Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wistrich z''l and the missing panel

By way of tribute to the late Robert Wistrich, one of the top academic specialists in antisemitism, who died on 19 May, I am reproducing this post from 2014. Point of No Return met Professor Wistrich (whose wife is apparently Syrian-born) at the inauguration of “People, Book, Land – The  3, 500-Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land”,  a bold project on Israel authored by Wistrich and initiated by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and UNESCO. Wistrich was justifiably proud of the exhibit. Wiesenthal had fought tooth and nail against Arab opposition to show it. 

But the exhibit would not have taken place if one panel Wistrich wrote had been included - about the 870, 000 Jews from Arab countries.  Wistrich explained that the missing panel was replaced with a single sentence, backed, at UNESCO's insistence, with a reference to its source. The sentence reads: “By 1968, Middle Eastern Jews already represented 48% of the entire Jewish migration to Israel." 

Speaking to The Times of Israel, Wistrich said that he was very disappointed that the section needed to be removed, but explained that there was no other way to get UNESCO to go ahead with the exhibition.

“Obviously I tried to do what I could. I went through the trouble of carefully preparing what I thought was a very balanced and thorough section. To me it was important — it was part of my original design and concept,” he said, referring to the panel on Jewish refugees from Arab countries.
However, he added, from the perspective of UNESCO, the topic was explosive, because he showed “that the Jews in Arab land had suffered a great deal. The panel described their dhimmi conditions as subordinates and all the humiliations and discriminations that involved. It also went into detail on a series of pogroms, which occurred in different areas in the Arab world.”
The controversial panel meant to show that Jews living in Arab countries had ample reason to be drawn to Israel, and it was not merely “Zionist propaganda,” Wistrich said. In fact, in an early version of the panel, Wistrich had described the fate of Jews in Arab countries after 1945 as a “form of ethnic cleansing,” expecting that this characterization would be contested.
“I went some way to change the language but it wasn’t enough,” he recalled. “In the end, [UNESCO] said if you want the exhibition as a whole to succeed, you cannot give any pretext to member states to protest,” since they had the power to prevent the exhibition altogether."

Robert Wistrich (photo credit: courtesy)
Robert Wistrich (photo credit: courtesy)
“Their argument all the way through, whenever there was a controversial issue, was that in order for this to go through we have to establish a maximum level of consensus with member states and this will act as a red rag to the Arab states,” Wistrich said. “Obviously they don’t want to see themselves being portrayed as they really were and are.”
Knowing the entire exhibition could be jeopardized if he insisted on the panel, he decided to compromise. “It’s a little bit like in chess game, if you look at it strategically. You have to give up a pawn or a rook and you do that in order to attain your ultimate objective,” he said. “In this case it seemed to me straightforward politics, and there was no way around it.”
However, Wistrich added, he managed to “slip in a few sentences” about the subject in another panel, which remained in the exhibition and can currently be viewed at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. This panel explains that 20 years after Israel’s creation, half its Jewish population hailed from Middle Eastern countries, where they had been subjected to dispossession, harassment and persecution. “They let that go through,” Wistrich said.

Read post in full

What we can learn about UNESCO's silence


Eliyahu m'Tsiyon said...

these links go to articles by Wistrich on the danger of Islamic Judeophobia.




bataween said...

Thanks for these links, Eliyahu, they are very informative.

Ben said...

Wistrich and his committee had two choices. To accede to the demands of the UNESCO leaders, or to kick up a huge row. In my opinion the second option would have been better. Israel has no interest whatsoever in agreeing or appearing to agree to any recounting of Jewish history that trivializes or denies the facts of the oppression and maltreatment of Jews. And a well-prepared campaign against UNESCO and the Arab states would have countered the impression that the Jews can be pushed around and dissed.

Sylvia said...

The "missing panel" that will not go away.

It’s important to keep the subject in mind: “People, Book, Land – The 3, 500-Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land” was the name of the project, not persecution or Islamic judeophobia. Sure, persecutions, anti-semitism were part of it, but by no means all of it. Despite the efforts of many to brush the matter under the rug by reducing it to Muslim antisemitism, it is not going away.

It will not go away because this scandal is not simply a matter of Muslim countries wanting to deny that there were persecutions, they already know it and it is a well established fact. Rather and much more importantly, it is a matter of erasing half the Jewish people, the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East, the Sephardim, from 3500 history, from existence, and from consciousness. The irony is that it is precisely the North African and Middle Eastern Jews, the part of the Jewish people that maintained a continuous link with the holy land since Roman times and thus maintained the relationship alive that have been cut off from history and memory.

As to this now famous sentence, “By 1968, Middle Eastern Jews already represented 48% of the entire Jewish migration to Israel" I wished North African Jews were also mentioned as part of those 48%. I doubt that would have made a difference.

Since the opening there have probably many visitors to the exhibit who left with the “knowledge” that to Jews of North Africa and the Middle East, there was no historico-religious connection to Israel and they therefore have no justification to being in Israel.

The untimely death of Robert Wistrich has brought this matter back into the fore. That will not go away.