 100 endangered Jewish sites to Mrs
Bokova in June, she lent a sympathetic ear. And when Professor Shmuel
Moreh, who has worked long and hard for the preservation of ancient
Jewish sites in Iraq made his case, Mrs Bokova - or her aides - were
listening. Professor Moreh was flown over from Israel to be a special guest at the conference, along with representatives of Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen and Yazidis.
Mrs Bokova herself has said: "Culture and heritage are not about
stones and buildings - they are about identities and belongings."
A conflict against culture is by extension an effort to erase the identity of a people, especially vulnerable non-Muslim minorities.
No doubt, Irina Bokova's heart is in the right place, but when I arrived in the imposing glass and concrete building, the institutional bias was there in subtle ways.
An exhibition of photographs in the foyer called "Palestine and Jerusalem" marked "International Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian people". The photographs were taken by the French order of
the Dominican friars at the turn of the 20th century. To judge by the
images on display, Palestine was a pastoral land of monasteries and Arab
shepherds, processions of Muslim and Christian pilgrims. Not a Jew in
sight - yet we know that Jerusalem then had a Jewish majority. So much
for not "erasing a people's identity".
Mrs Bokova opened the proceedings by thanking Kuwait and Saudi Arabia
for funding the conference. (No one appreciated the irony that Saudi
Arabia had not exactly preserved its own heritage itself - having
destroyed Muhammed's house and other ancient sites).
In both Syria and Iraq, she observed, Islamic State have demolished,
pillaged and dug up archaeological sites, sometimes with bulldozers, and
sold relics on the international black market in order to finance their
malevolent deeds. She called for "cultural zones" to be established,
starting with the great Umayyad mosque in Aleppo.
Conference speaker after speaker called for good neighbourliness and
respect. The UNESCO motto was a mantra: "It is in the minds of men that
the defences of peace must be constructed." Education was the answer.
A cynic might ask: what planet do they live on? "Cultural zones" when
people were starving? "Civic identity to be built from the bottom up"
when people were being beheaded? "Good neighborliness and respect" when
people were being sold into slavery?
One Syrian parliamentarian called for refugees to return
from exile to claim their heritage. But when the neighbors have been
ethnically cleansed, as the Jews had been from Syria and Iraq, with no
prospect of return, who will speak up for their heritage? Who would
ensure that when the time came to rehabilitate and renovate, traditional
Jewish shrines such as the most revered of all, Ezekiel's tomb, would
not be turned into mosques?
It was already happening. The Hebrew inscriptions had been removed
from the renovated tomb of Joshua the High Priest near Baghdad.
Loudspeakers had already been affixed to Ezekiel's tomb, and Koranic
inscriptions hung on the walls. Who would ensure that the original
character of the shrine would be retained?
The Hebrew inscriptions have been painted over at the renovated shrine of Joshua the High Priest, as these 'before' and 'after' photos show (thanks: IraqiJews (of Babylon))
And if objects stolen from minority communities are recovered in the
West, why should they be sent back to the Syrian or Iraqi governments?
As the saga of the Iraqi-Jewish archive demonstrated - the personal
possessions and mementos confiscated from their Jewish owners by Saddam
Hussein and shipped for restoration to the US - they should be
restituted not to governments, but to the community which has been
Beyond the expression of high-minded sentiments, none of these questions were answered.
In one important respect the conference might achieve results: museum
chiefs declared they would treat with suspicion any artifacts offered
to them from the Middle East, and would conduct "due diligence" checks
as far as possible. But private collectors were less likely to be
circumspect about the provenance of items. The international art market
was a vessel too leaky to render watertight.
It is tempting to conclude that organisations like UNESCO, which were
founded on the pillars of intergovernmental law, seem well past their
sell-by date in a world where
non-state actors ride roughshod over "kaffir" international treaties and
conventions. Even before the era of Islamic state, neither Syria nor
Iraq were signatories to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of
Cultural Property in the event of armed conflict.
The great and the good gathered on that foggy day in Paris were
right: education was the answer. But it would take many generations to
instil respect for the Other. Too late for the Jews of Iraq and Syria,
at any rate.
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