UNESCO head nixes ‘offensive, unacceptable’ Palestine poster collection
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UNESCO head nixes ‘offensive, unacceptable’ Palestine poster collection

In first, body's director-general vetoes inclusion of incendiary material in world heritage list, arguing it 'could fuel' anti-Semitism

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

Dan Walsh, the owner and curator of the Palestine Poster Project Archives, which was nominated for inclusion into the UNESCO International Memory of the World Register, but blocked by the UNESCO director general, with one of the posters (screen capture: YouTube)
Dan Walsh, the owner and curator of the Palestine Poster Project Archives, which was nominated for inclusion into the UNESCO International Memory of the World Register, but blocked by the UNESCO director general, with one of the posters (screen capture: YouTube)

The head of UNESCO vetoed the inclusion of a vast collection of Palestine-themed posters in a register of world heritage, arguing that the posters fuel hatred and anti-Semitism, The Times of Israel has learned.

The decision by Irina Bokova to block the Liberation Graphics Collection of Palestine Posters from being accepted into UNESCO’s Memory of the World program marks the first time such a nomination has been vetoed.

The collection was initially accepted by an advisory board but then blocked by Bokova, who said some of the posters were “totally unacceptable” and “run counter to the values of UNESCO,” the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Besides universal themes of occupation and the motifs depicting the struggle for liberation and peace — such as barbed wire and white doves — many of the posters feature machine guns and hand grenades, extolling armed resistance and terrorism. Some of the posters glorify Palestinian suicide attacks and other murderous missions against Israeli civilians, including a 1978 massacre known in Israel as the bloodiest terror attack in the country’s history.

In August, the collection — which includes some 1,700 posters celebrating the Palestinian national liberation movement — was accepted for formal review by UNESCO’s International Memory of the World Register, which strives to preserve archival holdings of “world significance and outstanding universal value.”

Usually, nominations are considered by an international advisory board, and, if approved, confirmed by the organization’s director-general. In this particular case, too, the board reviewed the nomination and none of its members raised any concerns, which indicated that the board would recommend that the director-general formally accept the collection into the register.

‘Some posters seem totally unacceptable and run counter to UNESCO values’

However in this case, Bokova, surprised that no one had raised any objections to the posters, said she has decided to block the collection’s approval.

“In my capacity of Director General of UNESCO, I will oppose any such proposal for inscription,” she wrote in a December 23 letter to the chair of the advisory board, Helena Asamoah-Hassan. Some of the posters “would seem totally unacceptable and run counter to the values of UNESCO and its aspiration to build peace in the minds of men and women,” Bokova wrote.

Clearly, “some of these posters are offensive,” she wrote in another letter to World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer, who had protested the nomination. “It is my conviction that UNESCO should not associate itself with such documents whose inscription could fuel hatred and anti-Semitic perceptions.”

Bokova addressed a similar letter to the Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO, Elias Sanbar, warning that the collection’s inclusion in the program could promote “hate and anti-Semitism.”

The collection’s nomination has been widely reported, including in Arab media and pro-Palestinian websites. Dan Walsh, the owner and curator of the Palestine Poster Project Archives, had hoped the nomination could help the art form enter the mainstream.

“The significance for the genre is that it’s been recognized by an international body,” he said last fall, before Bokova put the kibosh on the collection’s inclusion into the Memory of the World Register. “Up until now, the Palestine poster has sort of existed in the shadows, it hasn’t really been legitimated. The artwork — the art of the Palestinian revolution, of the Palestinian liberation struggle — has not been legitimated in the West. It’s been considered anti-Semitic, or anti-Israeli, or patently unacceptable for mainstream consumption. I think this nomination has the potential to change that.”

In 2011, UNESCO admitted Palestine as a full member, becoming one of the first international bodies to recognize a Palestinian state.

In January 2014, the organization made headlines for canceling an exhibition about the Jewish people’s connection to the Holy Land due to Arab pressure. After an international outcry, the exhibition eventually opened on June 11 in Paris. However, from its original name, “The 3,500 year relationship of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel,” the words “Land of Israel” were removed as per UNESCO’s demand and replaced with “Holy Land.” A panel about Jewish refugees from Arab countries was also cut from that exhibition.

UNESCO's Director General Irina Bokova poses with the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Rabbi Marvin Hier and the original poster for the exhibit on the Jewish people's 3,500-year connection to the land of Israel, in January. (photo credit: Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center)
UNESCO’s Director General Irina Bokova poses with the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier and the original poster for the exhibit on the Jewish people’s 3,500-year connection to the land of Israel, in January 2014. (photo credit: Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center)

At the time, Bokova was accused of giving into to Arab pressure, but organizers of the exhibition later said she had regained their esteem by making public statements that could be characterized as strongly “pro-Jewish.”

Now, Jewish leaders congratulated her again — for taking a principled stance in preventing the Palestine-themed posters from receiving UNESCO’s stamp of approval. Singer, the World Jewish Congress CEO, lauded her “personal courage and integrity in personally looking into” the matter. In a January 12 letter, he thanked her for the “unambiguous opposition to all forms of hatred, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.”

The ultimately rejected collection is part of the larger Palestine Poster Project Archives, “which hold paper and/or digital images of almost ten thousand Palestine posters by more than 1,900 artists from 72 countries,” according to a press release from last summer. Since it includes all posters that contain the word “Palestine,” many early Zionist themes can be found as well.

The collection nominated for inclusion in the World Memory program comprises some 1,700 posters created by Palestinian and international artists “in solidarity with the quest for Palestinian self-determination,” according to a document on the UNESCO website.

“The posters in the Liberation Graphics Collection document Palestinian responses to invasion, war, displacement, diaspora, occupation, and imprisonment, as well as Palestinian self-assertion and resistance, during the second half of the twentieth century.”

The Palestine poster genre “is unique in world art and a much-overlooked feature of Palestinian cultural heritage,” the document states. The posters are “important repositories of primary data on Palestinian political and social history.”

Glorifying a ‘military operation’ that killed 38 civilians

Many of the images, which can be viewed free of charge here, feature violent themes. One poster, created by Emile Menhem in Lebanon of the mid-1980s, shows the Palestinian national colors coming out of the barrel of a machine gun. It reads: “Fatah — with rifles we will liberate Palestine.”

Another poster, headlined “The path to the homeland,” shows Dalal Mughrabi, who in 1978 led what Walsh, the collection’s curator, called “a military operation near Tel Aviv.” He was referring to the coastal road massacre, in which Palestinian terrorists armed with Kalashnikov rifles, RPG light mortars and high explosives hijacked a bus and killed 38 Israeli civilians. Mughrabi is honored with several posters, as are other members of the crew that carried out the massacre, which is considered the deadliest terror attack in Israel’s history.

In 1982, Abu Man created a black poster featuring the lower half of a bleeding body superimposed on a yellow Star of David. “Sabra-Shatila — the Massacre,” it reads. A 1977 work by Kamal Kaabar shows a fist destroying a blue Star of David, together with the line “Fatah — 12 years (of struggle) for a free Arab Palestine.” These posters, too, were included in the collection blocked by Bokova.

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