UNESCO's Israel Exhibit Back on Track, Sort Of

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The United Nations' cultural agency says it's delaying for six months a disputed exhibit on Jewish connections to the Holy Land after objections from Arab countries.

The exhibition, which is called "People, Book, Land - The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land," was scheduled to open Monday at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris.

Earlier this month UNESCO abruptly announced it was delaying the exhibit after 22 Arab member states said in a letter that it could disrupt the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The UN agency also said it needed extra time to revise "unresolved issues relating to potentially contestable textual and visual historical points" that member states could perceive as "endangering the peace process."

UNESCO says the exhibit is now scheduled to open in June, pending final discussions with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a U.S. Jewish group that co-organized the exhibit.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he held "a constructive, blunt" 45-minute discussion with UNESCO's director general earlier in the week and confirmed that negotiations were underway to hold the exhibit. As of late Tuesday, he said no deal had been reached.

He said the center opposed any changes in the text on the more than two dozen panels in the exhibit, but there were still discussions going on about some of the photos.

U.S., Israeli and Canadian officials had all been active in efforts to save the exhibit, he added.

"It simply cannot be that in a place of culture like UNESCO that one people's history shall be banned, the Jewish people. That is unacceptable," he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized UNESCO on Sunday for the decision to delay the exhibit. 

The exhibition "won't hurt the negotiations. Negotiations based on fact, on the truth will never be hurt," Netanyahu said. What did hurt the negotiations was the "one-sided stance" of certain states against Israel, he charged.

The exhibit is to show roughly 30 illustrated panels showing the long history of the Jewish people in the Holy Land, from the days of the biblical patriarch Abraham to modern Israel as a high-tech powerhouse.

The spat centers around one of the thorniest issues at the heart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: Israel's demand for recognition as a Jewish state. Israel says there cannot be Mideast peace without Palestinian acceptance of Israel as the Jewish homeland. The Palestinians say such recognition would undercut the rights of Palestinian refugees and Israel's own Arab minority.

A general view of the assembly of the 37th session of the General Conference of UNESCO.Credit: AP

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