Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a scathing criticism of the UN’s cultural agency at his Cabinet meeting Sunday, for indefinitely postponing an exhibit on Jewish connections to the Holy Land.
UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) said last week it delayed the exhibition after Arab member states said it could disrupt Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
“It would not harm the negotiations,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “Negotiations are based on facts, on the truth, which is never harmful. But what does harm the negotiations is the automatic summoning of Israeli ambassadors in certain countries regarding matters of no substance, while significant violations by the Palestinian Authority pass without a response.
The exhibit – created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, co-organized with UNESCO, and co-sponsored by Israel, Canada, and Montenegro – was to have opened next Tuesday in Paris.
But UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova decided to cancel the exhibit, entitled “The People, the Book, the Land — 3,500 years of ties between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel,” after Arab states in UNESCO protested, arguing it would harm the peace process. “We have a responsibility in ensuring that current efforts in this regard are not endangered,” Bokova wrote in a letter to the Wiesenthal Center.
The peace process is “at a delicate stage,” UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General Eric Fait also wrote to the Wiesenthal Center on Tuesday, in a letter made available to The Times of Israel, “and UNESCO is keen to maintain an atmosphere conducive to the negotiations.” Therefore, wrote Fait, “we will have to postpone the exhibition to a later date.”
The UN agency said it also needed extra time to revise historical claims in the exhibit that member states could consider “contestable.” But Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a US Jewish group that co-organized the exhibit, said UNESCO had already approved the exhibit and mounted it ready for Tuesday’s scheduled opening at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. He also wrote a letter responding to Bokova, accusing UNESCO of pandering to the Arab world.
“We insist that you live up to your responsibilities and commitments as the co-organizer of this exhibition by overturning this naked political move that has no place in an institution whose mandate is defined by education, science, and culture — not politics,” Hier wrote. “Failure to do so would confirm to the world that UNESCO is the official address of the Arab narrative of the Middle East.”
While the US State Department had previously declined to co-sponsor the event, it issued a scathing statement rebuking UNESCO for scrapping it, and US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power called on UNESCO to reverse its position and open the exhibit as originally planned.