The United States and Israel will withdraw from UNESCO. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is one of the most impressive and vital global agencies addressing international cooperation on this range of human endeavours. Unfortunately, like the United Nations itself, which exemplifies unfulfilled promise, it has been coopted into the service of Israel-hating forces.
UNESCO does vitally important work advancing education as a basic human right, fostering cultural diversity and dialogue, and promoting heritage as “a bridge between generations and peoples.” It is also committed to “full freedom of expression; the basis of democracy, development and human dignity.”
The irony here is that, by succumbing to the influence of Israel-bashers, UNESCO is in cahoots with countries that betray the most basic concepts of free expression and democracy.
The U.S. State Department announced last week that it would quit UNESCO and, while insisting that Israel was unaware of the impending announcement and that the decision was uncoordinated between the two countries, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would follow its ally and also leave the agency.
Coincidentally or deliberately, UNESCO elected its first Jewish director general just days after the United States’ announcement. France’s former minister of culture, Audrey Azoulay, was elected to the leadership role, outpolling the Qatari perceived frontrunner, in a vote by UNESCO’s executive last Friday.
The United States was in arrears to UNESCO to the tune of $550 million and even a U.S. State Department spokesperson didn’t deny that money figured into the calculation. The United States stopped paying its dues to UNESCO in 2011, when the agency admitted “Palestine” as a full member state.
In July, UNESCO declared Hebron an endangered World Heritage site, diminishing the Jewish people’s ancient and contemporary connections to the city, home to the tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.
UNESCO has also adopted resolutions that call Jerusalem “occupied” territory, acknowledge Muslim but not Jewish historical connections to the Temple Mount area and repeatedly reinforced a common Palestinian position that Jews have little or no historical connection to the land of Israel.
The question is, do you stay and fight or give up and decamp in protest? A similar paradox occurred at the United Nations-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. When it became clear that the event had been commandeered not only by anti-Zionist elements, but by some of the most antisemitic forces in the world, the United States and Israel walked out. Canada stayed. The Liberal government of the time justified the decision by saying they could remain as a voice of critical reason. There are legitimate cases to be made for both positions.
In choosing to leave the organization as a member but remain as an observer state, the United States found the right balance. They can continue to make their opposition to UNESCO excesses heard, without countenancing them morally or financially.
At least, that is how it would work in a world in which Donald Trump was not president of the United States. In this, as in so much, Trump changes everything. While the administration’s decision on UNESCO may be a decent one, in context with other decisions of the Trump administration, it becomes part of a retraction of American influence in and engagement with the world. Trump is motivated by spite, not by principle. While another president could have made the same move and explained it as a principled defence of the country’s most important ally in the Middle East, this president’s lack of principle and surfeit of malevolence relocates even defensible positions into a constellation of petty pique. Despite its manipulation by anti-Zionist ideologues, UNESCO remains an invaluable institution, doing much good work in the world. Even while maintaining observer status, the U.S. decision is likely to be read by critics not as a repudiation of what UNESCO does wrong, but as part of an ongoing American trend against all that is good in culture, science and education.
Context matters. Like Richard Nixon in China – OK, perhaps not really like that, but at least in the respect that a president with some credibility in areas relevant to UNESCO could get away with repudiating it – a president Hillary Clinton (or Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama) could have withdrawn from UNESCO and not made their country look like a collection of petty Philistines. When a president who has little demonstrated respect for culture, education or science withdraws from a global organization dedicated to these pursuits, it probably legitimizes UNESCO more than it delegitimizes it.
Worse for Jews, this tight friendship between Trump and Netanyahu reinforces perceptions of the Jewish people – or, at the very least, the Jewish state – as ideologically entwined with a figure who seems destined to go down as the most ineffectual and destructive president in American history. Not an enviable place to find oneself.