UNESCO’s nixed exhibit on Jewish ties to Israel finally goes on display

Canceled in January due to Arab pressure, the exhibition, now cosponsored by US government, opens Wednesday in Paris

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A UNESCO exhibition on the history of the Jewish people’s ties to the Land of Israel will open Wednesday in Paris, six months after its originally scheduled debut was canceled on short notice due to pressure from Arab member states.

The exhibit, entitled “People, Book, Land: The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land,” was authored by Israeli historian Robert Wistrich for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which partnered with UNESCO on the initiative.

On Wednesday afternoon, Wistrich and several representatives of the Wiesenthal Center, will be hosted by French President Francois Hollande in the Elysee Palace, a few hours before the exhibition will be ceremoniously opened in the presence of some 300 diplomats and other dignitaries.

“Hollande knows all about this exhibition,” said Wistrich, who directs the Hebrew University’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. “He’s also interested in the question of anti-Semitism, particularly since it’s been aggravated by what happened in Brussels,” said Wistrich, referring to the May 24 shooting at the city’s Jewish museum, during which four people were killed.

The exhibition was originally scheduled to open on January 20, but due to pressure from Arab UNESCO delegates, who argued it would disturb Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the event was indefinitely postponed. 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 January 17 press release.

The old invitation to the exhibition, as sent out before the event in June 2014 (courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center)
The old invitation to the exhibition, as sent out before the event in June 2014 (courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center)

“This is such a betrayal. To do it in this way is so disgraceful,” Wistrich told The Times of Israel at the time. An “appalling act,” the cancellation “completely destroyed any claim that UNESCO could possibly have to be representing the universal values of toleration, mutual understanding, respect for the other and narratives that are different, engaging with civil society organizations and the importance of education. Because there’s one standard for Jews, and there’s another standard for non-Jews, especially if they’re Arabs, but not only.”

Following intense criticism of UNESCO’s decision, including by senior United States officials, the organization quickly rescheduled the exhibition for June 11. The US State Department has since decided to cosponsor the exhibition, joining Israel, Canada and Montenegro as official cosponsors.

The exhibition consists of 24 panels of about 800 words each, detailing various aspects of the Jewish people’s connection to Israel throughout the generations. It could be exported to other places in the world, where people know very little about this topic.

“Each panel is a very succinct slice not only of Jewish history, but more specifically of the historical connection between the Jewish people from the dawn of its history and the Land of Israel, up until the present time,” Wistrich said. “Viewers come away with a strong sense of the continuity of the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel, the unique intensity of the spiritual, religious, national, historical and traditional centrality of the Land of Israel in the Jewish consciousness.”

The exhibition covers three millennia of Jewish history, starting with the biblical Abraham up until the State of Israel’s efforts to use its technological “prowess” to make the world a better place, Wistrich said. “The emphasis is not so much on what the different conquerors of the Holy Land did — although that obviously has to be described, because it’s the framework — but on what was happening to the Jews in each of these historic eras: where they were concentrated, what they were doing, what their occupations were, what were the spiritual connections.

“The multiplicity of the Jewish presence is astonishing when you examine it closely, even in the worst periods of persecution and discrimination against Jews and sometimes massacres of Jews in the Land of Israel,” he said. “There were always Jewish communities somewhere.”

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