The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in January indefinitely postponed, at the request of Arab states, a planned display on the history of Jews in the Middle East. Protests led to a reversal of the shelving of the project and the display opened, finally, June 11 at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. It was co-hosted by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and authored by Robert Wistrich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The display consists of 24 panels showing the history of Jews in the Middle East starting with Abraham and running to the present day.
UNESCO is highly politicized and, like the rest of the United Nations, a forum for vociferous anti-Zionism. The mere fact that the exhibit took place is an achievement, progress in having the Jewish people and the Jewish state treated like any other.
Nonetheless, the exhibit had one gaping hole: the story of the movement of Jews from Arab countries to Israel. There is one sentence in the panel titled “Israel among the nations” which says, “By 1968, Middle Eastern Jews already represented 48% of the entire Jewish migration to Israel.” And that is more or less it.
Robert Wistrich had prepared a panel on Jews from Arab countries for the exhibit, but UNESCO vetoed it. It was made clear to Wistrich and the Simon Wiesenthal Center that, if they insisted on this particular panel, the exhibit would not take place.
The exhibit counters many different elements of anti-Zionist propaganda. Why was there silence on this issue pertaining to the history of the migration of Jews from Arab countries to Israel, the red line for anti-Zionists? The answer is that this story does more to counter anti-Zionist mythology than any other.
Anti-Zionist mythology says that Jews are outsiders who have come from Europe and North America to colonize Arab territory.
The fact that half of the Jews of Israel are descendants of those who have lived continuously in the region since time immemorial undermines this myth.
Anti-Zionist mythology portrays Palestinian refugees as victims of the creation of the State of Israel. The fact that there were two displaced populations and that the Jewish displaced population was more numerous than the Palestinian one shifts the blame for refugee victimization to the place where it belongs: anti-Zionists and their attacks on the existence of the State of Israel.
Anti-Zionists attempt to mobilize sympathy for the underdog by portraying the Palestinians as victims and Israelis as perpetrators.
The existence of an even larger population of displaced Jewish victims from Arab states guts this narrative of Palestinians as unique underdogs.
Jews expelled or driven out from Arab countries were resettled outside the region or locally integrated in Israel. Anti-Zionists have refused to contemplate for Palestinians either resettlement or local integration; anti-Zionists would rather keep that population in enforced misery as hostages to anti-Zionist rhetoric, as fodder for propaganda against the existence of Israel. The contrast between the hospitality Israel has offered to Jewish refugees and the hostility Arab states have manifested to Palestinian refugees is stark. Anti-Zionists want to ensure that this contrast remains hidden.
It was irrational for Arab states, at one and the same time to combat the existence of a Jewish state and to be instrumental in its creation through the expulsion of their Jewish populations, who inevitably, for the most part, ended up in Israel. The only consistent explanation for both Arab state behaviors is hatred for Jews in their midst. That is a story that, understandably, Arab states did not want told.
Palestinian peace negotiators have argued that whatever injustice was done to Jewish refugees from Arab countries was not inflicted by the Palestinians. This position ignores the fact that many of the Jewish refugees generated by the wars against the existence of Israel, about 40,000, came from the West Bank and Gaza.
Be that as it may, the refusal of Arab states to confront the reality of the injustice to Jews from Arab countries, which their opposition to the insertion of this issue in the UNESCO exhibit illustrates, means that if the issue is not dealt with in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, it is not likely to be dealt with at all.
We need to take a cue from the anti-Zionists’ own rankings. If what is central to the core of anti-Zionist propaganda is the covering up of the story of Jews from Arab countries, then that story must be central to combating anti-Zionism. If we can learn that lesson from the UNESCO cover up, it will have done us a favor.
The author is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is honorary counsel to Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.