Two years ago, I was approached by Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper, to write the text for the UNESCO exhibition People, Book, Land – the 3,500-year relationship between the Jewish People and the Holy Land. Given the UN’s long record of anti-Israel actions, I was initially rather skeptical that such a project could ever be implemented by a UN organization.
After all, many at the UN appear to share the negationist Arab view that there is no historic connection between the Jews and the land of the Bible; or believe that Israel is merely a transient colonialist interloper in the Middle East; or assume that Muslim Arabs (who first invaded the land in the 7th century CE, 1600 years after the United Hebrew Monarchy established by King David) are the only indigenous inhabitants of the land. Even those who call themselves “friends of Israel” often prefer to evoke the Holocaust rather than explore the Jewish people’s deep roots in the land.
The exhibition which I put together on behalf of the Wiesenthal Center provides a very different image of this past – tracing the continuities and ruptures from the time of the Biblical Patriarch Abraham to the present-day State of Israel.
It is an epic, moving story which shows the uninterrupted presence of Jews in the land of Israel for over three millennia – not least their tenacity, even after the destruction of the First and Second Temples by Babylon and then Rome. It addresses the literary creativity, the rabbinical scholarship, the messianic hopes, longings, dreams and extraordinary fidelity of Jews to their original homeland through centuries of persecution and discrimination by foreign rulers (from the ancient Assyrians to the British) in the land of Israel and then in exile.
The modern Zionist movement of the late 19th century would give this age-old attachment the more concrete political form of seeking national independence and state sovereignty in the historical homeland but this was not its original source of inspiration.
The exhibition does not polemicize nor does it engage in political controversy over these and other related issues. It is primarily cultural-historical in its thrust, focusing on the centrality of education, culture and science in the Jewish heritage – those same values which UNESCO proclaims as part of its own credo. Inevitably perhaps, in the exchanges and correspondence which I had over many months with UNESCO officials and experts, anything of a potentially offensive nature (especially for Arab sensitivities) had to be ruthlessly eliminated. In dealing with the 20th century – all references to the wars of Israel and the “Palestinian Question” literally became a minefield.
Equally, no modern maps could be 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. Both the Wiesenthal Center and I intend to ensure that these panels will be fully restored once the exhibit is no longer traveling under UN auspices. The veto on recognition of the suffering of Jews under Arab rule underlines the reality that we were subjected to a level of scrutiny and microscopic analysis by UNESCO which may well have been unprecedented. Nevertheless, the text and the visuals passed all of these tough examinations and the exhibit finally opened in Paris on 11 June to a packed crowd. In my opinion, this was a remarkable triumph, given that only six months earlier everything had been suspended at the last moment, after the head of UNESCO’s Arab Group had claimed that holding the exhibition could endanger “the peace process”! The day of the exhibition, a delegation of the Wiesenthal Center, led by Rabbi Hier, which included Project manager Abraham Cooper, European director Shimon Samuels, myself and Canadian MP Irwin Cotler, met with President François Hollande at the Elysee Palace to discuss the Middle East and the threat posed by jihadi antisemitism. Hollande made a point to send a goodwill message to the UNESCO exhibition even though France, unlike Canada, the US, Israel and Montenegro, was not an official sponsor.
In her remarks at the opening night, Secretary- General Irina Bokova also struck a positive note, stressing UNESCO’s commitment to the Jewish heritage and culture in general as part of its broad policy of encouraging inter-cultural dialogue. Although she evoked her organization’s memorial to the martyred Yitzhak Rabin, and mentioned the names of a few Israeli artists and scientists, as little reference as possible was made to the real topic of the exhibit. The sense of malaise grew as the Director General at one point suggested that the exhibit was put together by a collective of “eminent experts” who remained nameless. This was quite untrue. Fortunately, other speakers corrected this misconception, particularly Rabbi Hier, in a forceful speech about the return to Zion.
The evening was in fact a spectacular success, despite the sweltering heat, the taxi drivers’ strike in Paris and the Via Dolorosa which preceded it. UNESCO, in the end, did the right thing and that fact should be warmly welcomed.
I have no doubt that this exhibit will eventually tour the world, helping to open hearts and minds – as I stressed in my remarks in Paris – to the universal, transcendent significance of the unshakeable bond between the Jewish nation and the land of Israel.
Robert S. Wistrich, professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of the exhibition People, Book, Land. The 3,500- year relationship of the Jewish people to the Holy Land, initiated by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which was on display at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, 11-21 June, 2014.