October 22, 2019

UNESCO halts Israel’s Jewish history show after Arab nations protest

[For documents related to this article, see below]

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, after a representative from the Arab League wrote a last-minute letter expressing “great disapproval.”

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 show’s co-sponsor, the Los Angeles-based Simon 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 30 informational panels that were to be displayed in the exhibition, and it had convened its own group 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 had already arrived at UNESCO House in Paris, thousands of invitations to the opening had already been mailed, and many dignitaries and supporters of the Wiesenthal Center had already 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.

[Related: U.S. presses UNESCO on cancellation]

“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 within 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.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center, labeled UNESCO’s decision a sign of the organization’s inherent bias against Israel and Jews.

“UNESCO has fully adopted the Arab narrative of the history of the Middle East,” Hier said. “The Arab world is not interested in such an exhibition. Such an exhibition goes against their narrative that the world forced Israel upon them as a result of World War II.” 

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 onto 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 U.S. joined on, UNESCO might not have postponed the exhibit.

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

Hier is still holding out hope that the U.S. will support this exhibition, which asserts the longstanding connection between the land of Israel and the Jewish people. He said he has contacted a member of the Obama administration to urge the U.S. to take a stronger stand.

“I said to them that we certainly want this exhibition to go to the United Nations in New York, and we want the friends of Israel in the countries of the world to stand up and say, “Don’t hide true history.’” 

Hier called the postponement tantamount to an outright cancellation of the show. Indeed, in a Jan. 15 letter to Hier and Cooper explaining the decision to postpone, UNESCO’s Bokova left vague future plans, saying she was looking forward “to discussing these issues further with you in order to define a modality for moving forward with our cooperation.”

[For documents related to this article, see below.]

Nimrod Barkan, Israel’s Ambassador to International Organizations, wrote a letter to other UNESCO delegates on Jan. 15, urging the director-general to “reinstate the exhibition as soon as possible,” and the Wiesenthal Center is currently marshaling its supporters to protest UNESCO’s decision.

The panels that make up the now-postponed exhibit cover aspects of Jewish history in the land of Israel beginning with Abraham and continuing up until the present day. The panels had already arrived at UNESCO House in Paris when the Arab nations voiced their protest of the exhibit. UNESCO, in a statement on Jan. 17 explaining its decision to postpone the opening, said that there remained some “unresolved issues” relating to the exhibition, including “potentially contestable textual and visual historical points, which might be perceived by Member States as endangering the peace process.” Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center.

A statement released by UNESCO on Friday, Jan. 17, stated that there are “[a] number of elements relating to [the exhibit that] still remain to be 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.”

“In this context,” UNESCO’s statement reads, “regrettably, UNESCO had to postpone the inauguration of the exhibition.”

“UNESCO remains strongly committed to addressing the remaining outstanding issues with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a longstanding official partner of UNESCO, in an associate status,” the statement concluded. “UNESCO remains equally committed and actively engaged to working with Member States and partners to hold the exhibition in conditions that promote cooperation and dialogue.”

On Jan. 20, the day the exhibit was scheduled to open, Cooper plans to conduct a press conference in Paris and Hier will do the same in Los Angeles. The Wiesenthal Center is also intending to urge its many members to write to UNESCO decrying the postponement.

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.”

A flyer advertising the exhibit, “People, Book, Land – The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land.” Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Click below to read from United Arab Emirates Senior Policy Planner Abdulla Al-Nuaimi:

Click below to read the letter to Simon Wiesenthal Center's Director of International Relations Shimon Samuels:

Click below to read the letter from Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper to UNESCO's Director-General Irina Bokova:

Click below to read Irina Bokova's response to Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper:

Click below to read the letter from Ambassador of Israel to International Organizations Nimrod Barkan: