Yesterday’s New York Times had an article by Isabel Kershner on the efforts to get the village and area around Battir recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Battir is an Arab village southwest of Jerusalem that is home to an ancient irrigation and terracing system. Petitioners claim that this ancient system is worth preserving and is hoping to prevent Israel from building its security fence right through the area, which straddles the Green Line.
The villagers have petitioned the Supreme Court in Israel to have the barrier rerouted here to prevent the destruction of the striking beauty of the area and its ancient system of cultivation. A court decision is pending. The conservationists hope that a recommendation from the World Heritage Committee may help persuade the court not to reject the villagers’ petition…
“Nobody thinks that Israel’s security concerns are not legitimate or important,” said Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an organization that works to promote cooperation on environmental issues in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories. But, he added, “there are alternative ways to bring about security without destroying 4,000 years of cultural heritage for the Israelis, the Palestinians and all of humanity.”
The article is fascinating, and Kershner is one of the better journalists writing in Israel for Western print outlets. Moreover, Battir would be an excellent choice as a World Heritage Site, though perhaps for reasons other than the ones cited by Kershner. There are some small bones to pick (for example, the article refers to the Green Line as an “armistice line”; one wishes that the arbitrariness and flexibility implied by that description would extend to all discussion of potential future borders between Israel and Palestine), but the biggest problem with the article is the egregious omission of perhaps the most significant chapter in Battir’s history.
Battir draws its name from Betar, the last Jewish stronghold to fall in the Bar Kokhba revolt. The fortress is identified with an area next to the present town called Khirbet al-Yahud – “the Jewish ruin.” The fall of Betar in 135 CE has been preserved in the archaeological and historical record as the final and utter defeat of the Jews, the last gasp of Jewish sovereignty for 1,800 years. Jewish memory – as preserved in the Talmudim and Midrashim – recalls Betar as a catastrophe of massive proportion whose implications for the future of Judaism exceeded even that of the destruction of the Temples. The rabbis viewed the fall of Betar, not the Temple, as worthy of adding a blessing to the Grace after Meals – a blessing that sought God in the minor miracles of an exilic existence and not in the divine flourishes of an integral Jewish civilization.
In fact, the Talmud offers an alternative explanation for the fertility of Battir: “For seven years [after the fall of Betar] the gentiles fertilized their vineyards with the blood of Israel without using manure.”
So Battir and its environs are certainly worthy of being marked as a significant site with Jewish as well as world culture. No doubt the ancient terraces are worth preserving. Yet if these hills are to be recognized as a World Heritage Site, they must be acknowledged, first and foremost, for its significance to Jewish history.
Cross-posted to the Times of Israel. Also, see Yisrael Medad's response to the NYT article]