Should Charleston become UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Aerial view of the Temple Mount.

An impressive group of civic-minded Charlestonians has organized an effort to have Charleston named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (their website is www.CharlestonWorldHeritage.org). There are over one thousand UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites, including city centers of historic European cities, the Great Wall of China, Monticello and Versailles. It is a wonderful concept, and Charleston should certainly be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although, I must say, Charleston is already a world heritage site with or without UNESCO, and I am not sure we need any further allures to bring in more tourists.

Once upon a time, in another lifetime, UNESCO was a significant cultural and educational organization. It has done much good for mankind. However, in recent years it has been taken over by the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), founded after the Six Day War. The OIC has an obvious agenda and has become, like the United Nations itself, an organization obsessed with demonizing Israel and the Jewish people. The OIC acts through the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (IESCO) as an Islamic version of UNESCO.

In accordance with United States law, the U.S. Congress refused to fund UNESCO due to its admittance of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), an Arab terrorist organization calling itself, variously, “the Palestinian Authority” and most recently “Palestine,” as a UNESCO member state. UNESCO’s action was contrary to current and long-standing bipartisan American foreign policy. Congress will not budge on this position any time soon, especially in light of current events. The United States’ dues constituted 22 percent of UNESCO’s annual budget. UNESCO retaliated against the United States by suspending our voting rights in its general assembly, although the U.S. is still on the executive board. (The whole story can be found at the Congressional Research Service, www.CRS.gov). The fact that UNESCO is presently a renegade organization is, however, no reason for Charleston not to try to bring them around to civilized norms.

In April of 2016, at UNESCO’s 199th Executive Board conference held in Paris, the Executive Board of UNESCO passed a decision erasing all historic Jewish ties to the Old City of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, and the tombs of Rachel and the Patriarchs. This was quite a remarkable act as UNESCO denies that the two Jewish temples (known to all students of history, Christianity and Judaism, as Solomon’s and Herod’s temples) located on the Temple Mount ever existed. The mosques on the site were built centuries later on the ruins of the Jewish temple during the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land in 691 A.D.

The text of UNESCO’s decision referred to Jewish holy sites in Arabic terms in a concerted effort to eliminate their Jewish history. Israel is consistently described throughout the text as the “occupying power,” despite the historic, cultural and religious significance of the sites to Judaism, the Jewish people and Christianity. This was done despite Israel’s legal annexation of East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, after the Six Day War when Arab nations began a war of aggression against Israel and were soundly defeated. The UNESCO decision described the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb, two of the most holy sites in Judaism, as being “integral to Palestine” and demands that Israel “remove the two Palestinian sites from its national heritage list.” Throughout the text of this decision, the Temple Mount where the Jewish Temples stood was called “al-Haram al-Sharif,” which translates to the Noble Sanctuary, an Islamic term. The Western Wall of the Second Temple known to mankind and especially Jews and Christians as “the Wailing Wall” was referred to as “al-Buraq Plaza,” another Islamic reference. It is not only insulting to Jews but to all of mankind and to any educated person or person of faith. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations strongly criticized UNESCO for referring to the Holy Sites as “Occupied Palestine” and omitting any reference to the Jewish Biblical connection to the Temple Mount. “This decision is a disgrace and it brings shame to UNESCO,” chairman Stephen M. Greenburg said. The decision also refers to Hebron and Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, as solely “Palestinian” sites. On their World Heritage list UNESCO lists the Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route in Jerusalem as being in “Palestine” when it is obviously in Israel.

UNESCO’s Board met in Istanbul earlier this month and was poised to pass an even more stringent anti-Jewish resolution, but the committee members fled during the coup attempt. (The coup at least accomplished something positive.)

In short, UNESCO as presently constituted stands for everything Charlestonians abhor. From its inception, Charleston has been a haven of religious tolerance, particularly towards its Jewish citizens. John Locke’s Fundamental Constitution of Carolina (1699) guaranteed religious tolerance to dissenters, Jews and even heathens! Charleston has a long and illustrious history of religious tolerance.

So should Charleston apply to UNESCO for designation as a World Heritage Site? By all means, yes. The current effort under way should proceed. UNESCO needs Charleston badly, and the Charleston effort should include a Charleston addendum to its application to serve as a model for all applicants both in the United States and around the world. As you may imagine, I have proposed a draft of such an addendum:

Charleston seeks to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site in keeping with its traditions of religious tolerance and agrees to accept the designation of World Heritage Site at such time as UNESCO adopts the following Charleston principles: (1) UNESCO will respect the history of all religions, including the history of Jewish people; (2) UNESCO will acknowledge the history of all people, regardless of their race, religion or nationality, including the history of the Jewish people in Jerusalem and all other areas of Israel, Palestine or the Middle East; (3) UNESCO will return to its former role as a nonpolitical cultural agency and revoke all resolutions, statements and decisions which take sides in political and religious conflict, including the current conflict in the Middle East, between Israel and Palestinians, or other groups.

Once the historic preservation community worldwide lets UNESCO know that what is left of its shattered credibility as a cultural institution is at stake, its leaders will either take all necessary steps to return to the good work it is capable of performing or UNESCO should be ignored by people of good will.

As for Charleston, this is yet another opportunity to bring Charleston values to those desperately in need of them. To those who may ask “who are we to tell UNESCO what to do?”, I would reply that Charlestonians know that the Ashley and the Cooper rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean.

Charleston stands for tolerance and should not lend its internationally respected name and praiseworthy history to an unworthy cause. Charleston should lead an international effort to bring UNESCO to its senses — if that is still possible.

Robert N. Rosen is a Charleston lawyer and the author of “A Short History of Charleston,” “Confederate Charleston,” and “Jewish Confederates.”