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State Department declined to sponsor canceled Israel UNESCO exhibit

by Ron Kampeas, JTA

January 17, 2014 | 2:25 pm

The panels that make up the now-postponed exhibit cover aspects of Jewish history in the land of Israel beginning with Abraham and continuing up until the present day. The panels had already arrived at UNESCO House in Paris when the Arab nations voiced their protest of the exhibit. UNESCO, in a statement on Jan. 17 explaining its decision to postpone the opening, said that there remained some "unresolved issues" relating to the exhibition, including "potentially contestable textual and visual historical points, which might be perceived by Member States as endangering the peace process." Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The panels that make up the now-postponed exhibit cover aspects of Jewish history in the land of Israel beginning with Abraham and continuing up until the present day. The panels had already arrived at UNESCO House in Paris when the Arab nations voiced their protest of the exhibit. UNESCO, in a statement on Jan. 17 explaining its decision to postpone the opening, said that there remained some "unresolved issues" relating to the exhibition, including "potentially contestable textual and visual historical points, which might be perceived by Member States as endangering the peace process." Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Does the State Department believe that accounts of ancient Jewish ties to the land of Israel are too sensitive to endorse — or not?

We wrote today that UNESCO cancelled a Simon Wiesenthal Center-organized exhibit at the last minute because of pressure from Arab states. The exhibit, planned for the U.N. cultural organization’s Paris headquarters, was titled “The People, the Book, the Land — 3,500 years of ties between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.”

The Arab states said the exhibit would undermine the peace process, and UNESCO agreed with them. “We have a responsibility in ensuring that current efforts in this regard are not endangered,” UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova, wrote in a letter to the Wiesenthal Center.

A source told me that the U.S. State Department was outraged at the cancellation, and so I put in a call. This is what I was told:

The United States is deeply disappointed and has engaged with senior levels at UNESCO to confirm that the action to postpone does not represent a cancellation and to underscore our interest in seeing the exhibit proceed as soon as possible. UNESCO was designed to foster just this kind of discussion and interaction between civil society and member states and the United States firmly supports the right of civil society in member states such as the Wiesenthal Center to be heard and to contribute to UNESCO’s mission. We trust that UNESCO will approach this issue fairly and in a manner consistent with the organization’s guidelines and past precedent.

Then another source told me that the State Department last week itself declined to co-sponsor the exhibit — at least in part for the same reason that Bokova cited, the peace process. This is from a Jan. 9 letter from Kelly Siekman, the State Department’s director of UNESCO affairs, to the Wiesenthal Center:

At this sensitive juncture in the ongoing Middle East peace process, and after thoughtful consideration with review at the highest levels, we have made the decision that the United States will not be able to co-sponsor the current exhibit during its display at UNESCO headquarters. As a rule, the United States does not co-sponsor exhibits at UNESCO without oversight of content development from conception to final production.

I spoke to Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center’s dean and founder, and he’s pleased at the more recent State Department statement but still a little baffled. The decision by the U.S. not to co-sponsor with Canada and Montenegro was a “major mistake,” he said, and gave cover to the pretext that the exhibition would unsettle the peace process.

“What the State Department needs to say is something along the lines of ‘We have vetted the exhibit, and the State Department finds that that the exhibit in no way interferes Kerry’s mission to carry out talks with leaders of Israel and the Palestinians,’” he said.

One more oddity: In her Jan. 9 letter declining the offer to sponsor the exhibit, Siekman adds: “We would like to offer to co-sponsor any exhibit opening ceremony or event that you may have planned.”

What is the substantive difference between sponsoring an exhibit and an opening?

I’ve asked State. We’ll keep you posted.

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