Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, lashed out Monday at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for postponing -- at the request of 22 Arab countries -- an exhibit dealing with historical Jewish ties to the Middle East.
Hier said it was "outrageous" for UNESCO to postpone the exhibit, titled "People, Book, Land -- The 3,500-Year Relationship of the Jewish People with the Holy Land." It had been scheduled to open in Paris Tuesday.
"The exhibition arrived in Paris. It was actually mounted in the exhibition hall," Hier said. "The invitations were sent out and at 9 p.m. on January 14th here in Los Angeles time, we were informed by UNESCO that due to a protest by the Arab group, which consists of 22 Arab nations, that said that our exhibit would interfere with Secretary (John) Kerry's peace mission, therefore, they objected to it being exhibited and they wanted it removed."
Hier said the exhibit was "an educational and cultural exhibition" that fit UNESCO's mission to "honor the exchange of ideas and different concepts between peoples and civilizations."
Some 30 artistic panels designed for the exhibit by Professor Robert Wistrich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem cover aspects of Jewish history in Israel, beginning with the biblical patriarch Abraham up until the present day. The exhibit was the product of a two-year effort involving UNESCO, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Wistrich.
An agreement on staging the exhibit was signed in 2012 by Hier and UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian, in a ceremony at the Museum of Tolerance, which is run by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
In announcing the postponement over the Arab protest, UNESCO noted that it needs time to address "unresolved issues relating to potentially contestable textual and visual historical points" that member states might see as "endangering the peace process."
In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu echoed Hier's criticism, accusing UNESCO of bowing to Arab pressure.
"Negotiations (with the Palestinian Authority) based on fact, on the truth will never be hurt," he told his cabinet, according to news reports from Jerusalem. "The one-sided approach toward Israel does not advance peace -- it pushes peace farther away."
The United States also criticized the postponement.
"UNESCO's decision is wrong and should be reversed," said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power.
The dispute comes at a time when Secretary of State John Kerry is conducting a highly intensive effort to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement talks. It is not expected to have a major impact on negotiations, even though it touches on some underlying aspects of the conflict: Israel's demand for acceptance as a Jewish state versus a Palestinian contention that such recognition would undercut the rights of Palestinian refugees to reclaim property they lost in Israel proper in 1948.
"Let's be clear," Hier wrote in a letter to Bokova. "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."
Bokova, the Jerusalem Post reported, responded that UNESCO works with many Jewish groups, but consensus is important to the organization.
"Having in mind the delicate phase that the peace negotiations are entering, I have no choice but to take seriously the concerns raised in the letter of the chairperson of the Arab Group," she wrote Hier.
- City News Service