October 18, 2018

UNESCO sets date for Jews in Israel exhibit

After sustaining withering criticism for its abrupt decision to postpone a planned exhibition about the millennia of Jewish history in the land of Israel, UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural and education arm, announced Jan. 21 that the exhibition will be presented at its Paris headquarters, opening June 11.

Co-sponsored with the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, the show, “People, Book, Land — The 3,500-Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land,” had been in the works for more than two years and was days away from its initially scheduled Jan. 20 opening when a representative for the Arab League urged UNESCO to cancel it.

In a Jan. 14 letter to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, a representative for 22 Arab countries claimed that mounting such an exhibition could threaten the efforts being made by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to achieve a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The same day, a UNESCO staffer informed a Wiesenthal Center executive in Paris that the exhibition would be postponed “to a later date.” 

[Related: UNESCO halts Israel’s Jewish history show after Arab nations protest]

That move generated immediate outcry from Jewish leaders worldwide and from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who called UNESCO’s decision “wrong.”

On Jan. 21, after multiple meetings with Wiesenthal Center executives, UNESCO announced the exhibition will be inaugurated in June at UNESCO House in Paris. In the statement, UNESCO said it “was in discussions with the Wiesenthal to finalize the last points” of the exhibition. According to the Wiesenthal Center, however, the show had been ready to open by its original January date. Moreover, its content had been vetted by UNESCO staff and three separate teams of UNESCO-appointed academics over the course of its two-year development.

On Jan. 23, Rabbi Marvin Hier called UNESCO’s about-face a major victory. “It was simply ludicrous for the 22 Arab states that belong to UNESCO to attempt to torpedo the exhibition, just days before its opening, on the grounds that it interferes with Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to jumpstart the Middle East peace process,” Hier said in a statement. “Our exhibition, vetted and approved by both the UNESCO and Wiesenthal Center’s teams, had nothing to do with the peace process.”