UNESCO cancels event on Jewish ties to Land of Israel

Days before opening of Paris exhibit, UN cultural body bows to pressure from Arab states, who said it would harm peace talks

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

UNESCO delegates prior to the opening of the organization's 2013 General Conference in Paris, France. (AP/Benjamin Girette)
UNESCO delegates prior to the opening of the organization's 2013 General Conference in Paris, France. (AP/Benjamin Girette)

Days before it was scheduled to open, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization cancelled an exhibit in Paris entitled, “The People, The Book, the Land: The 3,500-year relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.”

The exhibit, created by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was co-sponsored by Israel, Canada, and Montenegro. SWC worked closely with UNESCO on the exhibit since 2011, when UNESCO accepted Palestine as a member state, the first UN body to do so.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova decided to cancel the event 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 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 event was scheduled to run from January 21 through January 30 at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. It has been repeatedly delayed for the past two years, with organizers repeatedly bowing to UNESCO demands to make changes in the displays and literature at the event.

The Wiesenthal Center is slated to hold a press conference on Monday to discuss the cancellation.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center’s dean and founder, responded to Bokova in a letter expressing shock and dismay that the exhibition was being pulled. “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 in his letter, which was also made available to The Times of Israel. “Failure to do so would confirm to the world that UNESCO is the official address of the Arab narrative of the Middle East.”

Hier added, “Madame Director General, we have now reached a crucial moment in which you must decide what UNESCO is all about. If you allow the bullying of the Arab Group to derail the presentation of our historical, cultural, and non-political exhibition, then UNESCO will be sending an unmistakable signal to the American people and its elected representatives and to the Canadian people and its elected representatives that it has defaulted on its historic mandate and is now allowing itself to be hijacked by those with a vindictive political motivation.”

“Let’s be clear,” wrote Hier, “the Arab Group’s protest is not over any particular content in the exhibition, but rather the very idea of it – that the Jewish people did not come to the Holy Land only after the Nazi Holocaust, but trace their historical and cultural roots in that land for three and a half millennia. If anything will derail hopes for peace and reconciliation among the people of the Middle East, it will be by surrendering to the forces of extremism and torpedoing the opening of this exhibition — jointly vetted and co-organized by UNESCO and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Madame Director General we hope you have the courage to do the right thing and we are still looking forward to cutting the ribbon on the exhibition with you next Monday night, January 20, at UNESCO headquarters.”

Hier sent copies of his letter to US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and others.

Nimrod Barkan, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, said that the excuse to shelve the event was “mean and stupid,” according to Israel Radio.

The invitation to the cancelled UNESCO event on 3,500 years of Jewish connection to the Land of Israel.
The invitation to the cancelled UNESCO event on 3,500 years of Jewish connection to the Land of Israel.

Abdulla al Neaimi, president of UNESCO’s Arab group, wrote in a letter to Bokova that the “subject of this exhibition is highly political though the appearance of the title seems to be trivial. Most serious is the defense of this theme which is one of the reasons used by the opponents of peace within Israel. The publicity that will accompany… the exhibit can only cause damage to the peace negotiations presently occurring, and the constant effort of Secretary of State John Kerry, and the neutrality and objectivity of UNESCO.”

“For all these reasons, for the major worry not to damage UNESCO in its… mission of support for peace, the Arab group within UNESCO is asking you to make the decision to cancel this exhibition,” he concluded, according to Algemeiner.

Some UNESCO decisions have long rankled Israel’s supporters.

In 2012, UNESCO created a chair of Astronomy, Astrophysics and Space Sciences at the Islamic University of Gaza, which is closely linked with Hamas.

Last October, UNESCO voted in favor of no fewer than six resolutions condemning Israel at its 192nd Session of the 56-member Executive Board in Paris.

The US and Israel both stopped paying dues to the organization after it allowed the Palestinians in, and both countries lost their voting rights in November 2013. The suspension of US contributions, which accounted for $80 million a year — 22 percent of UNESCO’s overall budget — brought the agency to the brink of a financial crisis and forced it to cut or scale back American-led initiatives such as Holocaust education and tsunami research over the past two years.

UNESCO’s core mission, as conceived by the US, a co-founder of the agency in 1946, was to be an anti-extremist organization. Now, it seeks to tackle foreign policy issues such as access to clean water, teaches girls to read, works to eradicate poverty, promotes freedom of expression and works to give people skills to resist violent extremism.

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