Last Thursday, the US State Department announced plans to withdraw from UNESCO, the education and cultural body of the United Nations. The State Department emphasized that the decision “was not taken lightly,” describing it as a response to concern over half a billion dollars owed to UNESCO in dues, and over “continuing anti-Israel bias.”
The US stopped paying dues since UNESCO voted in 2011 to admit the Palestinian Authority as a member, after Congress had passed a law barring the US from sending money to UN divisions that include the Palestinian Authority.
The State Department says that it wants to continue engaging with UNESCO as a non-member observer state, in order to help the organization continue to promote freedom of the press, protection of world heritage sites, and scientific collaboration. The US has withdrawn before, in 1984, under President Reagan, over mismanagement and perceived pro-Soviet and anti-free market bias. It only rejoined in 2002 under President Bush.
There is certainly some grounds for the accusation of an anti-Israel agenda. Many of UNESCO’s resolutions have aimed to downplay the historical connection between the Jewish people and Israel. It has denied the Jewish ties to the Temple Mount, and declared the Cave of the Patriarchs, in Hebron, a Palestinian World Heritage site under threat. Even the United Nations in general has, in many ways, held Israel to a higher standard than it does other nations. Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, in his final speech Security Council speech:
“Decades of political maneuverings have created a disproportionate volume of resolutions, reports and conferences criticizing Israel.”
But however one is inclined to view these issues, it seems clear that wholesale withdrawal is the wrong approach.
In response to the US decision, Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director-General, said:
“At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack. This is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism.”
In this, Bokova is correct. Even given the legitimacy of some of these criticisms, pulling out entirely from UNESCO continues a pattern in which the US has isolated itself, ceding ground to the very forces it seeks to combat. The US would have more leverage to affect UNESCO’s decision making as a member. The same goes for international agreements such as the Paris climate accord.
Even Israel, which has faced heavy criticism, and arguably disproportionate scrutiny, for decades from not only UNESCO but the United Nations in general, has consistently chosen to remain engaged with the organizations. Only now, following the US decision, has Israel chosen to follow suit and withdraw from UNESCO. For decades, Israel has opted to stay engaged with the UN and UNESCO, to fight for a more even-handed approach.
Immediately before the US announced plans to withdraw, UNESCO delayed a vote on an anti-Israel resolution, after having voted on one at every meeting since 2011. Israel’s envoy to UNESCO described the postponement as an “achievement,” a “result of three years of exhausting, frustrating and difficult diplomatic work.”
News reports suggested the US decision was made without consulting the Israeli government, which left Israel with little choice but to exit the organization. Remaining, after the US withdrawal due to anti-Israel bias, would have been diplomatically unfeasible. Publicly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the decision “brave” and “moral.” But it also goes against decades of Israel’s policy toward the UN.
Israel should not give up its goal of affecting change by participating in the international community. It should not follow the US down the path of withdrawal and isolationism. It is unclear if the Trump administration was truly motivated by its opposition to UNESCO’s dealings with Israel, or if instead it saw an opportunity to gracefully back out of financial obligations that it sees as unnecessary. The apparent lack of coordination between Israel and the administration on the decision would seem to imply the latter. Worse, the decision could primarily reflect the Trump administration’s “America first” ideology, part of an even more dangerous trend of withdrawal from the international community more broadly. Much like the law that initially barred payments to UNESCO, this would be a mistake of potentially epic proportions.
The US would find its goals much better served by engaging with the world rather than backing away from it, in an era in which interconnectedness is no longer negotiable.