First Jewish UNESCO Head Elected
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told his cabinet that Jerusalem would follow Washington’s lead and withdraw from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; this, after U.S. President Donald Trump cited “anti-Israel bias” in announcing his administration’s move.
“[UNESCO] has become a platform for delusional, anti-Israeli and—in effect—anti-Semitic decisions,” read a statement published by Netanyahu’s office. “We hope that the organization will change its ways but we are not pinning hopes on this; therefore, my directive to leave the organization stands and we will move forward to carry it out.”
When contacted by The Media Line, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment on the issue, even off-the-record.
The American decision does not take effect until the end of next year, meaning that it could be overturned. Until then the US, and presumably Israel, will remain full members in the body.
PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi sharply attacked the pullout, releasing a statement that accused the White House of “going to great lengths to isolate itself in the international arena at the expense of Palestinian freedom and self-determination.”
There have long been tensions between both the US and Israel and the UN organization, which is most famous for designating World Heritage Sites, which often leads to a spike in tourism to those locations.
In 2011, Washington cut funding to UNESCO in protest of a decision to grant full membership to the Palestinian Authority. Last year, Israel suspended cooperation with the cultural group after it adopted a resolution that failed to mention Jewish ties to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif. Most recently, UNESCO designated as a Palestinian World Heritage Site the Old City of Hebron, where the biblical Jewish figures Abraham and Sarah, as well as others, are believed to be buried.
According to Israeli media reports, the US did not inform Jerusalem in advance of its decision, forcing Netanyahu to follow suit without prior planning.
“Israel was maneuvered into leaving once the US decided to do so,” Alon Goshen-Gottstein, Israel’s UNESCO Chair in Interreligious Dialogue told The Media Line. “It’s a disaster. It is never a good thing for Israel to be isolated from international bodies.”
Goshen-Gottstein is currently hosting many of his UNESCO colleagues at a conference at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem—including Steven Shankman, UNESCO’s Chair in Transcultural Studies, Interreligious Dialogue, and Peace, who said the decision to boycott the organization fits into Trump’s broader agenda.
“It goes along with a pattern of America first, of xenophobia, and a pathological aversion to any kind of multilateral way of dealing with problems,” Shankman told The Media Line. “It’s a perilous course, because with all of their flaws it is important to remain active in these organizations.”
Following the declaration by Washington and, in turn, Jerusalem, UNESCO elected its first Jewish head, France’s former culture minister Audrey Azoulay, who narrowly beat out Qatari candidate Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari.