The United States and Canada called on UNESCO to rescind its sudden decision to suspend an exhibit on Jewish ties to the Land of Israel – due to open at its Paris headquarters on Monday – in response to a protest by Arab states who fear it could damage the peace process.
“UNESCO’s decision is wrong and should be reversed,” said US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power on Friday. “The United States has engaged at senior levels to urge UNESCO to allow this exhibit to proceed as soon as possible.”
The exhibit, “People, Book, Land: The 3,500-year relationship of the Jewish People with the Holy Land,” was organized by both the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which had worked on the project for more than two years with its author Hebrew University of Jerusalem Prof. Robert Wistrich.
UNESCO decided last Tuesday to postpone the exhibit upon receiving a letter of objection from the UNESCO’s Arab Group, comprised of 22 member states. It had already issued invitations and begun to mount the panels in Paris. No new date has been set for the exhibit.
”UNESCO is supposed to be fostering discussion and interaction between civil society and member states, and organizations such as the Wiesenthal Center have a right to be heard and to contribute to UNESCO’s mission,” said Power.
In spite of her harsh rebuke, the US had opted not to sponsor the exhibit, which bore the sponsorship seal of only three countries, Canada, Israel and Montenegro.
Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs said on Friday there “is no appropriate rationale to delay the exhibition and [we are] deeply disappointed by the decision made to postpone it. Our ambassador to UNESCO has written to the secretary-general of that organization urging her to take all necessary action for this exhibition to go ahead as long planned,” it said. Should UNESCO fail to open the exhibit as agreed upon, the Wiesenthal Center plans to hold a press conferences in Paris and Los Angeles on Monday to show its panels to the public.
Wiesenthal dean and founder Rabbi Marvin Hier said all the exhibit panels had been vetted and approved by UNESCO.
Even last week, he said, at UNESCO’s request his center had agreed to use the phrase “Holy Land” instead of “Land of Israel” in the exhibit’s title.
UNESCO’s Arab Group objected to the exhibit not because of the peace process, but because it shows the Jews had a 3,500-year relationship with the Land of Israel, Hier charged.
He recalled remarks he had made at a Los Angeles ceremony about the exhibit in 2012 together with UNESCO director- general Irina Bokova.
“I said then, it is well known to the entire world and I assume to anyone who has read the Bible, that Isaiah was not born in Portugal; Jeremiah did not live in France and Ezekiel did not live in Monaco,” he said. “They lived in the Land of Israel as did King David and King Solomon.”
World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder said: “It is sad that Arabs deny the 3,500- year connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, especially when that connection is part of their own tradition.
With this decision, UNESCO has done a disservice to the peace process and implicitly endorsed Arab rejectionism.
” The Geneva based non-governmental group UN Watch said the move was consistent with the organization’s anti-Israel bias. Hillel Neuer, the NGO’s executive director, said, “Since 2009, UN Watch has counted no less than 46 UNESCO resolutions against Israel, one on Syria, and zero on Iran, North Korea, Sudan or any other country in the world.”
On its website, UNESCO defended its organization’s record on Jewish issues, saying that it promotes Holocaust education and plans to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. It also said that it held an event on the Yiddish language in November together with B’nai B’rith.
Monday’s exhibit was postponed, it said, because of a number of outstanding issues still existed “relating to potentially contestable textual and visual historical points.”
In addition, it said, it had received a letter from its Arab Group, “expressing their concern that the planned exhibition could impact negatively on the peace process and current negotiations underway in the Middle East.”
It added, “UNESCO remains equally committed and actively engaged to working with member states and partners to hold the exhibition in conditions that promote cooperation and dialogue.”
Reuters contributed to this report.