UNESCO director-general hails joint work with Israel

Irina Bokova, who defeated Egypt’s controversial candidate Farouk Hosny, makes first visit.

Irina Bokova meets Haifa mayor_311 (photo credit: Zvi Roger)
Irina Bokova meets Haifa mayor_311
(photo credit: Zvi Roger)
Highlighting her organization’s “excellent cooperation” with Israel in a variety of fields including education, culture, science and communications, the director-general of UNESCO said Sunday in Jerusalem that she had been “disappointed” by the process whereby UNESCO’s Executive Board last October passed five resolutions hostile to Israel.
Irina Bokova, 58, who is making her first visit to Israel, noted, however, that reports that Israel had threatened to suspend all cooperation with UNESCO over the affair were inaccurate and had proved as such. “I was reassured immediately that Israel was by no means considering suspending or limiting relations with UNESCO,” she said. Officials in Jerusalem clarified Sunday that Israel had suspended cooperation with UNESCO only with regard to the five specific issues in the resolutions.
Bulgarian-born Bokova was appointed to the top post at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in September 2009, narrowly defeating the Egyptian candidate, former minister of culture Farouk Hosny, in the final round of voting. Hosny had been the frontrunner for the post until controversy surfaced regarding a May 2008 pledge he had made to burn Israeli books in Egyptian libraries. He blamed his defeat on “Zionist pressures” and the activism against his appointment led by “a group of the world’s Jews.”
Bokova was invited on this visit to deliver the keynote speech at Sunday’s International Women Leaders conference at the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center, an institution with which she said UNESCO has had a long-running relationship.
She also inaugurated the “UNESCO for Tolerance and Peace Square” in Haifa, in the company of the city’s mayor Yona Yahav. At the ceremony dedicating the square, she praised the mixed Jewish- Arab city as an exemplar of coexistence and dialogue between all population sectors.
Haifa’s message of “tolerance and peace,” she said, should be disseminated across the Middle East and worldwide.
Bokova began her trip on Sunday with a meeting with President Shimon Peres, and will on Monday visit and lay a wreath at Yad Vashem and meet with the ministers of education, science and culture and with senior officials at the Foreign Ministry.
Bokova detailed a series of projects and programs on which UNESCO and Israel work together, including the International Centre for Synchrotron- light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), a Jordan-based cooperative venture by the scientists and governments of the region, which was formed four years ago and remarkably features Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, the Palestinian Authority and Iran among its members.
UNESCO has plans to establish a new academic chair in cross-border cooperation involving Ben-Gurion University’s branch in Eilat and Aqaba’s American University.
UNESCO is also considering bringing under its auspices a program run by Hadassah Medical Center which brings students and doctors from Addis Ababa University to train and teach in the fight against AIDS and sends Israeli doctors to Addis.
Bokova spoke of the annual L’OREAL-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science, which annually recognize five laureates, one from each of the five continents, who have contributed to the advancement of science. In 2008, Professor Ada Yonath from the Weizmann Institute was honored as the laureate for Europe – a precursor to Yonath’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009. “She was our laureate first,” laughed Bokova.
She said UNESCO benefited from Israeli input in its increasing work on education regarding the Holocaust.
UNESCO “prepares teaching material. We have a special website. We organize training workshops,” she said. “And we have an agreement with the Israeli government to have a specialist working with our education sector to help put together the components.” A book on Anti-Semitism, the Generic Hatred: Essays in Memory of Simon Wiesenthal, produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center Europe, was published under UNESCO auspices four years ago – the only text on the subject that has the patronage of a UN agency.
As for Palestinian and Arab education in the Holocaust, Bokova said a first workshop was held in the Palestinian territories two years ago but had no further details on progress since then. She highlighted a trip she made to Auschwitz in February – “a big delegation of mayors and religious leaders, including muftis from Arab countries. We had mayors from more than 30 different Arab towns,” she said.
She said her own country’s Holocaust experience was “a very good lesson… that even in very difficult times you can do something.” (Bulgaria saved its 48,000 Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps, though 11,300 Jews in annexed Thrace and Macedonia were sent to Treblinka.) She said her father, Georgi Bokov, “was in the anti-fascist movement. He was of course a member of the Communist Party – before the war and during the war also.” Bokov was a prominent figure in the Bulgarian Communist Party, who edited the party’s daily newspaper.
“He was one of those also who was very much participating in the resistance to stop the sending of Bulgarian Jews [to the camps],” she said.
Turning to the passage of those five resolutions at last October’s Executive Board meeting, Bokova said, “What happened was very unfortunate in my mind.” For several years, she noted, the board had put resolutions to the vote only after reaching a consensus. In the case of these five resolutions, no consensus was reached, yet a vote was held anyway and all five passed. “I know that Israel was disappointed. I was disappointed myself,” she said. “I expressed this very vividly, very clearly – that UNESCO is stronger if it has consensus.”
The resolutions dealt, in turn, with a demand for Jordanian and Wakf experts to be given access to work being done by Israel at the Ascent to the Mughrabi Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem; protested “ongoing Israeli excavations and archaeological works on Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City”; designated what UNESCO called the “al- Haram al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs in al- Khalil/Hebron and the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem” as being “an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories”; expressed concern “about the harmful impact of the separation Wall and other practices on the activities of cultural and educational institutions” in the West Bank; and deplored “the continuous blockade on the Gaza Strip.”
The resolutions were passed by overwhelming majorities in the 58-member board, with the US casting the only dissenting vote on the last four of the five. Branding the five as “anti- Israel resolutions,” the US said they “unfairly singled out Israel” and unacceptably politicized UNESCO’s work.
Speaking in the Knesset at the time, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said these resolutions, which he said were adopted based on the automatic Arab majority in the organization, constituted an attempt led by the Palestinian Authority to delegitimize the State of Israel. In the end, he said, they harmed UNESCO, which was being turned into a rubber stamp of the Palestinian Authority.
Bokova said the latest Executive Board meeting, two weeks ago, had reasserted the principle of consensus, but had not discussed the five resolutions again. Asked whether they therefore remain on the UNESCO books, she said: “The board decided not to discuss these resolutions. They transferred the item to the next board [meeting].”