THE SPINE SEPTEMBER 30, 2009
There was a time--stretching back several decades and ending not so long ago--when UNESCO busied itself with condemning Israel for this and condemning Israel for that. As it happens, the first piece (an unsigned editorial note) I wrote for TNR after coming to the magazine was titled "UNESCO and Israel." It appeared in the issue of December 14, 1974.
UNESCO had specifically excluded Israel from the organization's official European orbit which meant it had no orbit at all in which to integrate itself. The Arabs were certainly not going to admit the Jewish state into their sphere. The resolution mandated that UNESCO's director-general supervise all educational and cultural institutions in the territories captured in the Six Days War. And it cut off what small aid it gave to any and all Israeli cultural activities even within the pre-1967 lines.
Quoting myself: By excluding Israel from UNESCO activities, it was, "as Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron said in a remarkable joint statement, 'justifying in advance Israel's physical annihilation'." The organization has by now curbed what Danny Goldhagen calls these "eliminationist" tendencies. (What is this big word "eliminationist" about? You'll have to wait for the coming issue of TNR.) In a mark of UNESCO's new professionalism it sponsored a world-wide celebration of Bauhaus and International Style architecture and design in situ in Tel Aviv where, absent war, it has survived in its quotidian grandeur.
Then came the Egyptian government with a candidate for the next director-general of the organization. Its contender for the prize of living in Paris and other perks was Farouk Hosni, the present minister of culture in the Mubarak regime. If he is a cultured man I am a cardiologist. "To prove his anti-Zionist credentials at home," wrote Raymond Stock in Foreign Policy, "Hosni told the Egyptian parliament that he would 'burn right in front of you' any Israeli books found in the country's libraries." This outrage was scarcely the sum total of his barbaric views. He was supposed to be the favored aspirant for the job, and he held the lead in several stages of the vote. But a book burner was not the preferred symbol of leadership for an institution with a cultural mandate. Many true Arab intellectuals were mortified by Hosni's views.
Hosni's lead began to fade in favor of Irina Bukova, the Bulgarian candidate. Or as Lee Smith put in the Weekly Standard, "if the Culture Minister's anti-Israel bias had crossed even UN redlines, then something is definitely wrong with Egypt." In the end Bukova won the contest.
Tatbi' is a word in Arabic meaning normal or normalcy. That is President Obama's aspiration for the Middle East. If Egypt's nominee for director-general of UNESCO sees the burning of Hebrew books as his metier after 30 years of formal peace with Israel how do you think Obama's designs will fare?