The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s announcement last week that it would cancel a cultural exhibition it was co-sponsoring with Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris leaves many troubling questions.
According to the SWC, the exhibit had taken years to organize with UNESCO. The exhibit, “People, Book, Land: The 3,500-Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land” was only days from opening when the organization received word of the cancellation. SWC had already gone through numerous consultations with UNESCO staff on its content and timing. Invitations had gone out, approval had been sought and funds had been spent. Yet UNESCO, which, like the rest of the world, has been intensely aware of ongoing peace negotiations in the Middle East, apparently didn’t realize that Jewish history was a sensitive topic for some – that is, until it received words of “disapproval” from the Arab League and cancelled the exhibit. (Following intense criticism of the organization’s decision, UNESCO later reschedule the exhibit for June.)
What often gets forgotten during debates over cultural expression is the importance of equity. Last year, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency launched an exhibit in Jerusalem that was to serve as a photo essay of the Palestinian experience since 1948. It opened in the Al Ma’amal Foundation for Contemporary Art in the Old City and was scheduled to stay for two months. According to the organizers, the exhibit will then make its way on to Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, before heading to worldwide destinations. Interestingly, it will also be online with its own dedicated website funded by the UN agency.
The UN’s desire to show and educate people about the human plight of Palestinian refugees is laudable. According to the UN calendar, 2014 is the Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. While many would agree with Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon’s statement that “We cannot afford to lose the current moment of opportunity” in attaining peace in the Middle East, the acknowledgement of one people’s history and culture and the implicit silence about the other does not ensure human rights.
Collective memory is a vital element of communal identity… – Former Deputy-Commissioner General Filippo Grandi, UNRWA
When UNRWA first opened its photographic exhibit in Jerusalem in January 2013, Filippo Grandi, the then-deputy-commissioner general of the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, stated that “Collective memory is a vital element of communal identity.” At the time his eloquent words were meant to describe the importance of Palestinian communal experience. But as is often the case with such insights, the strength of this statement lies in its ability to express a universal truth. The appreciation of the Jewish communal identity is no less important than that of the Palestinians’ and no less urgently needed if the world is to understand the real humanitarian question being debated in the peace process.
There has been a lot of talk about the need to recognize the Jewish community’s historic and legal right to return to the land that is now called Israel. But it’s often overlooked – both by Jews and by non-Jews – that Israel was partitioned and declared a Jewish homeland not because of the ideological or religious beliefs of its founders, but because of the sheer multitude of Jewish refugees following World War II. Israel is the ultimate example of a country founded and championed to a large degree, by refugees. Their stories and their descendant’s stories have an equal right to be heard. And their historic rights to claiming Israel as their cultural homeland deserve just as much protection by the UN as the Arab families that now seek refuge because of war and displacement throughout the Middle East.
The only way for the UN to succeed in its role as a protector of human rights is to ensure impartiality by allowing all “collective memories” to be heard and shared as a valid part of the region’s cultural legacy.