Reaction to US announcement of withdrawal from UNESCO

French Jews hold Israeli flags as they take part at a demonstration against recent votes in Unesco regarding Jerusalem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, near the Unesco Headquarters in Paris, France, July 17, 2017. (Photo: Serge Attal/Flash90)

The U.S. State Department announcement to withdraw as a member from UNESCO — effective at the end of 2018 — in order to “make a stand on anti-Israel bias,” per a Washington Post article, has drawn many angry responses — except for Israel, which quickly followed America’s footsteps in withdrawing from the organization.

At the time of this writing, more than 2,600 comments, a number of which have anti-Israel overtones, have been posted in response to the Washington Post article regarding the U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

“Are we now citizens of the Zionist state of Israel?” one angry American poster began.

“UNESCO is not anti-Israel; it’s pro-Palestine!” another American who opposed the withdrawal chimed in. “And it’s high time that such World Organizations stood up to support a people that have been oppressed for over 60 years.”

It probably adds little to the debate — certainly no minds will change — to compare 60 years to millennia or get technical regarding what truly constitutes “a people.” The heated debate among Post readers goes back and forth with, ironically, hardly a mention of the State Department’s stated goals and whether they can be refuted. The U.S. has not been paying its allotted dues to UNESCO and currently owes more than $500 million since 2011 when, according to a piece, the U.S. stopped paying “to protest UNESCO’s granting full membership to the Palestinians.”

“And last year, Israel suspended co-operation with UNESCO after the agency adopted a controversial resolution which made no reference to Jewish ties to a key holy site in Jerusalem,” the BBC article continued.

The announced U.S. withdrawal will not be, as some reports seem to imply, a complete disconnect. The State Department has notified UNESCO that, despite its ceasing to be a dues-paying member, it intends to remain involved in the organization’s functioning as a nonmember, observer state, which would allow the U.S. to provide input and participate in UNESCO activities (though having forfeited its right to vote).

John McArthur, a fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution and an adviser to the United Nations Foundation, called the State Department’s move, “pragmatic,” and “not a grander political signal,” but many have branded the U.S. decision to withdraw from UNESCO as “anti-Palestinian.”

Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, expressed “profound regret” over the decision, calling it a “loss for multilateralism.”

In defense of her country’s decision, Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has called UNESCO’s politicization of Middle Eastern affairs a “chronic embarrassment.”

“Just as we said in 1984,” Haley was quoted as saying in the Post article cited above, “when President Reagan withdrew from UNESCO, U.S. taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense.”

She added that the United States will, in the future, evaluate all UN agencies “through the same lens.”

“Just as we said in 1984 when President Reagan withdrew from UNESCO, U.S. taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense.”
US  ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called the U.S. decision to leave UNESCO “brave” and “moral.” Other Israeli officials from both left and right have also praised the decision. Netanyahu has instructed the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to prepare for Israel’s withdrawal as well.

“UNESCO has become a theater of the absurd,” Netanyahu said in a statement, “because, instead of preserving history, it distorts it.”