Heritage wars – the politics behind the US pulling out of Unesco

When identity politics and ancient treasures collide. 

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In quitting Unesco, the educational, scientific and cultural body of the UN, Donald Trump continues his policy of making short-sighted decisions seemingly based upon a personal antipathy to what cannot be found in his own backyard. At the same time, the decision reflects older issues, offering a sense of déjà vu for world heritage.

More than once the United States has opposed participation in international bodies struggling to make sense of the diverse and often contradictory endeavours that make up our human culture. Ronald Reagan withdrew from Unesco in 1984, citing poor management of funds and Soviet partiality. George W Bush rejoined in 2002, wishing to participate once again fully in the organisation’s mission. Even the Obama administration withheld funding when Unesco recognition was given to Palestine. It is disturbing that the large remit of this UN organisation boils down to the question of relatively specific problems. At the same time, it is worth asking whether the situation in Israel-Palestine is illustrative of wider heritage concerns.

Unesco's primary function is to look after the world's heritage sites, although it also sponsors international cultural activities. It is funded by contributions from countries around the world, with the US contributing up to 22 per cent of ths budget, although it has missed funding rounds in recent years. When the US pulled out, Trump criticised Unesco‘s finances, but declared his action to be primarily a result of anti-Israel bias. Israeli added that the withdrawal showed  “there is a price to pay for discrimination against Israel”.

Heritage has become centre stage in the world today. Due to both natural and human-inflicted disasters, many of our cities are taking a beating. Across the Middle East such ancient centres as Aleppo in Syria, Sana’a in Yemen and Mosul in Iraq are now considered to have the heaviest urban destruction since World War II. With good reason, the charter establishing Unesco in 1945 linked cultural diversity with human tolerance “to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms”. In many cases, heritage abuses are also human rights violations. After all, the slash and burn policy of the Myanmar military not only forces the Rohingya people out of the country, it obliterates all aspects of their culture on home soil.

The post-war confidence in a better future, exemplified in the original Unesco directive, is elusive today. Clearly heritage is politicised; national, religious and ethnic groups claim historic sites in order to assert their own legitimacy which in turn reinforces the practice of identity politics. Heritage is being manipulated - and paradoxically the organisation most dedicated to protecting heritage is struggling for its own secure position. 

Israel has quickly followed the US out of Unesco. It is true that there have been a relatively large number of resolutions condemning actions, such as archaeological excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem. However, these resolutions in turn reflect both the occupation of Palestine, which has gone on for many decades without any resolution, and the fact that the disputed territory contains a great number of significant world heritage sites.

Most recently, the ire of the US and Israel has focused on Unesco’s declaration of Hebron (al-Khalil in Arabic) as a World Heritage Site and an endangered Palestinian city. The issues are complex. The central holy site, crudely split into synagogue and mosque, commemorates the tombs of the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs and is also the place of veneration of Ibrahim, the Muslim prophet and messenger known as Abraham in the Hebrew Bible, and one of those very patriarchs. Religions overlap, even if politics and daily life do not. But the issue does not begin and end with the holy site. Today 200,000 Palestinian Hebronites live under the thumbs of about 1,000 Jewish settlers and the large Israeli army contingent there to offer them security. The historic quarter particularly suffers from the conflict. 

Nowhere is more complicated than the Old City of Jerusalem, sponsored in 1981 by Jordan for the Unesco World Heritage List, but by 1986 already considered endangered. As much as Israel tries to have the threatened status removed, the required combination of physical protection, cultural diversity and human tolerance is clearly lacking.

President Trump has branded Unesco’s approach as a “one-sided attempt to ignore Israel’s 3,000-year bond to its capital city”. However it needs to be remembered that Israel is the long-term occupying power. In Jerusalem it supports the programmes of ideologically-motivated Jewish settler groups who use their own heritage interests to justify the intimidation and eviction of Palestinians from their homes. No reciprocal action is offered to the Palestinians; in the Old City, settlers rehabilitate abandoned Jewish buildings and build new homes in the Muslim Quarter, but Palestinians are prohibited from returning to their sites in the Jewish Quarter.

In large areas of the Old City settlers are digging an extensive network of tunnels and underground chambers claimed to enhance Jewish history and collective memory. Yet little of substantial value has been uncovered, while the tunnels create an indeterminate zone of religious nationalism and occupation. And although physical subsidence into the tunnels is possible but unlikely, the digging encourages rumour and fear of collapse from above of some of the world’s most important Islamic monuments.

Above ground, a broad stretch of hills and valleys surrounding the Old City is displacing Palestinian neighbourhoods to become the “Holy Basin”. Although the area does contain Jewish, Christian and Islamic holy sites, the idea of a holy basin never existed in history. It is a present day construct, especially attuned to the desire to find traces of the biblical city of King David. Again, heritage invention is employed to appeal to the aspirations of the dominant political culture.

The sorts of abuses found in these sites are certainly not restricted to Israel-Palestine, but they do illustrate much of what is wrong with our understanding of heritage today. Firstly heritage is being used a weapon in an extended political occupation. Secondly, in the quasi-religious, quasi-archaeological indeterminate zone, nothing is what it seems, and the combination of reliable and unreliable evidence will be passed on to future generations. In practices where historical precedent and evidence matter little, we seem to be witnessing the heritage equivalent of fake news. In this sense, Donald Trump’s decision-making is written all over it.

Wendy Pullan is Professor of Architecture and Urban Studies at the University of Cambridge.