Sunday, January 19, 2014

Is UNESCO the New Address of the Arab Narrative?

UNESCO shuttered an exhibition it agreed two years ago to co-sponsor with the Simon Wiesenthal Center just days before the grand opening in the UNESCO building in Paris because the Arab League directed UNESCO to do that. 
By: Lori Lowenthal Marcus 

Rabbi Marvin Hier, Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, stand before a poster for the exhibition that was unceremoniously yanked just before its grand opening. 
photo credit: Simon Wiesenthal Center
The opening of an exhibition, "People, Book, Land -- The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land," which has been two years in the planning, and for which the Simon Wiesenthal Center gave UNESCO unprecedented control over editing and vetting as the price of co-sponsorship, was scheduled for Monday evening, Jan. 20.
Thousands of invitations were sent, dignitaries had begun to arrive in Paris, the pictures and descriptions for the exhibit were in the process of being hung on the walls, all in anticipation of the grand opening in Paris at UNESCO headquarters.
But at 9:00 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 14, the SWC received a letter from the office of Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). That letter contained shocking news.
The exhibition, two years in the planning, was cancelled.
Hold on to your hats, because you have to read this carefully: The exhibition was cancelled because the member states of the Arab League sent a letter (on Jan. 14) explaining an important policy matter to UNESCO.  What was that important policy matter? That "the exhibition could create potential obstacles related to the peace process in the Middle East."
There was no other reason given. Just that the Arab League pointed out to UNESCO - an entity which is by definition, by charter, by its own insistence, is solely concerned with Education, Science and Culture - that the exhibit could interfere with the Middle East peace process. And on the very day that the Arab League raised the issue, UNESCO pulled the plug on this exhibition. An exhibition, by the way, for which UNESCO insisted it could - and it did - hire its own scholars to vet and edit every single word, document, picture, map and representation.
So, on the very day that the very first peep was heard from the Arab League, and on the basis of the League's position - without any room for discussion, negotiation or representation - the exhibit which internationally acclaimed architects, historians and every other kind of scholar in the field labored over for years, was cancelled.
How to catalog the levels and layers of insult to the Jewish people?
Actually, the rabbis who head the Simon Wiesenthal Center did a pretty good job of that. The letter they sent to UNESCO's Madam Bokova is worthy of an exhibition all on its own.
To think: Jews standing up for themselves, their cause and their years of hard labor, calling out an international entity which had demanded, and been given, so much just so that the Jews could, for once, be treated in the same way and with the same dignity as everyone else. That didn't happen, but the full-throated response from Rabbis Hier and Cooper is impressive.
They started out reminding the good madam that the SWC had followed every request and condition laid down by UNESCO in order to ensure a smooth process and a successful event. Then they reminded her that she was the one who put her own signature on the agreement to launch the joint undertaking. And then they told her what they expected of her:
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. Failure to do so would confirm to the world that UNESCO is the official address of the Arab narrative of the Middle East.
Rabbi Cooper spoke with this author on Thursday, Jan. 16. In Cooper's view, the exhibition was not pulled because of the content. It is a purely historical body of work. And if there are critics out there who cannot believe the SWC could be trusted to ensure absolute honesty and partiality about the topic, surely the UNESCO-appointed academics made sure that was the case.
"No, pulling the exhibition had nothing to do with the content, it was simply the very idea - truth or not - that Jews have had a 3,500 years long relationship with the Holy Land" that the Arab League could not permit and the League's displeasure was not something UNESCO could abide for even a single day.
"But the fact - and it is a fact - of our historic three and a half millennia-long connection to the land is now being treated as something that is subject to negotiations" is both galling and appalling.
Cooper continued, "This episode makes it clear that there really are two sets of rules. One set of rules for non-Jews, and another, ever-shifting, always-worsening set of rules for the Jews."
Israel's ambassador to international organizations, Nimrod Barkat, dashed off a letter to UNESCO's Bokova and the other dignitaries involved. He described the cancellation of the opening and the "postponement" of the entire exhibition as unjust and discriminatory towards Israel.
Barkat also reminded them all that UNESCO has "hosted numerous events and exhibitions accentuating the relations between the Muslim and Christian Religions with the Holy Land and of course holds its annual "Palestine Day."
But there is an additional dimension to the problem.
There are fewer than a handful of nations sponsoring the "Jewish People's Connection to the Holy Land."  In fact, there are only three national sponsors: Israel, Canada and Montenegro. Not even the United States was a sponsor!
Rabbi Cooper explained that the U.S. was asked, but declined, claiming it never sponsors any exhibition unless it was involved from the outset.  Fair enough. But what the U.S. State Department did agree to do was to co-sponsor the opening for the exhibition. The one on Jan. 20.
But on Jan. 9, the SWC received the first in the series of disturbing missives. This one was from Kelly Siekman at the State Dept.  Siekman informed Rabbi Cooper that we pledge the full support of the United States to your [other] exhibit opening in January and to the important and related programs promoting holocaust remembrance at UNESCO.  At this sensitive juncture in the ongoing Middle East peace process, and after thoughtful consideration with review at the highest levels, we have made the decision that the United States will not be able to co-sponsor the current exhibit during its display at UNESCO headquarters.
Ah. Once again: give us a good show about all those dead Jews. The ones who died in agony, powerless and pitiful. That's a show we'll be happy to sponsor and kick in money to buy fancy food for anytime! But pictures and other historical evidence showing the Jews were connected to the Holy Land, that Jews are entitled to something because they existed somewhere, long ago, before other religions even began? Not so much.
Rabbi Cooper explained that he is flying out to Paris on Friday and that the SWC will hold a press conference on Monday, the day on which the opening of the "3,500 year Relationship of the Jews to the Holy Land" exhibition should have taken place.
"Instead," Cooper said, "we will call on Secretary of State Kerry to clear up any misunderstandings. We will call on him to make it clear that there is a legitimate and historic connection of this people and that land. Our exhibition does not promote a political position, it evidences a historical fact."
And Rabbi Cooper spoke to the irony in the letter from the State Department which eagerly looks forward to promoting holocaust remembrances, but finds the world a bit too sensitive to handle any acknowledgment of the truth regarding the relationship between the Jews and the Holy Land.
"For us at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where so much of what we do deals with death and torture, this was an opportunity for us to focus not on war, but on rebirth, of language, of the people. Of course the exhibition deals with other people who also have connections to the Holy Land, Christians, Muslims, the Ottomans. It was supposed to be a positive celebration."
Yes, it was supposed to be a positive celebration of re-birth and connections.  Instead it became yet another example of the refusal to publicly celebrate and recognize anything but poor, powerless, dead Jews.

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