Israeli-Arab diplomatic sniping over the choice of a new head for the United Nations cultural arm, UNESCO spilled over into an unlikely arena recently, emerging unexpectedly as a sore point in Israel’s relations with the Jewish Diaspora.
“I am of course more than angry,” said French philosopher-journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy, an outspoken opponent of the Egyptian’s candidacy. “I don’t understand how an Israeli government can choose to support such an antisemite.”
Tense words were also exchanged, according to an Israeli news report, between Netanyahu and Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate Holocaust chronicler, who had joined Levy in protesting the candidacy before Netanyahu reversed positions.
The man at the center of the conflict is the Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, considered the leading contender in September’s vote.
Controversy first erupted over Hosni’s candidacy in June 2008, when he told the Egyptian parliament that if Israeli books were found in Egypt’s acclaimed Alexandria Library, “I will burn them myself.”
Responding to the comments, Israel launched a worldwide campaign to derail Hosni’s candidacy, mobilizing Diaspora Jewish organizations to lobby their governments. The campaign reached a peak May 21, when an open letter denouncing Hosni was published in the French daily newspaper Le Monde, signed by Wiesel, Levy and French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann.
Citing a catalog of Hosni’s anti-Israel and anti-Jewish statements going back to 2001, the authors wrote: “Mr. Farouk Hosny is the opposite of a man of peace, dialogue, and culture; Mr. Farouk Hosny is a dangerous man, an inciter of hearts and minds.” (This translation and spelling was published by the authors in the Huffington Post.)
The publication caused an uproar across Europe, landing the issue on the front pages for the first time. Hosni tried to quell the furor with his own Le Monde op-ed May 27, expressing “solemn regret” for his words but European leaders appeared unimpressed. The French press agency AFP quoted an unnamed UNESCO official May 30 conceding for the first time that Hosni’s “election could be problematic” because “the European bloc is against him.”
But even as the blocking campaign was gaining momentum, Israel was quietly backing away. Weeks earlier, during a May 11 meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Netanyahu had secretly agreed to halt Israeli opposition to the candidate. A classified memo went out to Israeli diplomatic missions May 14, instructing them to drop their blocking efforts. These developments were reported by Haaretz on May 25.
Netanyahu had agreed to back off because, “Mr. Mubarak is a very, very charming host” and a “very persuasive, seductive guy,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, an early opponent of the Hosni nomination. “He’s also a very important ally of Israel, and Hosni is a very dear friend of his.”
Foxman said that while his organization continues to oppose Hosni, he believes that Israel is “entitled” to make its own diplomatic calculations.
Wiesel was not so sanguine. According to several sources, he was in Israel at the time of the May 25 Haaretz report and protested the policy shift to Netanyahu by phone almost immediately. An account in Yediot Ahronot by senior commentator Nahum Barnea claimed that Netanyahu had called Wiesel on a separate matter, to ask that he speak out in support of West Bank settlers, to counter President Obama’s call for a settlement freeze.
Wiesel did not reply directly, Barnea wrote. Instead, he raised the Hosni reversal, charging that he had been embarrassed after extending himself at Israel’s request, only to find himself abandoned.
A source close to Wiesel, however, told the Forward that it was the Nobel laureate who initiated the call, not the prime minister, and that the Yediot report had overstated Wiesel’s anger.
Nonetheless, some observers saw a sort of retort to Netanyahu in a sudden White House announcement May 27, two days after the Haaretz report, that Wiesel would be joining Obama the following week in a visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Wiesel had no such plans when he spoke to Netanyahu; indeed his decision to attend was so sudden that he canceled at least one major speaking engagement at short notice.
Several sources close to Wiesel and to the White House confirmed that the invitation had come after Wiesel returned from Israel, but both sides vigorously denied that there was any direct connection between Wiesel’s talk with Netanyahu and his subsequent decision to join Obama at Buchenwald.
The White House had initially planned not to invite any survivor or Jewish representatives to avoid community infighting, according to a political consultant who is close to the White House. At the last minute a White House staffer proposed inviting Wiesel because of indications that omitting community representation would only magnify the infighting. It was also intended, several sources said, to soften criticism of Obama as insensitive to Jewish interests after weeks of America-Israel confrontations over settlements.
At Buchenwald, Wiesel made no secret of his allegiance. Standing next to the president he had been asked to combat, he spoke repeatedly of the “high hopes” inspired by Obama’s “vision” in seeking peace. He made no mention of settlements or Arab threats.
“Mr. President,” Wiesel said, “we have such high hopes for you because you, with your moral vision of history, will be able and compelled to change this world into a better place, where people will stop waging war — every war is absurd and meaningless.”
Then, echoing Obama’s controversial equating of Jewish and Arab suffering in his Cairo speech a day earlier, Wiesel recalled his paradoxical optimism after being liberated in 1945 and said that his hopes had included much of “what now would be your vision for the future, Mr. President. A sense of security for Israel, a sense of security for its neighbors, to bring peace in that place. The time must come. It’s enough — enough to go to cemeteries, enough to weep for oceans. It’s enough. There must come a moment — a moment of bringing people together.”
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).