Robert Wistrich: The Arab states 'don’t want to see themselves being portrayed as they really were and are'

UNESCO vetoed display on Jewish refugees from Arab lands

Organizers of revived exhibition on Jews’ ties to Holy Land, which deleted ‘Israel’ from title, agreed to remove controversial section, saying Arab states would have blocked entire show

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The poster for the revived UNESCO exhibit on Jewish ties to the Holy Land (photo credit: courtesy SWC)
The poster for the revived UNESCO exhibit on Jewish ties to the Holy Land (photo credit: courtesy SWC)

A panel about Jewish refugees from Arab countries was removed from an UNESCO exhibition about the Jewish people’s connection to the Holy Land, because the organization feared the opposition of Arab member states, The Times of Israel has learned.

The exhibition, after having been canceled in January due to pressure from the Arab group at UNESCO, eventually opened June 11 in Paris. From the 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.”

UNESCO also insisted on the removal of a panel entirely dedicated to the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab states in the 20th century, though it allowed a smaller reference to the issue in another part of the exhibition.

“It is true that UNESCO officials asked us to drop the panel because they felt certain that Arab nations would protest and block the exhibition,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which organized the exhibition. The removed panel consisted primarily of visuals depicting the Jewish refugees’ absorption in Israel in the 1950s and 60s, he told The Times of Israel. “We reluctantly agreed,” he explained, adding that the exhibition’s author, Hebrew University Professor Robert Wistrich, did insert, in a different panel, “the statistics about Aliyah from Arab nations, which we insisted be included.”

Since 1948, roughly 850,000 Jews fled persecution and violence in the Middle East and North Africa, about 650,000 of whom immigrated to Israel. The Israeli government has raised the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab states repeatedly in peace talks with the Palestinians.

Speaking to The Times of Israel on Tuesday, Wistrich said that he was very disappointed that the section needed to be removed, but explained that there was no other way to get UNESCO to go ahead with the exhibition.

“Obviously I tried to do what I could. I went through the trouble of carefully preparing what I thought was a very balanced and thorough section. To me it was important — it was part of my original design and concept,” he said, referring to the panel on Jewish refugees from Arab countries.

However, he added, from the perspective of UNESCO, the topic was explosive, because he showed “that the Jews in Arab land had suffered a great deal. The panel described their dhimmi conditions as subordinates and all the humiliations and discriminations that involved. It also went into detail on a series of pogroms, which occurred in different areas in the Arab world.”

The controversial panel meant to show that Jews living in Arab countries had ample reason to be drawn to Israel, and it was not merely “Zionist propaganda,” Wistrich said. In fact, in an early version of the panel, Wistrich had described the fate of Jews in Arab countries after 1945 as a “form of ethnic cleansing,” expecting that this characterization would be contested.

“I went some way to change the language but it wasn’t enough,” he recalled. “In the end, [UNESCO] said if you want the exhibition as a whole to succeed, you cannot give any pretext to member states to protest,” since they had the power to prevent the exhibition altogether.

Robert Wistrich (photo credit: courtesy)
Robert Wistrich (photo credit: courtesy)

“Their argument all the way through, whenever there was a controversial issue, was that in order for this to go through we have to establish a maximum level of consensus with member states and this will act as a red rag to the Arab states,” Wistrich said. “Obviously they don’t want to see themselves being portrayed as they really were and are.”

Knowing the entire exhibition could be jeopardized if he insisted on the panel, he decided to compromise. “It’s a little bit like in chess game, if you look at it strategically. You have to give up a pawn or a rook and you do that in order to attain your ultimate objective,” he said. “In this case it seemed to me straightforward politics, and there was no way around it.”

However, Wistrich added, he managed to “slip in a few sentences” about the subject in another panel, which remained in the exhibition and can currently be viewed at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. This panel explains that 20 years after Israel’s creation, half its Jewish population hailed from Middle Eastern countries, where they had been subjected to dispossession, harassment and persecution. “They let that go through,” Wistrich said.

The Wiesenthal Center plans to publish the exhibition as a book, in which the removed panel will be reinstated, Wistrich added.

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