From left: Rabbi Elie Abadie, JJAC co-vice-president, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova and CRIF president Roger Cukierman at their meeting in June.
Point of No Return exclusive
As the jihadist terrorists of the Islamic State (IS- also known by its Arabic acronym of DA’ESH) advance over swathes of Syria and Iraq, the UNESCO director general, Irina Bokova (pictured), has spoken of the need to take urgent action to protect Jewish heritage in the Middle East.
“Islamic, Christian, Kurdish and Jewish heritage,
among others, is being intentionally destroyed or attacked in what is
clearly a form of cultural cleansing,” warned Irina Bokova at a meeting held on 29 September 2014 at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. “We are
gravely concerned about the scale of trafficking in cultural goods, from which
Iraq has already greatly suffered over the past decade,”she said.
Campaigners for the rights of Jewish refugees say that Bokova’s specific mention of Jewish heritage may have resulted from a meeting they had in June to express their concerns about the destruction of Jewish sites in the Middle East.
“Our message has got through,” Dr Stan Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, noted.
A joint delegation of Justice for Jews from Arab
Countries (JJAC) and le
Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF), submitted to Mrs Bokova up-to-date reports on the dire status of 100 Jewish holy sites
remaining in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, as well as recognizing some
positive developments to preserve sites in Morocco and Tunisia.
Dr Urman welcomed the setting up of an multifaith Commission by UNESCO, one of the Jewish delegation ‘s key demands at the June meeting. On 17 July, UNESCO brought together leading
experts and partners to launch an Action Plan for the Safeguarding of
Iraq’s cultural heritage.
The encounter with JJAC and CRIF followed Mrs Bokova’s statement of 28 May expressing
her “dismay at the destruction of the historical synagogue of Eliyahu Hanabi in
Damascus” and her call “on all parties to halt immediately the destruction of
Syrian heritage”. She re-iterated in the meeting that the destruction of this
400-year- old synagogue is “not acceptable”.
Participants at the 29 September meeting described how Iraqi cultural
sites, like Jonah’s Tomb in Mosul, Assyrian palaces, churches and other
monuments, are being destroyed and looted. Concerns are mounting that
pillaged goods will be trafficked internationally. Protecting this
heritage, even in conflict, is imperative, they insisted.
The French ambassador to UNESCO, Philippe Lalliot, echoed a point which the Jewish delegation had made to Mrs Bokova in June: a conflict against culture is by extension an effort to erase the identity of a people.
“We may feel uneasy about denouncing crimes against
heritage when horrifying acts of violence are being committed against
people. Is it right to be concerned about cultural cleansing when the
dead are being counted in the tens of thousands? Yes, absolutely,” said
Ambassador Lalliot. “Because the destruction of heritage that carries
with it the identity of a people and the history of a country cannot be
considered as collateral or secondary damage that we can live with. It
is on par with the destruction of human lives.”
Qais Hussein Rashied, Director of the Baghdad
Museum, confirmed that DA’ESH were selling priceless artefacts through middlemen abroad “to finance terrorism.”
Iraq’s ambassador to UNESCO, Mahmoud Al-Mullakhalaf,
called on all States Parties to UNESCO’s Conventions, including the 1954
convention on the protection of cultural property in the event of armed
conflict, the 1970 convention on illicit traffic of cultural goods, and
the 1972 World Heritage Convention “to fight terrorism, defeat it and
help us to restore our heritage.”
In collaboration with the Iraqi authorities, UNESCO
has called for utmost vigilance from the world’s great museums, the art
market, Interpol and other partner organizations in the fight against
illicit traffic and has shared information relevant to Iraq’s cultural
heritage with all parties involved in air strikes.
UNESCO has also requested that the Security Council
adopt a resolution to outlaw all commerce of Iraqi and Syrian cultural