UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), in January closed down an exhibit in its Paris headquarters. The exhibit was deemed a danger to the Palestinian-Israeli Peace Process in a small gesture that bore a grave warning. Its message was deemed negative because it chronicled the Jews’ connection to the Land of Israel. In a move towards reconciliation, it is now going to be shown in the New York UNESCO facility.
Highlighting the vital importance of the modest exhibit, Mark Weitzman, director of government affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told The Jerusalem Post, “We wanted to make sure the historical record was straight. It’s important to make sure the facts of history are not overshadowed by the current political situation.”
In Januray of 2014, without any prior warning, the exhibit was cancelled. The exhibit, titled “People, Book, Land – The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People and the Land of Israel,” was two years in the making, and was created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) together with UNESCO. It was scheduled to open on January 20th, 2014, at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters but was cancelled when a letter, signed by the representatives of 22 countries, was submitted protesting the exhibit, saying it would “endanger the peace process”. The invitations had been sent out and exhibition was already in place. The display was co-sponsored by Israel, Canada and Montenegro.
The show was curated by Hebrew University Professor Robert Wistrich, a leading international historian, the head of the Hebrew University Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism and the author of numerous award-winning books.
It tells the history of the Jewish People in the Middle East, from the biblical patriarch Abraham to the present-day State of Israel. According to the exhibit’s creators, it shows the uninterrupted presence of Jews in the land of Israel for nearly 3,500 years, and the fidelity of Jews to their original homeland through centuries of persecution both in Israel and abroad. According to the Hebrew University, the main thrust of the show is cultural-historical, with a strong emphasis on the centrality of education, culture and science in the Jewish heritage – values which are part of UNESCO’s credo.
Complaints by Arab member states of UNESCO led to the exhibit’s indefinite cancellation in January of last year. UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said at the time that the decision arose out of UNESCO’s support for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a process that would be complicated by a reminder of the inconvenient facts of Jewish history. The talks ended unsuccessfully in April despite the exhibit’s cancellation.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said in a statement at the time of the cancellation, “It is precisely that narrative that the Arab League did not want the world to know about.”
UNESCO informed the SWC of the change on January 14th in a letter to the Center’s Shimon Samuels, asserting the Arab League’s claim that going ahead with the show “could create potential obstacles related to the peace process in the Middle East.”
In a letter to Irina Bokova, president of UNESCO, President of the Arab group within UNESCO, Abdulla al Neaimi, from the United Arab Emirates, expressed “deep worry and great disapproval” over the program showing the age old connection between Israel and the Jewish people.
“The subject of this exhibition is highly political though the appearance of the title seems to be trivial. Most serious is the defense of this theme which is one of the reasons used by the opponents of peace within Israel,”
The Arab League wrote: “The publicity that will accompany… the exhibit can only cause damage to the peace negotiations presently occurring, and the constant effort of Secretary of State John Kerry, and the neutrality and objectivity of UNESCO.”
“For all these reasons, for the major worry not to damage UNESCO in its… mission of support for peace, the Arab group within UNESCO is asking you to make the decision to cancel this exhibition,” Al Neaimi concluded.
It is interesting to note that prior to the Arab League’s objection, the State Department withdrew the US as a sponsor of the exhibition, using language almost identical to that of the Arab League. Here is the US position:
“At this sensitive juncture in the ongoing Middle East peace process, and after thoughtful consideration with review at the highest levels, we have made the decision that the United States will not be able to co-sponsor the current exhibit during its display at UNESCO headquarters,”
At the exhibit’s New York opening, Canada’s ambassador to the UN, Guillermo Rishchynski, who delivered his remarks partly in French, paid homage to the efforts that the Simon Wiesenthal Center made to bring the exhibition to the UN.
“My country stands beside you and is proud to associate with the noble mission of the Simon Wiesenthal Center – to never forget the Holocaust and to learn from it. It is precisely for these reasons that Canada has sponsored this exhibition. We hope that all who view it will be motivate by the spirit of respect and mutual comprehension.”