UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) launched yesterday (Jun. 11) at UNESCO headquarters in Paris the exhibition on the Jewish connection to Holy Land after controversially postponing it from its original launch date in January.
An overflow crowd of hundreds of community activists, diplomats and religious leaders watched as Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director General joined with official co-sponsors; Israel, Canada, United States and Montenegro at the unveiling ceremony.
The exhibition, “People, Book, Land: The 3500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People with the Holy Land” tells the history of the Jewish People in the Middle East, from the biblical patriarch Abraham to the present-day State of Israel. It is cultural-historical in its main thrust, with a strong emphasis on the centrality of education, culture and science in the Jewish heritage, values which are part of UNESCO’s credo. It shows 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.
The exhibition content was authored by Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Prof. Robert Wistrich, on behalf of the Wiesenthal Center. Prof. Robert Wistrich wrote the texts and worked directly with the designers on the visual accompaniment that made up the exhibition. A leading international historian, Wistrich is a Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Head of its Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, and the author of numerous books.
Speaking at the opening of the exhibit, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, stated: “After the sudden cancellation of the exhibition in January, many observers believed that this pivotal piece of history would never appear under the banner of the United Nations. But they were proven wrong. Tonight, this is truly an historic occasion because it is the first time in the history of the United Nations…that the UN has co-sponsored an exhibit which outlines the historic raison d’être for the UN decision to recognize a Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1947: the indisputable fact that the Jewish people have an uninterrupted 3,500-year relationship with the Holy Land.”
UNESCO initially canceled the exhibition in January after receiving a letter from the 22 countries in its Arab Group. They were concerned that while the exhibit’s title was innocuous, the subject itself was political, and warned that hosting such an exhibit could hinder the peace negotiations. “UNESCO is deeply committed to the successful outcome of the peace process in order to achieve stability in the region and we have a responsibility in ensuring that current efforts in this regard are not endangered,” wrote director-general Bokova.
At the time, Rabbi Hier, warned that failure to open the exhibit as planned would “confirm to the world that UNESCO is the official address of the Arab narrative in the Middle East.”
There was further disagreement about the exhibit’s title. The Center wanted to use the phrase Land of Israel instead of UNESCO’s preferred term Holy Land. Wistrich said that throughout their history, Jews have spoken of Eretz Yisrael, or Land of Israel, whereas Holy Land is more of a Christian reference. Both sides finally agreed to the term Holy Land.
Presenting the truth about Jewish ties to the Land of Israel is not harmful to peace, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in January, as he dismissed UNESCO’s explanation for suspending its exhibit on that topic. “Negotiations are based on facts, on the truth, which is never harmful,” Netanyahu told his cabinet at its weekly meeting. “The one-sided approach toward Israel does not advance peace – it pushes peace further away. It strengthens the refusal of the PA to make actual progress in the negotiations.”