A UNESCO exhibit on the history of the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel, which had been set to open Tuesday but was nixed due to pressure from Arab member states, has been rescheduled for June following intense criticism of the organization’s decision.
The exhibit, entitled “People, Book, Land: The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land,” was authored by Israeli anti-Semitism scholar Prof. Robert Wistrich for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which partnered with UNESCO on the initiative.
The prospect of its showing raised the ire of Arab member states of UNESCO. On January 14, Abdullah Alneaimi, the head of UNESCO’s Arab Group, which consists of 22 member states – including the Palestinian Authority since October 2011 – wrote a letter to the organization’s Director General Irina Bokova expressing “deep concern” over the exhibition, arguing it would disturb the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
“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. In a letter to the Simon Wiesenthal Center on January 15, just days before the opening of the exhibit, which was over two years in the making, she argued that the cancellation arose out of UNESCO’s support for peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. “We have a responsibility in ensuring that current efforts in this regard are not endangered,” she wrote.
She 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 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. “In this context, regrettably, UNESCO had to postpone the inauguration of the exhibition.”
The decision was panned by, among others, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, the US State Department (even though it had refused to join Israel, Canada and Montenegro in co-sponsoring it), and Prof. Wistrich — who called it an “appalling betrayal” in a Times of Israel interview.
“I’m not going to hide the frustration in my voice when I say that this decision is a blow to peace, and a slap in the face of every Jew,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the SWC and project director of the exhibition.
“This last-minute cancellation is disrespectful,” said Carey. “It could have been made months ago, but it wasn’t. This makes a statement about the lack of UNESCO leadership. Bokova could have resisted the Arab group’s pressure, but she didn’t. In this case, I see no reason why this exhibition was cancelled, and I don’t understand either why Jews cannot be proud of their own history.”
But on Tuesday, the day originally slated for the exhibit’s opening, UNESCO announced the exhibit would now go ahead in June.
“Following numerous requests for information regarding the Exhibition… UNESCO wishes to reaffirm that the exhibition has not been cancelled but postponed,” a statement from the organization read. “UNESCO is in discussions with the Simon Wiesenthal Center to finalize the last points and inaugurate the exhibition in the month of June.”
The statement noted that “UNESCO is actively engaged in work to promote respect and tolerance, to deepen mutual understanding and to advance intercultural dialogue. We believe that knowledge of history and education are powerful ways to combat discrimination and to build peace. UNESCO programs to promote intercultural dialogue, to teach the history of the Holocaust, to fight against all forms of racism, anti-Semitism and negationism are pillars of this work.”