Palestinians may themselves pay the price for UNESCO’s rewriting of history, even if it seems like a success to Palestinian leadership. Once again, the UN organization charged with promoting intercultural understanding and preserving cultural heritage has airbrushed the connection between the Jewish people and its holiest sites.
The Palestinian Authority, which spearheaded the campaign, has touted the resolution by the UNESCO executive board in relation to Jerusalem, which calls for recognition of Jerusalem’s sites that are “holy to Islam and Christianity” (but pointedly not Judaism), as a major achievement.
In purely political terms, however, the resolution was not a resounding success for the Palestinians. It received the support of only a minority of the members of the board, with a majority voting against, abstaining or choosing to be absent.
On another level, thoughtful Palestinians should have doubts about the long-term value of repeated Palestinian efforts to subvert the facts of history to a political agenda. This is particularly the case when it impacts the education of Palestinian children.
Consider the Palestinian campaign to re-brand Rachel’s Tomb. Until the 1990s, Palestinian schoolbooks referred to this site, located outside of Bethlehem, as the Tomb of Rachel, while Muslim scholars frequently described it using the Arabic terminology of “Rachel’s Dome, the Jewish place of worship.”
Starting in the mid-1990s, alongside a series of physical assaults on the site, the tomb was re-branded as the “Mosque of Bilal ibn Rabah,” and Palestinian textbooks were rewritten accordingly. This rewriting of history flew in the face not only of Jewish tradition, but also of Muslim teachings, in which Bilal ibn Rabah, Muhammad’s first muezzin, was buried in Damascus, and which had always revered the tomb as the burial place of the matriarch Rachel.
By the year 2000, the PLO newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadida was explicitly declaring that designation of the site as Rachel’s Tomb “was spurious,” and that it was originally a Muslim mosque, a claim shockingly adopted by UNESCO in 2010 and again in 2015.
I served as the head of the Israeli side of the Culture of Peace track of negotiations with the Palestinians during this Orwellian rewriting of history.
Our negotiation team was charged, among other things, with examining the role played by schoolbooks and education systems in perpetuating the conflict. In examining textbooks, we chose to place particular emphasis on deliberate distortions of history for political ends. In doing so, we recalled the famous saying of the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”
This emphasis on accuracy in education was given further impetus when my Palestinian counterpart in the negotiations, Sufian Abu Zaida, and I traveled together to Northern Ireland to learn from the experience of the Good Friday peace process.
One of the striking and impressive things that we learned was that leaders on both sides of the Irish troubles had insisted that history be taught honestly and unflinchingly to their schoolchildren. For both camps, providing their children with the true facts of history trumped the narrow gains of political propaganda.
On our return, inspired by what we had seen, we developed a program for school textbooks – on both sides – to be reviewed by an independent committee of experts. Sadly, when the program became publicly known, it was rejected by the Palestinian leadership.
Golda Meir’s famous saying, “Peace will come when our neighbors love their children more than they hate us,” is usually understood in the context of terrorists intentionally placing civilians in harm’s way. But it has an intellectual dimension too. Deliberately distorting the facts of history and teaching falsehoods solely to advance political goals is a form of child abuse.
Moreover, choosing to indoctrinate rather than to educate sends the tacit message that historic truth is something to be feared and avoided rather than confronted, and robs the next generation of the fundamental tools to build a strong and functioning society.
Persuading UNESCO to be complicit in the rewriting of history may today look to the Palestinian leadership like a political success. Tomorrow, however, Palestinians may discover that the real price is one they pay themselves.
Daniel Taub, a former ambassador to the United Kingdom, headed the Israeli side of the Culture of Peace negotiations at the Annapolis Conference in 2007.