Six months ago, when UNESCO canceled an exhibition about the Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel just before its scheduled opening, Professor Robert Wistrich, its author, was livid. The cancellation, which followed Arab pressure, was disgraceful, he fumed, an appalling “betrayal” that proved that the organization is “subjected, entirely, to political considerations,” because “there’s one standard for Jews, and there’s another standard for non-Jews, especially if they’re Arabs.”
The situation has much improved since then, Wistrich and others involved in the project assert, as the exhibition opened on Wednesday afternoon at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. And yet changes have been made to the exhibition since it was nixed in January.
Most strikingly, the word “Israel” has been deleted from the exhibition’s title and replaced by “Holy Land.” An exhibit that was initially called “The 3,500 year relationship of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel” is now entitled “The 3,500 year relationship of the Jewish People with the Holy Land.”
Still Wistrich, the exhibition’s sole author, says he is no longer furious at UNESCO. Speaking to The Times of Israel this week, he says the organization appears to have drastically changed its attitude, calling the fact that the exhibition finally opened a “breakthrough.”
This time around, he said, the UNESCO formally announced the exhibit on its website, and its director-general, Irina Bokova, sent him a personal invitation in which she expressed her great pleasure of hosting the exhibit – things that didn’t happen before the original opening date in January. “It was a completely different tone,” Wistrich, who directs the Hebrew University’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, told The Times of Israel this week. “I took this to be definite sign that this was going to happen. Because I had my doubts until very recently.”
Furthermore, Bokova herself has regained some of Wistrich’s esteem. In recent days, she made two public statements that could be characterized as strongly “pro-Jewish,” which is “something relatively new,” he said. He’s also hopeful that the exhibition, which consists of 24 panels detailing various aspects of the Jewish people’s connection to Israel throughout the generations, could be exported to other places in the world, where people know very little about this topic.
“This could become a traveling exhibit. Because UNESCO has influence in many countries, particularly in the Third World and continents like Asia and Africa,” he said. “Once it has the authorization of UNESCO, that is also symbolically important, as well as politically and culturally.”
Indeed, the Wiesenthal Center has concrete plans to bring the exhibition to the European Parliament in Brussels, US Congress in Washington, DC, United Nations headquarters in New York and to churches, synagogues, schools, cultural centers and other such venues across the Western hemisphere.
“We’re very hopeful that this exhibition will find its way to world capitals,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean, said, adding that even Israelis could use a history lesson. “We need such an exhibition in Israel. So much of this segment of Jewish history, about this land, is unknown.”
So far, there are no plans to show the panels in Iran or the Arab world, although he believes the exhibition “could contribute” to the peace process because it gives insights into Jewish the mindset, he told The Times of Israel during a recent interview in Jerusalem. “I don’t know if it’s going to change any hearts. But it may have an impact on some minds.”
While acknowledging the importance of the official UNESCO stamp on the exhibition, neither Cooper nor Wistrich was willing to commend the organization for reconsidering its January cancellation and going ahead with it almost unchanged. “They made the correct decision,” Wistrich said. “I’m not praising them. I think they’re doing what they should have been doing in the first place. And I’m very happy that they’re doing it now. That’s not praise. It’s a fact.”
It is unclear whether the Arab UNESCO delegates who thwarted the exhibition in January again exerted pressure on the organization to cancel it, he said. Thus he “wouldn’t say it’s a case of standing up to Arab pressure.” UNESCO simply couldn’t renege twice, especially after the international outrage the first cancellation caused, he presumed.
It couldn’t renege. but it did change the name of the exhibition.
What had happened?
For those who don’t remember the entire saga, here is a quick recap of how the exhibition came to be, why it was indefinitely delayed in January and how it was rescheduled afterwards. About two and a half years ago, the Wiesenthal Center approached Wistrich, a veteran professor of modern European and Jewish history, and asked him to author an exhibition on the 3,500-year-old relations of the Jewish people with the Land of Israel, to be displayed at UNESCO headquarters.
Wistrich agreed, and though he was skeptical whether a UN body widely accused of anti-Israel bias would really go through with such a project, he wrote 24 panels, of about 800 words each. UNESCO — the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — insisted on appointing its own scientific experts to vet Wistrich’s work but eventually approved the exhibition, which was cosponsored by Israel, Canada, and Montenegro. Invitations to the grand opening ceremony, scheduled for January 20, 2014, were sent out.
Six days before the scheduled opening, Abdullah Alneaimi, the head of UNESCO’s Arab Group, wrote a letter to Bokova, the organization’s director-general, expressing “deep concern” over the exhibition, arguing that it would disturb the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which were still ongoing at the time. “The subject of this exhibition is highly political, though the appearance of the title seems to be trivial,” he wrote. “This cause is championed by those who oppose peace efforts. The media campaign accompanying the exhibition will inevitably damage the peace talks, the incessant efforts of US Secretary of State John Kerry and UNESCO’s neutrality.”
Bokova quickly capitulated. There remained “unresolved issues relating to potentially contestable textual and visual historical points, which might be perceived by Member States as endangering the peace process,” UNESCO said in a press release published on January 17. “In this context, regrettably, UNESCO had to postpone the inauguration of the exhibition.”
