The headquarters of UNESCO in Paris was an improbable place at which to celebrate, in mid-December of 1985, the eight-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Maimonides. The United States had formally withdrawn from UNESCO the year before, after charging the organization with being a center of anti-Western propaganda, of support for “guided democracy,” and, especially, of a “third world”-style controlled press. Just a few days before the Maimonides conference was to convene, Great Britain had announced its decision to withdraw from UNESCO, for reasons almost identical to those given by the Americans. Both governments had attacked Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, the director general of UNESCO, for his third world proclivities and extravagant budgets. Several people in Paris suggested to me that he might be helped by the appearance of fairness and reasonableness that this conference would give him.
It did not turn out that way. The staff of UNESCO was on strike against the director general that week. It sat down-stairs in the lobby, in protest against personnel cuts that M’Bow had announced to compensate for the revenue, one fourth of the total, that was lost with the departure of the United States. It seemed clear that M’Bow’s politics were seen to be the enemy of much of the UNESCO bureaucracy, of their jobs and of their programs. No late nod to the Jews could now make a difference to his survival, especially since it was being whispered in the corridors that the Russians had abandoned him.
The idea for the conference on Maimonides had come from the World Jewish Congress in 1983. This international Jewish group did not back away, even after the Americans and British departed from UNESCO, largely because the Israelis had chosen to support the conference despite their own grievances against the organization for repeatedly condemning Israel’s archeological efforts in Jerusalem as attacks on Islam. The Maimonides anniversary would serve to reduce Israel’s isolation, and turn attention at UNESCO to a Jewish topic for the first time in at least a decade. A strange assortment of countries, none of which had normal relations with Israel, were cosponsors of the conference: Pakistan, India, Cuba, Spain, and the Soviet Union. (Spain and Israel later announced, in January 1986, their intention to exchange ambassadors.) The scholars who came to the meeting were an even more surprising assortment. They came from Algeria, Morocco, Senegal, and Nigeria—as well as from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran.
When, European-style, the assembled scholars elected a presidium to conduct the sessions, three of the four vice-presidents were chosen from countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel: Souleymane Bachir Diagne, from Senegal; Mohammed Arkoun, a Moroccan who lives in Paris; and Vitaly Naumkin, of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. The fourth was M.H. Zafrani, a North African Jew who teaches in Paris. The officers were elected quickly by consensus, and no one seemed to have any problem with designating me, an American and a …