Unesco show a 'victory' for Israel narrative

By Shirli Sitbon, June 19, 2014
Robert Wistrich

Robert Wistrich

They may just be 24 illustrated panels of about 800 words each, but to the Wiesenthal Centre, the People, Book, Land exhibition amounted to a major victory and a breakthrough for peace.

Abraham, Moses, David, Roman occupation, Judaism in Palestine, the birth of political Zionism and European immigration all feature in the exhibition on the 3,500-year-old Jewish ties to the Holy Land that opened at Unesco's Paris headquarters last week.

The point was clear: to demonstrate - using historical facts and scientific proofs - that Jews are historically bound to Israel.

"This exhibition is not like any other. There's a war of narratives and this event has opened the doors," said Hebrew University historian Robert Wistrich, who created the exhibition. "We can now move forward. This is a fight for the future and the legitimacy of Israel." The professor described the two-and-a-half years spent creating the exhibition as a "Via Dolorosa".

The texts and figures were pre-examined by three different academic commissions. And although the show was validated and ready to open by January, Unesco asked for Mr Wistrich's work to be re-examined. The inspection did not change much. "Ninety nine per cent remained the same," said Mr Wistrich.

The real reason for the delay was an objection from 22 Arab member states who said the event could jeopardise Middle East peace talks.

Days later, US envoy to the UN Samantha Power rebuked the organisation and the event was back on track.

Project manager Rabbi Abraham Cooper said: "Unesco lost a large part of its budget when the US suspended donations. Repairing their relationship with Washington was a top priority."

One panel on Jews who fled Arab countries was dropped. "For Unesco these panels were a non-starter. None of the Arab countries want to be reminded of this past," said Rabbi Cooper.

Last updated: 10:48am, June 20 2014