UNESCO’s missing ‘hot potato’

When UNESCO’s exhibit ‘People, Book, Land: 3,500 years of the Jewish people’s links with the Holy Land’ opened in Paris last week, it was one of the hottest days of the year.

To the Jewish establishment’s relief, the demonstrators outside UNESCO’s plush headquarters had failed to show up. Hundreds of activists, diplomats and religious leaders thronged into the stiflingly hot hall to listen to speeches of triumph and congratulation.

“We have waited a long time for this day and this is a big victory for the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the exhibit organisers. (Simon Wiesenthal, a leading international organisation for the defence of Jewish human rights based in Los Angeles, are a partner NGO of UNESCO).

It was indeed a historic achievement – ‘ a miracle’, as the Hebrew University professor and author Robert Wistrich, who wrote the 24 panels tracing the 3, 500-year-old history of the Jewish people in the Land, put it. The exhibit, two-and-a-half years in the making, was a ‘political hot potato’, he said, wiping his brow. It had been due to open in January 2014, but Arab pressure had forced its postponement.

Not everyone is happy with the final result: the word ‘Israel’ does not feature in the title, and the Dead Sea Scrolls picture on the original advertising poster has been pulled.

But visiting members from the organisation Justice for Jews from Arab Countries (JJAC) are hot under the collar about a different issue. They were shocked to discover that the resettlement in Israel of Jews driven from Arab states in the 1950s was missing from the exhibit. From two panels on the Holocaust, the narrative skips this important chunk of history altogether. The next panel deals with the rescue and resettlement of Soviet Jewry.

When the JJAC delegates confronted the exhibition architect Robert Wistrich with their grievance, he told them that he had written an entire panel on the suffering and ingathering of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. This panel, together with two others dealing with Israel’s wars, deemed too ‘political’, had been pulled at the request of cagey UNESCO officials. One surmises that the panel explaining why 600,000 Jews were forced to flee Arab lands for Israel was withdrawn because it would have offended the sensibilities of UNESCO’s Arab and Muslim members.

The next day, JJAC members asked the UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova why Jews from Arab countries were absent from the exhibit. It was clear from her vague reply that her advisers had kept her in the dark on this issue.

To compensate for the pulled panel, Wistrich, whose wife is a Syrian Jew, had attempted to weave mentions of Jews from Arab countries into the text of the remaining panels. One sentence reads: “In 1968, Middle Eastern Jewry made up 48 percent of Israel’s Jewish immigration.”

This was the only statistic in the entire exhibit which disbelieving UNESCO officials had demanded that Wistrich back up with a reference to its source, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Why had the leaders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center not fought to maintain the missing panel? Seemingly, they insisted in talks with UNESCO that the panel on Soviet Jewry be retained.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Center, told JJAC members that there was no reason why the missing three panels should not be restored to the exhibit when it goes on tour.

Nevertheless, omitting the story of Jewish refugees granted a haven by the state of Israel represents a lost opportunity to educate a non-Jewish audience in a prestige international venue.

Speaking at the exhibit’s inauguration, Rabbi Marvin Hier did not mince his words:” The purpose of the exhibition is very clear,” he had declared: “to put an end to the canard that a Jewish state came into being in 1948, not because Jews had any connection with the land of Israel, but because the world took pity on them as a result of the Holocaust.”

What a pity that Rabbi Hier did not assign equal weight to scotching the canard that Israelis are colonialist interlopers from Europe who had snatched Palestine from the native Arabs. Here was a golden opportunity to affirm that Jews not only had a 3, 500- year continuous presence in the land of Israel, but were the original inhabitants in what is now known as the Arab world. Over 50 percent of the Jews are in Israel not because of the Nazis or the Soviets, but because they were displaced by Arab and Muslim antisemitism.

Once again, however, an Eurocentric view of Israel’s history has won the day, and truth was sacrificed to political correctness. In the eyes of the Jewish establishment and the international community, the mass flight of Jews from Arab countries remains, sadly, a taboo subject. Some ‘ hot potatoes’ are still too hot to handle.

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)