In a letter to the leaders of the Wiesenthal Center, Bokova recalled her “very firm dedication to building consensus in all UNESCO decisions and resolutions taken by Member States on issues relating to the Middle East.” There was no consultation with the Wiesenthal Center, or anyone else, according to Wistrich. “It was simply done in an arbitrary act of total cynicism and, really, contempt for the Jewish people and its history,” he told The Times of Israel at the time.
The US State Department also played a role in the saga. It had been repeatedly asked to cosponsor the exhibition but declined, citing a similar argument to the one used by the Arab delegates. “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 cosponsor the current exhibit,” Kelly Siekman, the State Department’s director of UNESCO affairs, explained. “As a rule, the United States does not cosponsor exhibits at UNESCO without oversight of content development from conception to final production.”
The State Department later condemned the exhibition’s postponement, and said it had engaged with senior UNESCO officials to affirm its strong interest in “seeing the exhibit proceed as soon as possible.” Washington’s ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said UNESCO’s decision was “wrong and should be reversed.”
Just a few days later, UNESCO rescheduled the exhibition’s opening for June. According to Cooper, the organization’s quick about-face is largely due to Power’s strong words. “Her public comments probably had the single biggest influence on the process,” he said, adding that she committed to hosting the exhibition in New York.
The US has also since decided to become an official cosponsor of the exhibition, after having several bureaus there review the content and finding no fault with it. This could have also helped convince UNESCO to give it the green light, Cooper said. “Professor Wistrich’s scholar ship prevailed. It’s not a polemic. It’s an exhibition.”
What has changed since January?
Cooper and Wistrich insist they made no significant changes to the exhibition since it was canceled in January — although UNESCO officials did try, according to Wistrich. “They tried to reopen everything, but this was categorically not accepted. And that was the end of it. Because they had already agreed [to the content before January] so they couldn’t come back and say now we want to reopen the text and the images. That was simply ridiculous,” he said.
The Wiesenthal Center agreed only to very minor changes, Cooper and Wistrich asserted. “You drop a quotation here, delete something there, but it was nothing substantive at all, Wistrich said. “The content is 99.9 percent of what it was originally,” Cooper agreed.
And yet, at least two changes made between January and June are apparent to everyone who compares the two official invitations sent out before the opening ceremonies. Six months ago, the invitation prominently featured an image of the Dead Sea scrolls. On the invitation to Wednesday’s event, the picture is conspicuously absent. Compare the two invitations here:
Wistrich confirmed that UNESCO asked for the picture to be removed, though he said he didn’t know what could be objectionable about old scrolls from Qumran. “Perhaps it too obviously recalls, as it were, the longevity of the Jewish people’s association with the Land of Israel,” he said. “It’s a very concrete display of the fact that 2,000 years these were our whereabouts.” The same Hebrew found in these scrolls, some of which date back to 400 BCE, is spoken today in the State of Israel, he said, “and this is a very striking manifestation of the intimacy of the connection. That would be my speculation, but they may have other considerations.”
Far more dramatically, while the original invitation speaks of the “3,500 year relationship of the Jewish people with the Land of Israel,” the current version has deleted the word “Israel,” replacing it with the evidently less problematic “Holy Land.” At Wednesday’s opening ceremony, it became clear that the change to the invitation reflected the changed title of the exhibit itself. Whereas in January, before the original exhibit was nixed, UNESCO’s Bokova posed with the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier and a poster for the exhibit on “The 3,500-year relationship of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel,” on Wednesday the Wiesenthal Center’s Cooper and Hier were photographed before a poster bearing the exhibition’s new Israel-free title.
Reached on Wednesday evening in Paris, Hier told The Times of Israel that although the poster and the original invitation had said “Land of Israel,” UNESCO never agreed to that phrasing. In its original confirmation of the exhibition, which predated the January cancellation, the organization only agreed to the “Holy Land” formulation, he said. The Wiesenthal Center never argued about the replacement of the “Land of Israel” wording with the “Holy Land,” which it perceived as an unimportant nuance, he added.
“It was agreed that it would be ‘Holy Land.’ There was never one issue of contention. We never objected to it, there was never a fight over that that somebody had to give in. There were fights, but there were no fights on that,” Hier said. “The word ‘Holy Land,’ we did not find offensive, because we view the word ‘Holy Land’ as applying to the sanctity of Israel.”
Interestingly, during his speech at the opening ceremony Wednesday afternoon, Hier mentioned the Land — and the State — of Israel several times, delivering a charged political message and calling on the Arab world to recognize Israel’s right to the land.
“The purpose of this exhibit is very clear: To put an end to the canard that a Jewish State came into being in 1948, not because Jews had any connection with the land of Israel, but because the world took pity on them as a result of the Holocaust,” Hier said. “This exhibit will educate the world by debunking myths with historic truth. Just like Egypt is a country with a 4,000-year footprint, so Israel too, has that 3,500-year footprint in every nook and cranny of the land of Israel … The time has come for Israel’s neighbors to end their attempted identity theft of the Jewish people’s 3,500-year connection with the Holy Land.”