UNESCO postpones Israeli-Jewish history show

When UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, abruptly and indefinitely postponed the Jan. 20 opening of an exhibition in Paris on the 3,500-year history of Jews in the land of Israel, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and co-founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Los-Angeles-based NGO that co-sponsored the exhibit with UNESCO, said he hoped Jews around the world would voice their displeasure with the decision. 

“Hundreds of thousands of letters they deserve,” Hier said on Jan. 17, three days after a representative from the Arab League persuaded UNESCO to put off the exhibition with a last-minute letter of protest. “Otherwise, UNESCO has fully adopted the Arab narrative of the history of the Middle East, and if Jews around the world don’t like that, we have to let them know.” 

In the days that followed, many did just that. Jewish leaders from around the world decried UNESCO’s decision to halt the exhibit, numerous news outlets covered the story, and the United States — even though it had refused to co-sponsor the exhibit one week earlier — called the move “wrong.” And, in a statement released Jan. 21, UNESCO said it was “in discussions with the Simon Wiesenthal Center to finalize the last points and inaugurate the exhibition in the month of June.”

The origin of the exhibit goes back to October 2011, immediately following UNESCO’s decision to admit Palestine as a full member state. UNESCO then worked for two years with the Wiesenthal Center to create the show titled “People, Book, Land —The 3,500-Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land.” UNESCO personnel had vetted each of 24 informational panels to be displayed in the exhibition, and it had convened three separate  groups of outside academic expert overseers, who forced a few key changes to the exhibition, including removing the word “Israel” from the show’s title.

The display’s materials already had arrived at UNESCO House in Paris, thousands of invitations to the opening already had been mailed, and many dignitaries and supporters of the Wiesenthal Center already had made travel arrangements when Abdulla Alneaimi, a delegate to UNESCO from the United Arab Emirates, wrote on Jan. 14 to UNESCO, urging the organization to cancel the exhibition. 

“The subject of this exhibition is highly political, though the appearance of the title seems trivial,” wrote Alneaimi, chairman of the Arab group of countries with delegates to UNESCO. “Even more serious, the defense of this theme is one of the reasons used by the opponents of peace in Israel, and the publicity that will accompany and surely follow the exhibit can only cause damage to the ongoing peace negotiations, and the constant efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as the neutrality and objectivity of UNESCO.”

Hier said he first broached the possibility of UNESCO co-sponsoring an exhibition about the millennia-long Jewish connection to Israel on Oct. 31, 2011, the same day UNESCO granted full membership to Palestine as an official state. Six months later, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova visited Los Angeles and signed on to the idea of the exhibition. UNESCO agreed to host the exhibition; the Wiesenthal Center committed to fund the entire cost — more than $100,000 — and hired Robert S. Wistrich, a professor of European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to compose the texts for the displays.  

Three other nations — Israel, Canada and Montenegro — joined as co-sponsors of the exhibit. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, invited the United States to join as an official co-sponsor as well, but in a letter on Jan. 9, 2014, a State Department staff member declined, citing the “sensitive juncture in the ongoing Middle East peace process.” 

Hier called the U.S. decision not to co-sponsor the exhibit “very problematic” and even speculated that, had the United States joined in, UNESCO might not have postponed the exhibit. 

“Had the United States come in as a partner, [UNESCO] would have been frightened,” Hier said. 

In the wake of the controversy, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power called UNESCO’s decision to postpone the exhibit “wrong.”  

“UNESCO is supposed to be fostering discussion and interaction between civil society and member states,” Power told Reuters on Jan. 17, “and organizations such as the Wiesenthal Center have a right to be heard and to contribute to UNESCO’s mission.”

Hier initially called the postponement of the show tantamount to an outright cancellation, but after UNESCO said in a statement on Jan. 17 that it is “committed and actively engaged to working with Member States and partners to hold the exhibition in conditions that promote cooperation and dialogue,” Cooper declared himself willing to “go one more round to find out what it is the problems are.” 

Cooper, who met with UNESCO’s Bokova on Jan. 21, the day the Paris-based agency announced the tentative June date, said the Wiesenthal Center “will only officially react when we have it in writing.”

UNESCO has asserted that some elements of the exhibit hadn’t yet been agreed upon, including “unresolved issues relating to potentially contestable textual and visual historical points, which might be perceived by Member States as endangering the peace process.”

Cooper, who led the exhibit’s development for the Wiesenthal Center and held a press conference on Jan. 20 in Paris decrying UNESCO’s decision to postpone it, told the Journal on Jan. 20 he didn’t know what elements UNESCO was referring to. 

“We don’t have any plans to change the body of that exhibition,” Cooper said from Paris on Jan. 20. “It was already ready to be hung, which means it had been vetted by UNESCO.” 

The exhibit may eventually be mounted at UNESCO House in Paris, but it remains to be seen whether that will blunt the outrage that Jews and Jewish leaders have expressed in recent days at the decision to postpone. Cooper said the Jewish reactions he’s heard have been nearly unanimous. 

“I cannot recall, frankly, since Durban, 2001,” Cooper said, recalling the World Conference Against Racism where delegates to the United Nations likened Zionism to racism, “in which there was a kind of gut-level reaction from Jews all over the world, of different religious and political persuasions, that said, ‘You know what? We’ve just been slapped across the face.’ ”

Hier, as the head of an organization that focuses a great deal of its efforts on memorializing the Holocaust, took care to note that UNESCO will commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Paris later this month.

“They’re excellent at commemorating the Holocaust,” Hier said. “I applaud them for that, but it’s too bad that it stops at that.

“UNESCO prides itself on being a place of education, of culture, of freedom of expression,” Hier continued. “Only one idea is verboten in UNESCO: the idea that the Jews had a 3,500-year relationship with the land of Israel. 

“That? Take that idea somewhere else.”