The power of education

Despite international protest and the death of historian Robert Wistrich, the exhibition he curated showing the connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel will debut at the Knesset.

Professor Robert Wistrich (photo credit: Courtesy)
Professor Robert Wistrich
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On January 17, 2014, a not-so-typical story made front-page news of The Jerusalem Post. An exhibition detailing the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel over more than 3,500 years, a partnership between the Simon Wiesenthal Center and UNESCO, was indefinitely postponed after protest by the 22-nation Arab League, which complained that the exhibition was political and would harm the then-ongoing US-led peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Let’s be clear,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center wrote to Irina Bokova, president of UNESCO, following the decision, “the Arab group’s protest is not over any particular content in the exhibition, but rather the very idea of it – that the Jewish people did not come to the Holy Land only after the Nazi Holocaust, but trace their historical and cultural roots in that land for three and a half millennia.”
The move by UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – was shocking in that the supposedly non-political body was caving in to political pressure.
The exhibition, titled “People, Book, Land – The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People and the Land of Israel,” was expected to debut on January 20, 2014. It was directed by Rabbi Abraham Cooper and curated by the late historian and academic Prof. Robert Wistrich, who died in May from a heart attack.
According to the Algemeiner website, a letter to Bokova from Abdulla al Neaimi, president of the Arab Group, said they expressed “great worry and disapproval” over the exhibition. “The subject of this exhibition is highly political, though the appearance of the title seems to be trivial. Most serious is the defense of this theme, which is one of the reasons used by the opponents of peace within Israel.”
After public condemnation of the postponing of the exhibition, it premiered at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in June 2014. A month before, the US led-peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians had collapsed, reaching their extended deadline of April 29 with no significant changes or gains made by either side.
“We had our patrons ready to do a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and instead we went to a press conference,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper told the Magazine in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles last week. Cooper had just returned from Washington, where the exhibit premiered in Congress. Cooper is looking ahead to the opening of the display at the Knesset on November 30.
After appearing in Paris, the exhibit moved to the United Nations headquarters in New York – set up at the entrance for delegates of the General Assembly.
Speaking at the opening, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers said that it was important for the exhibit to be shown at the United Nations, especially since a panel is dedicated to the 1947 vote to help create the Jewish State.
“This exhibit is important, not just because of the exhibit itself, but because of what it means [for it] to be shown here, at the United Nations.”
THE EXHIBITION consists of 25 doorsize posters with photos and accompanying text. Each poster has a theme, beginning with the story of Abraham and finishing in modern Israel with its reputation as the start-up nation. “We refer to the Temple early on, especially for those who deny that it ever took place,” Cooper says of the content in the exhibition. Originally in English, it was translated into French, and will have a Hebrew translation for its exhibition in the Knesset. An Italian version is expected to go on display at the Vatican on December 2.
“Chronologically, it goes from the first exile, Return to Zion, second Temple, Hellenists, Romans, then early Christianity, Arab periods, Jewish presence in the land throughout the time, and the yearning for Zion,” says Cooper. The average visitor can spend around a half hour going through the panels, but some stories may have more meaning for others, he adds. “There is a panel just about Soviet Jewry, an issue that gave a framework to my own earlier years. I could spend 15 minutes at that panel alone, because it spurs a lot of memories.”
Cooper says the overall combination of the visuals and the integrity of Wistrich’s words make for a powerful presentation. Archival images, ancient maps and contemporary photography by Sasson Tiram add to its uniqueness, Cooper adds. Designed by the Jerusalem- based Orna group, Cooper marvels at how a team of young 20- and 30-yearold designers also got into the history of the project. “I delighted in seeing their self-discovery of their own history and heritage.”
The exhibition is sponsored by Canada, Israel, the US and UNESCO.
AT THE opening of the exhibition in Jerusalem, Wistrich will be honored posthumously with the International Leadership Award. On May 19, Wistrich died of a heart attack in Rome where he had been about to address the Italian Senate on the resurgence of European anti-Semitism.
“I do think the real hero here is Robert Wistrich,” says Cooper of his late friend. “He was amazing.”
Wistrich was born in Kazakhstan in 1945, but grew up in England. He was the head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was the author of dozens of books and a prolific speaker on human rights.
Cooper jokes that Wistrich’s books were so substantial that dropping them on an anti-Semite was as good a weapon as the written argument. As curator of the exhibit, he authored the panels, keeping to the maximum 900-word count.
“He was fun to work with,” Cooper says with fondness. “One of the most incredible parts of this saga, which unfortunately he was planning to write about after the exhibition opened, was the fact that Prof. Wistrich had to defend the veracity of the exhibition of our content no less than four times in front of committees, and scholarly reviews of what he put together. It was remarkable to watch his patience, friendly demeanor, and absolute tenacity in standing up for the truth.”
Cooper says that the fourth and final review took place in July 2014, in Paris.
Wistrich defended his work in a session that, according to Cooper, lasted between eight and nine hours. It took place at the Ecole Militaire, the famous military school where, in 1896, the French-Jewish military commander Alfred Dreyfus was stripped of his military insignia and had his sword broken in a ceremony condemning him for treason.
Dreyfus was later pardoned after evidence surfaced supporting his innocence, but the trial and accusations of anti-Semitism had a deep impact on a young journalist named Theodor Herzl.
It was a poignant moment for Cooper.
“The room we were in, you could see across through the window, the courtyard where, on a Shabbat morning, Dreyfus had his sword broken.”
One of the last times Cooper saw his friend was at the 5th Global Forum for combating anti-Semitism in Jerusalem. “The day before, he gave this speech – his lectures sometimes sounded a little dry,” Cooper remembers of his friend, “but that day he was on fire… He was attacking the anti- Semites in his typical brilliant way, passionate and animated.”
Cooper left to travel to Azerbaijan and said goodbye to Wistrich, who continued to Rome to testify on the issue of anti-Semitism in Europe. “A week later I was back at his funeral… it was a tremendous shock.”
The rabbi is emotive in his respect and admiration for his late friend.
“Robert Wistrich is deeply respected for his expertise. He was an unfailingly accurate, outspoken crusader against that kind of hatred in academia. I don’t think he ever gave a second thought of what the implications were to his reputation in the academic world. He so fiercely took on the bigotry in academia when others wouldn’t step up. He was quite a remarkable man.”
LOOKING FORWARD to next week’s expected ceremony at the Knesset, Cooper says that this is the culmination of the work on the project.
“I really think that for all Jews this is a reminder,” he says of the content of the exhibition. “For some, it’s an introduction to the fact that identity and fate has always had this inexorable link. It’s not a political statement, because it’s not about borders, it doesn’t talk about one-, two-, or four-state solutions. It just talks about a magnificent love affair between a people and its land.”
Cooper’s hope is to present this exhibition all over the world, in capital cities and major universities. Its purpose as an educational tool can serve to help countries that are deepening ties with Israel to explore the history of the people and their values. And for places that are antagonistic towards Israel or have a misunderstanding of the history of the Jewish people, it can serve as a way to open up communication.
While Cooper is excited to see Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein present at the exhibition’s opening, he is also hoping to see some other special attendees. “I have six grandchildren and I hope they come, if they can get off school.”