THE BLOG

UNESCO and the Jews: Shame

It is the scandal of the week.

And, strangely, no one seems to be talking about it.

UNESCO has long had on its schedule an exhibit titled "People, Book, Land: The 3,500-Year Relationship of the Jewish People with the Holy Land."

The exhibit was jointly organized by UNESCO and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and sponsored by several nations, Canada among them.

The content of the exhibit had been approved by archaeological experts and met all pertinent scientific criteria.

But less than a week from its opening the exhibit was suddenly put on hold (if not cancelled altogether) by UNESCO's director-general, bending to the wishes of 22 Arab states "concerned" (sic) by the "possible negative impact" of the event on "the peace process and ongoing negotiations in the Middle East."

Never mind the insult delivered to the prestigious Simon Wiesenthal Center, here depicted as a den of troublemakers and saboteurs of peace.

Never mind the grotesque reasoning by which a scholarly exhibition put together by experts from around the world becomes, since Israel is involved, an obstacle to "negotiation" and "peace."

Nor will we dwell on the blindness of an Arab League that, confronted with the Iranian nuclear threat, the little-discussed glaciation of the Egyptian revolution, the far-from-peaceful crushing of democratic impulses in Bahrain and the Emirates, and, not least, the massacre of 130,000 Syrians by good old Bashar al-Assad, sees only one threat looming over the region: Israel, always Israel, little Israel, as soon as it presumes to reflect, as every people does, on its history, its founding narratives, and the length of its presence in the land where it has become a nation.

One of the dramatic aspects of this affair is the pathetic self-image conveyed by an agency of the United Nations bowing -- there's no other word for it -- to a diktat.

Another is the feeling of having traveled back to the time, almost 40 years ago, when the same agency saw in Zionism a form of racism -- yet at least then the great consciences of the era, with Sartre and Foucault in the lead, stood up to the organization's ignominious posturing, whereas no one today, in this instance as in others, seems to be all that bothered by it or even to have taken notice!

Yet another is the way in which a real debate -- one as old as philosophy itself and from which the ancient Greeks fashioned elegant "paradoxes" (such as the paradox of Epicharmus and then of Aristotle: What is it in an "identity" that endures? How is it that we can continue to speak of "the Greeks" or "the Jews" when the passage of time, the succession of generations, and the disappearance of the initial bearers of the name make the entities of today and yesterday radically different?) -- is being hijacked by a bunch of phony historians who now are being supported, in the form of the disgraceful palinode suspending the exhibit, by the great institution that UNESCO, in principle, is. "There never was a temple in Jerusalem," asserts one of those ersatz historians. "The Jewish people are a recent invention," writes another. "Maybe there is a Jewish people," a third throws out, "but it is a violent people, cruel from its origins, even genocidal." It is in the wake of this torrent of Holocaust-denying imbecility, which we have had to put up with for some years now in words and programs, that UNESCO's decision, like it or not, bobs along.

Equally dramatic is that, in writing these lines, I am almost certain to provoke a tidal wave of commentary in which, as always, the roles of the offender and the offended will be reversed and the offended party will be made to pay for the incendiary provocations of the offending party: "Enough about Israel! Enough about Zionism! We don't care who's right or wrong in this quarrel, but we're sick of the quarrel itself and of the Jews who are at the center of it."

A final dramatic element is the conviction that peace, real peace -- that is, the long-awaited reconciliation of two peoples with much in common but contending for the same land -- lies in mutual recognition, in a joint willingness to entertain the reasoning of the other and understand its founding myths, and not in the intolerance, rejection, demonization, and historical and philosophical revisionism encouraged by the current deluded UNESCO.

Permit me one last word that will not surprise my readers but that may refresh the memory of the authors of UNESCO's unworthy communiqué.

Five years ago, at the time of the election of the new director-general of UNESCO, a corrupt Egyptian, Farouk Hosni, an acolyte of Mubarak, had the inside track.

It is to a public opinion campaign launched by Elie Wiesel, Claude Lanzmann, and myself that Irina Bokova owes, in large part, her boost in the race, which she eventually won.

Are the two things related?

Could it that Mrs. Bokova suffers from the all-too-human tendency to despise those to whom she owes a debt, in the manner of Monsieur Perrichon in Eugène Labiche's famous play?

Might Elie Wiesel's participation in the exhibit's sponsorship committee have been more than she could bear, as Monsieur Perrichon could not bear the presence of the man who had rescued him in the Alps?

Or has she just misled those around her and, from the start, concealed the truth about a character for whom the love of culture and peace was just an act?

Or are we simply dealing with a misunderstanding? If so, it should be cleared up--fast.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy