Information about the location and status of more than 2,000 synagogues in Europe and parts of the middle east has been provided to European and other western military authorities, among them the UK Ministry of Defense, in hopes that this material would help protect the buildings in times of war.
An announcement issued this week said the material provided included synagogue inventory work commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Heritage and carried out in Europe by the Center for Jewish Art (CJA) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and in Iraq and Syria by the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR).
These surveys listed synagogue buildings and ranked them in terms of their importance; JHE was informed that military authorities were provided with information on the sites deemed important on an international, national, and regional level.
The material included descriptions and geolocation coordinates, as well as information on the sites in Iraq and Syria not currently available to the public.
“More than 2,000 nationally and internationally important Jewish heritage sites in Europe, Iraq and Syria are now listed to be protected in the event of armed conflict,” the announcement said. “In order for armed forces to be able to fulfil their responsibility to protect cultural property, they must be able to identify it.”
Dame Helen Hyde, Chair of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, said that providing the information represented an “example of how our unprecedented Jewish heritage research work has demonstrated its value.”
Despite the fact that important cultural property and places of worship that constitute cultural or spiritual heritage are protected during war under several 20th century agreements and protocols, religious sites have long been specifically targeted in various conflicts — either by design or as collateral damage.
Most notably regarding Jewish heritage, the Nazis made the destruction of synagogues and other Jewish sites part of their policy in carrying out the Holocaust.
During the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Serbian forces specifically targeted mosques in Bosnia and elsewhere; at the same time, two Serbian shells hit the roof of the 16th synagogue in Dubrovnik, Croatia during an attack on that city. In 2015, the remains of the synagogue in the ancient Sur district of Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey, were demolished during a siege that saw violent fighting between the Turkish government and Kurdish insurgents and destroyed or damaged many historic buildings in what is a UNESCO world heritage site.
“I of course hope very much that these inventories will not be needed,” Dr. Vladimir Levin, Director of the Center for Jewish Art stated in the announcement. “We saw enormous damage to cultural heritage in the last decades and now at least some of the combatants will have detailed information on Jewish heritage sites to be protected.”
The announcement reiterates that cultural and religious sites are protected under these agrements:
the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, signed by more than 130 countries, and its two Protocols (1954 and 1999)
the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions
customary law, such as the 1907 Hague Regulations.