Over the course of three years as an Israeli delegate at the United Nations, I learned to cherish the rare moments of unambiguous truth in diplomacy, when events coalesced in such a way to remove the veil of polite conversation, formalities, and carefully worded press statements, revealing the character of those at center stage. This week was one such moment for UNESCO – the UN’s cultural and educational agency – which decided to postpone its exhibition on the 3,500-year relationship of the Jewish People with the Holy Land, co-organized with the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Two years in the making, the Paris exhibit’s final panels were being hung over the weekend in preparation for an opening planned for this Monday, when a letter arrived from UNESCO’s 22-member Arab Group. This collection of countries – in their infinite concern about advancing the Middle East Peace Process – argued that such an exhibit could derail the talks now underway between Israelis and Palestinians.
In fact, this exhibit is the precise message that the UN should be sending at a time of peace negotiations, encouraging both sides to recognize the others’ history in the Holy Land. It’s especially appropriate considering that the Palestinians have an entire Agency, Information Program, Day of Solidarity, and Year of Solidarity at the United Nations devoted to telling their story.
Wildly inaccurate does not begin to describe the way that the history of the region is presented in these contexts, with lies large and small neatly arranged to cast Israel as the villain. When taking friends on tours of UN Headquarters in New York, I’d pause at the large exhibit about the Palestinians permanently on display for Turtle Bay’s 1 million annual visitors. We’d play our own game that I termed “Find a Fact” – as facts were few and far between in the massive panel of text depicting an alternate universe – a place where wars in Gaza take place without Hamas rockets, where Yasser Arafat is Mahatma Gandhi, and Israeli occupation is the root cause for conflict in the region.
For Arab delegations accustomed to living in this carefully curated world of historical revisionism, it’s offensive that the UN would consider presenting basic truths about the Jewish past. UNESCO is certainly no exception. Within hours of receiving the Arab Group’s letter, the organization postponed the exhibit at least until June, citing concerns about “potentially contestable textual and visual historical points” that might be an affront to certain Member States.
For years, this has been a familiar story. Arab countries have perfected the art of turning every issue, event, and moment at the UN into an opportunity to attack Israel. And UNESCO has long been a preferred venue for doing so. What other Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization has passed more than 46 resolutions condemning Israel – compared with one resolution about Syria, and zero about Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and every other country in the world?
While this week’s events were not particularly surprising, they were uniquely revealing, offering a special glimpse into the craven prejudice and spineless accommodation that drives too many calculations at the UN.
Those at UNESCO with an ounce of belief in their organization’s stated mission of advancing peace would ask the question: if Arab delegations regard the Jewish people’s history as offensive – and their ancient connection to Israel as illegitimate, then how can they possibly claim to be seeking an ultimate peace with the Jewish State?
In the coming weeks, UNESCO will discuss and consult and explain. UN officials will meet with Jews. The exhibit might even be shown. That’s not the point. The damage has been done. As long as the Jewish people and the Jewish state are treated differently, UNESCO and the UN have no business in the peace business.