At Unesco, a glimmer of hope

By Shimon Samuels, June 19, 2014
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Peace in the wind? Unesco's HQ in Paris

Peace in the wind? Unesco's HQ in Paris

The acknowledgment of Palestine as a member state of Unesco (United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organisation), in November 2011, turned the status of heritage upon its head. Historical monuments and wonders of nature have been converted into instruments of war by other means.

UN bloc ballots in 2012 gave Palestine the most prestigious prize in Christendom — the Bethlehem Pilgrimage Route and the Church of the Nativity. Today, the Palestinians’ heritage wish-list includes the Cave of the Patriarchs, Rachel’s Tomb, the Qumran Caves and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

There are and have been consummate professionals within Unesco — its World Heritage Committee has plenty. That professionalism once assisted us in protecting Auschwitz from a Polish discotheque, that had opened within the death camp.

But that attitude has been undermined by secularisation and a growing disdain for nationalism — especially in Europe — which has cast the Jews as scions of an antiquated religion, who should have shaken off practices such as circumcision and shechita. Jewish peoplehood and self-determination are perceived as a dangerous driver of trouble in the Middle East.

These were the two challenges — Palestinian identity theft and the need to refocus minds on the Jews’ 3,500-year-old, uninterrupted link to their motherland — that inspired the Wiesenthal Centre’s People, Book, Land exhibition. And Unesco was the best arena for this kind of cultural outreach.

Following Unesco exhibitions by the Vatican on Christianity and by Saudi Arabia on Islam, it would seem only natural that world Jewry should have an opportunity to present their history and culture. Getting a UN agency to host such an exhibition, however, became a major political challenge. Our centre’s approach remained the same: to uphold – as a red line that could not be crossed - the authenticity of the Jewish narrative at all times.

At the same time, we would not bow down to the zero-sum spoilers. We acknowledged an inclusive history: both Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) and Eretz Hakodesh (the Holy Land).

We celebrated our contribution of a code of ethics to which the enlightened world aspired: the liberation of slaves, the seventh year of ecological rest, the Sabbath, the importance of education, the primacy of peace and, above all, the Ten Commandments.

The exhibition also underscored the role of Jewish thinkers in history, from Cassin’s Human Rights Declaration to Lemkin’s Genocide Convention; and how, despite exile, expulsions and the Shoah — or perhaps because of them — a sovereign, start-up nation was born.

The retelling of our unique story to those willing to engage became an exercise in diplomatic bonding. After one discussion, a high Unesco official remarked that “this was the most exciting seminar” he had ever experienced.

Keeping within our red lines, the Jewish journey through history and geography became a touchstone for universal values, and especially refracted the mission statement of Unesco: education, science and culture.

At the inauguration, the spoilers either gritted their teeth or stayed away. As Master of Ceremonies, I introduced the ambassadors of our four co-sponsoring member states: the United States, Canada, Montenegro and the last as “the Ambassador of the Land of Israel.”

From the technical staff to the security guards, from the media department to protocol and, indeed, the Director-General herself, all were caught up in a festive “Siyum” (the end of a Torah reading).

Was this an isolated miracle or a new factor to challenge UN realpolitik? The morning after the launch, the director-general received a delegation of Jews from Arab countries, who appealed for protection of Jewish heritage sites in their abandoned countries of origin.

Whatever comes of that request, one thing is certain: the exhibition will carry the Jewish narrative to other international arenas.

I concluded the opening by paraphrasing Elie Wiesel – the exhibition’s lead patron. I voiced the parable of the rabbi who asked his students how we may determine the beginning of the new day.

“When you can distinguish between a fig-tree and a date tree,” said one student.

“No,” replied the rabbi.

When you can distinguish between a goat and a sheep,” said another.

“No,” insisted the rabbi.

“When you can see a rich man and a poor man, a black woman and a white woman and you cannot distinguish between them, then the new day has begun,” answered the rabbi.

Those are Jewish values.

Ultimately, the exhibition marked a new day and a victory for Unesco.

Shimon Samuels is Director for International Relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre

Last updated: 5:03pm, June 19 2014