Mother Rachel and Yitzchak Rabin are forever linked by adjacent yahrtzeits, hers on Heshvan 11, his on the 12th. They’re linked as well by one of Rabin’s final and finest moments in the Knesset. On Oct. 5, 1995, one day shy of a month before his assassination, Rabin asked the Knesset to ratify Oslo’s cornerstone “Israel-Palestinian Interim Agreement,” and what that meant for Rachel’s Tomb.
The Palestinians had demands? Fine. Rabin had demands, too: “As a Jewish nation, we must, first and foremost, pay attention to the holy places, to our religion, tradition and culture. We were strict about this in the Interim Agreement.”
He sure was strict about Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, the third holiest site in Judaism and the most personal, for many. Rabin told the Knesset, the agreement “determined that worshippers and visitors would not encounter Palestinian police, neither on their approach to the Tomb nor during their prayers. The main road to Rachel’s Tomb … will be the responsibility of the IDF. Guarding Rachel’s Tomb compound will be the responsibility of the IDF (or the Border Police), including three guard-posts outside the compound, which overlook the parking lot.”
According to Rabin, every detail of Rachel’s Tomb had to be under Israel’s control and Israel’s alone.
Rabin was a secular Jew but understood that he was representing the Jewish people, past and present. Before that 1995 agreement was drawn up, the Israeli papers reported that Knesset Member Menachem Porush was sitting in Rabin’s office when Rabin mentioned that Rachel’s Tomb was originally on the Palestinian side of the map. Through actual tears, Porush cried to Rabin, “Reb Yitzhak, Mama Ruchel,” how can we give her away?
A few weeks ago, on Oct. 21, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) voted 44 to one that “Bilal bin Rabah Mosque — Rachel’s Tomb” was “an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law, the UNESCO Conventions and the United Nations and Security Council resolutions.”
Although the U.S. cast the one “no” vote, even the U.S. was ambivalent. Earlier this year, “The Obama administration expressed its extreme displeasure with Israel’s inclusion of… Rachel’s Tomb in [Israel’s list of] Jewish heritage sites,” reported newspapers across the country.
When does the story begin? Genesis 35:20? How about The New York Times, Oct. 8, 1926, when it picked up an item from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: Rachel’s Tomb needed maintenance, and the Arabs said it was their right to do it. The Jews petitioned the British that “care of this site should be left to the Jewish community.” After all, JTA pointed out, “Sir Moses Montefiore secured the key of the tomb in 1841 for the use of the Jews.” The British sided with the Arabs.
The tomb was shared. By 1936 the Arabs gained complete control, and no Jews were allowed to enter for the next four years.
The Western Wall might be as vulnerable to UNESCO as Rachel’s Tomb. The Wall is in east Jerusalem, where Israeli sovereignty is not recognized by the United States or the United Nations, and there is legal precedent for declaring the Wall a mosque.
On June 9, 1931, the Times reported that an international commission, with the approval of the League of Nations, determined that “Moslems have sole ownership of, and sole proprietary right to the Wailing Wall and the adjoining pavement.”
Jews were arrested for blowing a shofar there, because, as the Times later explained, “riots flared from Arab resentment at the blowing of the horn so close to the Mosque of Al-Aqsa.”
Fast forward to this week: The Jerusalem Post reports (Nov. 23) that “The Western Wall belongs to Muslims and is an integral part of Al-Aqsa Mosque and [the Temple Mount], according to an official paper from the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Information in Ramallah.”
The PA claims that Al-Buraq Wall — get used to it — “constitutes Waqf property owned by an Algerian-Moroccan Muslim family,” and its stones constitute “the western wall of Al-Aqsa Mosque.” Only “Muslim tolerance” has allowed Jews to “weep” there over the Temple’s destruction.
Jewish newspapers that devoted weeks of news and opinion to the proposed mosque in lower Manhattan gave almost no coverage to the news that Rachel’s Tomb was now legally a mosque, as well.
It was not even considered a story when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about it in his speech to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in New Orleans (Nov. 10):
“Talk about distortions,” said Netanyahu. “Can you imagine that UNESCO tried to deny the Jewish connection to Rachel’s Tomb… This absurdity… The Jewish people are not strangers in the Land of Israel.”
The Washington Times (Nov. 11), and the online New York Sun (Nov. 2), were two of the few papers that covered UNESCO at all.
Benny Avni, in the Sun, said UNESCO will be a “test” for President Barack Obama and the new Republican leadership in Congress. Incoming Speaker John Boehner and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have called for the U.S. to leave UNESCO, saving $78 million in American contributions.
But in Los Angeles, The Jewish Journal (Nov. 11) ran an opinion piece by columnist Larry Derfner, headlined: “UNESCO is right, Israel is wrong.”
According to Derfner, “For all good, belligerent Jews, UNESCO is the outrage of the month. But they’re just blowing smoke again, trying to get off the defensive about the occupation by accusing the occupation’s critics of anti-Semitism. (Or, rather, delegitimization’ which is the new, approved euphemism now that ‘anti-Semitism’ has begun to sound like ‘wolf.’)”
What Netanyahu wants to do with these holy sites, adds Derfner, is to “politicize and exploit them as a means to entrench Israel’s hold on the West Bank.”
And what did Rabin want to do with these holy sites? Forgotten.
Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal – the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, was a widely sought analyst on the issue, from FOX News’ “Strategy Room” to local radio stations.
Rabbi Kula told The Jewish Week what he’d been saying on-air: “Are we closer to peace now that UNESCO did this? I ask Palestinians, was this helpful? I ask the Jews, when we finish with our anger, will we be closer to peace or further away? People who want to erase each other inflame each other. This just hardens everyone at a time when we need to soften. The right gets hardened, and the left makes believe this doesn’t matter, it’s all the settlers fault and if they would just leave…”
Just as Rabin was secular but understood that Rachel’s Tomb was bigger than that, it would be great, said Rabbi Kula, “if the Jewish left could say, ‘Maybe I don’t believe in the Bible but, you know, this was so unbelievably hurtful.’”
Rachel cries for her children. Who cries for Rachel?