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U.S. presses UNESCO on cancellation of Jews in Israel exhibit

JTA

January 17, 2014 | 12:08 pm

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, left, seen standing with Rabbi Marvin Hier at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, in 2012, when UNESCO and the Wiesenthal Center formally agreed to co-sponsor an exhibition outlining the connections between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Following a protest by 22 Arab delegates to UNESCO, the organization "postponed" the exhibit, just days before its scheduled opening on Jan. 20.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, left, seen standing with Rabbi Marvin Hier at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, in 2012, when UNESCO and the Wiesenthal Center formally agreed to co-sponsor an exhibition outlining the connections between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Following a protest by 22 Arab delegates to UNESCO, the organization "postponed" the exhibit, just days before its scheduled opening on Jan. 20.

The Obama administration is “deeply disappointed” with a decision by UNESCO, the United Nation’s cultural arm, to cancel the opening of an exhibition on the Jewish presence in the land of Israel and is seeking its placement “as soon as possible.”

Complaints by Arab states led UNESCO to cancel the exhibition, organized by the Simon Wiesenthal Center along with the governments of Canada and Montenegro. It was scheduled to open Jan. 20 at the Paris headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

“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,” a State Department official said, speaking on customary anonymity. “We trust that UNESCO will approach this issue fairly and in a manner consistent with the organization’s guidelines and past precedent.”

[Related: UNESCO halts Israel’s Jewish history show after Arab nations protest]

UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova said Wednesday in a letter to the Simon Wiesenthal Center that the exhibit, titled “The People, the Book, the Land — 3,500 years of ties between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel,” would be postponed indefinitely. She said the decision arose out of UNESCO’s support for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“We have a responsibility in ensuring that current efforts in this regard are not endangered,” she wrote.

The cancellation followed a letter sent to Bokova on Jan. 14 by the Arab group at UNESCO. “The Arab group is deeply disturbed by the exhibition, which it condemns,” said the letter from the group’s president, Abdullah Elmealmi.

“This cause is championed by those who oppose peace efforts,” Elmealmi said. “The media campaign accompanying the exhibition will inevitably damage the peace talks, the incessant efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and UNESCO’s neutrality.”

The State Department official said the exhibition comported with UNESCO’s mission of cultural preservation and education. “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,” the official said.

In an email, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director of international affairs, Shimon Samuels, wrote that the center was outraged by Bokova’s decision. He called for an email campaign opposing cancellation.

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