Daily Israel Report

The Ancient Jewish Story Which Couldn't be Silenced

Defying pressure to cancel, groundbreaking UNESCO exhibit on Jewish ties to Israel will launch today - and its creator has big hopes.
By Ari Soffer
First Publish: 6/11/2014, 6:51 PM

Professor Robert Wistrich
Professor Robert Wistrich
Courtesy of Prof. Robert Wistrich

An unprecedented exhibition showcasing the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel will finally go on display Wednesday evening, at the Paris headquarters of the United Nations' cultural agency UNESCO - despite pressure by Arab states to have it cancelled altogether.

The exhibit, entitled "People, Book, Land — The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land", was meant to have been launched back in January, but was abruptly postponed after 22 Arab UN member-states claimed in a letter that it could "disrupt" the Israeli-Palestinian Authority peace negotiations.

The UN agency controversially agreed, but amid an international outcry (including criticism from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu) and accusations of politically-motivated censorship stopped short of cancelling it outright. Instead, UNESCO claimed that it needed extra time to revise "unresolved issues relating to potentially contestable textual and visual historical points", which certain member states could perceive as "endangering the peace process". 

The display is a joint project of UNESCO and the Simon-Weisenthal Center, and "tells the history of the Jewish People in the Middle East, from the biblical patriarch Abraham to the present-day State of Israel," illustrating the indigenous status of Jews in Israel by showing "the uninterrupted presence of Jews in the land of Israel for nearly 3,500 years, and the fidelity of Jews to their original homeland through centuries of persecution both in Israel and abroad."

Speaking to Arutz Sheva, Professor Robert Wistrich, who created and helped design the exhibit, says he sees the launch today as a triumph against political pressure and attempts to rewrite history for political reasons.

On the one hand Wistrich, who is an award-winning author, Hebrew University lecturer and the Head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, said he simply felt relieved to have finally succeeded against the odds in bringing his work to the public.

Speaking shortly before a scheduled meeting with French President Francois Hollande, just hours before the exhibit was scheduled to be opened by UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, he said his excitement at finally reaching the launch day was "difficult to digest after the marathon we've had in the last two years."

But the controversy surrounding it may have been a blessing in disguise, with organizers expecting a sellout crowd.

"At least 400 people are expected to attend - I don't know how they'll fit into the room," Wistrich chuckles. "It's just a tremendous sense of relief that all the work put into it is going to finally bear fruit."

"Political hot-potato"

Despite UNESCO's guarantee to go ahead this month, Professor Wistrich says it was far from a done deal given the concerted effort by Arab states and anti-Israel lobbyists to cancel it altogether.

Arab states, along with Palestinian Arab factions, routinely deny the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, which they commonly refer to as "Palestine", as part of attempts to cast the Jewish state as an "occupier" of ostensibly "Arab lands". Such a project, spearheaded by an internationally-respected academic, poses some very inconvenient challenges to that position.

"This is a political hot potato, anyone can understand that... so it's really a miracle that we've got to this point," Wistrich said. "Most people, including in the foreign office and in Israel, were convinced it would never happen... but we just stuck in there."

Professor Wistrich adds that although he is not aware of any renewed effort to cancel the event this time, "I imagine there must have been... I'm not naive."

But he credits the high-profile and very public "storm of protest" over the controversial and last-minute decision to postpone the event, "which didn't do the image of UNESCO any good", with forcing the UN agency to go ahead with it.

"You can cancel or postpone once, but to do so a second time is much tougher without a very good pretext.

"And there just wasn't one this time. You couldn't claim what was said in January, that because of the delicate state of negotiations (it couldn't go ahead) - there are no negotiations now!"

"In the end, after the whole thing blew up UNESCO had to make a public commitment to this date in June. Once you have gone public and been so categorical it is much more difficult (to backtrack)."

It also helped that, unlike in January, the US government "got off the fence" and finally threw its support behind the exhibit, and against attempts to silence it.

More honest discourse

Beneath the political intrigue - which Professor Wistrich would rather have done without - is a simple quest to salvage a sense of honesty and objectivity to the hyper-politicized Middle East narrative.

He says he plans to "build on the momentum" of the high-profile event to push for a more honest discourse.

Interest in the exhibit has been registered internationally. Israel's Hebrew University, where Professor Wistrich teaches Jewish History, are particularly interested in hosting it; organizers are also hoping to take it to the UN's headquarters in New York, and potentially to Washington D.C as well.

And that's just the start.

"This is going to open a lot of doors to the Jewish and Israeli-Jewish narrative that nobody really has been willing to listen to before - specifically in international bodies of this kind - so in that sense it's a breakthrough... a significant moment," Wistrich says.

"For me the most important thing is that this story of the Jewish people - its unique bond to the land of Israel, which has been largely ignored, written out of the record or downplayed by all sides - will now be taken more seriously."

"People will understand why we're here, where we're going and what is the significance for the Jewish people and the rest of humantiy."

The People, Book, Land — The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land exhibit will officially open at UNESCO headquarters in Paris today, Wednesday June 11 at 6 p.m. local time. It will remain on display at UNESCO headquarters until Friday, June 20 at 5 p.m.