The decision by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to indefinitely postpone an exhibit illustrating the 3,500-year connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel was properly condemned by the U.S., Israel and the Jewish community.
The ostensible reason for the last-minute cancellation was the objection by Arab countries who argued that it would harm the peace process.
This outlandish claim was dismissed outright by, among others, Hebrew University Prof. Robert Wistrich, who was a senior consultant to The Simon Wiesenthal Center, which mounted the project. “To pretend at two minutes before midnight that this could harm the peace process is mind-boggling in its cynicism,” he said. “They never would have dared to do this if it had been an Arab exhibit.”
Nonetheless, after almost two years of research, preparation and vetting by respected historians, the exhibit was called off less than a week before its scheduled opening at the Paris headquarters. The painstakingly produced panels, already being set up in the agency’s halls, were taken down and put aside while UNESCO officials review what they described as historical claims that member states could consider “contestable.”
The Arab claim is so illogical as to border on the bizarre. The exhibit has nothing whatever to do with the current peace process or the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It has nothing to do with border or security issues, or refugees or terrorism, or any of the other issues which occupy the negotiators. Rather, it focuses on the Jewish ties to the Land of Israel from Biblical times. The exhibit’s title — “People, Book, Land: The 3,500-Year Relationship of the Jewish People with the Holy Land” — speaks for itself.
Why, then, did the letter of protest to UNESCO invoke the cherished peace process?
First, because outside their own uneducated and relentlessly propagandized constituencies, Arab leaders know that in the West, certain historical facts remain historical facts. The Torah narrative — which was the narrative of the region’s history for so many centuries, accepted by so much of the world as irrefutably true — is not so easily displaced. The Arabs could not directly or openly challenge the content of the exhibit. Even UNESCO’s own panel of experts had scrutinized every detail of it before approval was given for the showing.
So instead, they invoked the peace process. By some mysterious mechanism, the pictorial retelling of the Jewish story, the undisputed inheritance of every person with a claim to being cultured, threatens to upset the delicate negotiations and defer John Kerry’s long-awaited framework agreement.
Yet, in another sense, the exhibit has everything to do with the contemporary conflict. For in the Arab view, the peace process cannot succeed if the legitimate claim of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is recognized.
If the long-term objective is to displace the Jewish people from their homeland (or at least parts of it), the Arabs must first displace Jewish history. They must deny that we inhabited the region and established a great civilization centuries before the emergence of Islam, and more centuries before such an entity as a “Palestinian people” was ever heard of.
They have succeeded in cowing UNESCO. But in so doing, they have blundered. By making their spurious objections to the exhibit and announcing their anxieties, they have called attention to it, much more than it would have had in an exhibition hall in Paris.
The Wiesenthal Center has said that if UNESCO does not reconsider immediately, it will hold press conferences in Paris and Los Angeles on Monday to show its panels to the public.
We commend them for it. While UNESCO officials ponder which side of the truth they will be on, let the exhibit be shown in city after city in Europe and the United States. Let people see what the Arab leaders are so concerned to keep from them.
UNESCO and the Arab League are not the arbiters of historical truth. They can disassemble the exhibit and put away the pictures and proofs in crates, but they cannot disassemble the truth and store it away.
The most they can do is postpone it. But the day will come again — speedily and soon — when such exhibits will be unnecessary. When the authentic narrative of the Jewish people will be accepted and embraced in Paris, Los Angeles, Yerushalayim and all the capitals of the Middle East. When “daas Hashem yechaseh es haaretz k’mayim al hayam — When the knowledge of G-d will cover the earth like the waters over the ocean bed.”