Robert Wistrich: UNESCO and the padlocking of Jewish history

We have proudly featured the work of Robert Wistrich in three Power Line posts (the three posts are accessible here). Wistrich is the Neuburger Professor of European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the director of the university’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism. He is also the leading academic authority on the history of anti-Semitism. Witness his monumental histories A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism From Antiquity to the Global Jihad and, most recently, From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, The Jews and Israel, published by the University of Nebraska Press.

It turns out that Professor Wistrich is also the author of the spiked UNESCO exhibit that John wrote about here. The exhibit was cancelled in deference to the sensibility of Arab members of UNESCO who wrote a letter claiming that the exhibit would impair the “peace process.” To add our own shame to UNESCO’s disgrace, when invited to co-sponsor the exhibit, the United States declined, asserting grounds indistinguishable from those advanced by the Arabs.

We invited Professor Wistrich to comment for us on these events. He has graciously responded with the following report:

wiesenthal Nearly two years ago, when I was first approached by Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles to write the text for the recently blocked UNESCO exhibition People, Book, Land – the 3,500-year relationship between the Jewish People and the land of Israel, I was initially sceptical that such a project would ever be accepted by a UN organization. The reasons are obvious. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has over several decades embraced a markedly hostile anti-Israel position. I was well aware of UNESCO’s decision some four years ago to recognize Rachel’s Tomb and Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs as “Muslim mosques,” its frequent condemnation of Israel for the alleged “destruction of the Palestinian cultural heritage” and for altering the “historic features of Jerusalem.” Its long record of anti-Israel actions suggested to me that many in UNESCO shared the Arab view that there was no historic connection between the Jews and the land of the Bible, that Israel was merely a transient colonialist interloper in the Middle East and that only the Muslim Arabs (who first invaded the land in the 7th century CE, 1600 years after the United Hebrew Monarchy established by King David) were indigenous inhabitants of the land.

The exhibition which I put together as a historian and expert on behalf of the Wiesenthal Center provides a very different and, I believe, far more truthful image of this past – from the time of the Biblical Patriarch Abraham to the present-day State of Israel. It shows the uninterrupted presence of Jews in the land of Israel for nearly 3,500 years, including after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. It addresses the creativity, the scholarship, the messianic hopes, the longings, dreams and fidelity of Jews to their original homeland through centuries of persecution and discrimination by foreign rulers in the land of Israel as well as in exile. The modern Zionist movement of the late 19th century gave this age-old attachment a more concrete political form of seeking national independence, sovereignty and self-determination in the historic homeland but was not its original source of inspiration.

The exhibition does not, however, polemicize or engage in any political controversy over these and other related issues. It is overwhelmingly cultural-historical in its main thrust, with a dominant emphasis on the centrality of education, culture and science in the Jewish heritage – values which UNESCO (publicly at least) likes to proclaim as part of its own credo. Throughout the long and sometimes exhausting discussions and correspondence which I had with UNESCO officials and experts, everything of a contentious, controversial or potentially offensive nature (especially for Arab sensitivities) was in fact eliminated. Equally, no modern maps were used at UNESCO’s specific request and panels which I had written relating to “delicate” subjects like the Six Day War or the fate of Jews in Arab lands were simply removed. The exhibition was in fact subjected to a degree of vetting, scrutiny and microscopic analysis by UNESCO’s own experts which may well have been unprecedented. Nevertheless, the text and the visuals passed this rigorous examination. It was, in the end, officially approved. Invitations were duly sent out and the exhibit itself was transported to France, and began to be set up inside UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

Incredibly, it took just one quick communication from the Arab Group at UNESCO, alleging that the exhibit would undermine the peace process, for Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director General, to pull the plug on two years of meticulous work. Instead of opening, as agreed, on 20 January 2014 in Paris, this exhibit was placed under lock and key in the UNESCO headquarters – three millennia of Jewish history imprisoned, padlocked and cancelled out by arbitrary fiat. UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General Eric Falt even had the gall to call this craven capitulation to Arab censorship “conducive to the [peace] negotiations” – a strange claim for a supposedly non-political organization. The US State Department, by refusing to provide co-sponsorship for the exhibit (unlike Canada, Israel and Montenegro), undoubtedly made its own (possibly inadvertent) contribution to this UNESCO debacle. Since then, Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the UN, has called UNESCO’s decision “wrong,” but considerable damage has already been done.

What lessons can be drawn from this appalling tale of censorship, duplicity and discrimination, beyond the self-evidently corrupting effects of hyper-politicization in bodies like UNESCO? In my view the grim conclusion is that the Arab world is still totally unwilling and unable to deal with the historical reality of the age-old Jewish presence in the land of Israel from antiquity to the present day. Instead it seeks by every means available to erase a central pillar of Jewish history in the hope of delegitimizing the Jewish state of Israel. Until this massive obstacle to serious dialogue is honestly confronted by the UN, UNESCO, the West (including the US government) and the Arabs themselves, the prospects for peace are slim indeed.


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