PARIS — Following UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova’s decision last week to cancel an exhibition tracing the Jewish presence in the land of Israel, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which created the exhibit, expressed “outrage” and “bitter disappointment” over the affair at a press conference on Monday at Paris’s Hotel Elysée Regencia.
After two years of preparation, the exhibition, titled “The People, the Book, the Land — 3,500 years of ties between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel,” was supposed to open its doors to the public on Tuesday, at the Paris headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
But five days before the opening, Bokova decided to postpone it indefinitely, ceding to pressure from UNESCO’s Arab group.
“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 Avraham Cooper, associate dean of the SWC and project director of the exhibition.
Cooper said the press conference was “a plea to Arab nations” that think that portraying Jews’ historical ties to the land of Israel would be a barrier to peace negotiations in the Middle East, calling such thoughts “sheer nonsense.”
In a letter to the SWC on January 15, Bokova 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.
This decision was sparked by a letter sent by the Arab group — which has included the Palestinian Authority since October 2011 — to Bokova on the previous day, condemning the very “idea” of the show.
Abdullah Elmealmi, the Arab group’s president, wrote, “The subject of this exhibition is highly political, though the appearance of the title seems to be trivial… 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.”
Authored by Robert Wistrich, a European and Jewish history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the exhibition was jointly vetted and co-organized by the SWC and UNESCO experts.
“So how did a simple pedagogical exercise become political football?” asked Shimon Samuels, the SWC’s director of international affairs at the press conference.
Samuels said that the admission of Palestine as a full UNESCO member in October 2011 was partly to blame for the last-minute cancellation.
“In addition to having political motives, the Arab group has a voracious appetite for historical heritage,” Samuels said. “They refuse to acknowledge the existence of a Jewish narrative, and that this narrative is inextricably linked to the state of Israel.”
He added that in June 2012, UNESCO inscribed Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and the nearby pilgrimage route on its World Heritage List. At the time, the Palestinian Authority made it clear that it would seek to get the UNESCO label for other religious sites.
The same year, UNESCO also included the Site of Human Evolution, which is located on Mount Carmel, in Israel.
To Boualem Sansal, a renowned Algerian novelist who attended the press conference and expressed his support for the exhibition, the letter of opposition to the show from UNESCO’s Arab group was far from surprising.
“I expected to hear some protest from the 22 Arab states and I also expected it to be at the last minute, so that it would create a public outrage,” he said. “The same thing happened to me as a writer, and that’s also why I’m here today.”
In June 2012, Sansal won the Prix du Roman Arabe (“The Arabic Novel Prize”), a prestigious French literary award, but was denied his cash prize of 15,000 euros by the Arab sponsors of the event because he had visited Israel.
“The behavior of Arab states discredits the Arab peoples, and even though they speak on our behalf, they do not represent us,” he added. “This exhibition is just an excuse for them to do politics, just like [the dispute over] my book was.”
George Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury who also attended the press conference, said the real problem with UNESCO does not come from the Arab group, but from Bokova.
“This last-minute cancellation is disrespectful,” Carey said. “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.”
The Obama administration’s handling of the issue drew a mixed reaction from the SWC. The US State Department declined to cosponsor the show, along with sponsors Israel, Montenegro and Canada — but then slammed UNESCO for scrapping it.
Acknowledging the confusion of the US response, the SWC praised US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Powers, for asking that the exhibition be displayed at UN headquarters in New York City.
“We are now awaiting European leaders to speak up about the UNESCO decision,” Cooper concluded. “We urge them to add their voices to that of the US ambassador, in this fight for the freedom of expression.”