French candidate Audrey Azoulay arriving for her first press conference as UNESCO Director General. Photo: Screenshot.
US Jewish groups have cast the decisions by the US and Israel to withdraw from UNESCO as the inevitable consequence of the uncompromising anti-Israeli bias at the UN’s global organization for science, culture and education.
The US announced its decision last Thursday, followed hours later by Israel’s confirmation that it too was pulling out of the agency. Neither decision will take effect until November 2018, and UNESCO’s newly-elected Director General, Audrey Azoulay, has made clear that she will try and persuade both countries to remain inside the agency. “At this time of crisis, I think we need more than ever to work on the UNESCO organization, to support, strengthen the organization and to make changes – not to leave it,” Azoulay said on Friday, following her election victory.
US Jewish groups argued on Sunday that a reversal of the decisions were dependent upon a fundamental shift in focus at UNESCO. “In recent years, despite the best efforts of outgoing Director General Irina Bokova, UNESCO has strayed from its mission to preserve history and has allowed itself to become politicized, demonstrating a continuing and disturbing bias against Israel,” World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder said in a statement.
Said Lauder: “I urge UNESCO to focus on its core mandate rather than addressing political matters that fall outside the organization’s purview. Decisions that rewrite history and call into question deep rooted Jewish ties to our holy sites in Jerusalem and elsewhere have no place at UNESCO, and it is our hope that the organization will carry out much-needed reforms.”
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Noting that the US had, under the previous administration of President Barack Obama, pulled funding from UNESCO following its acceptance of the “State of Palestine” as a full member in 2011, along with a series of “contested decisions challenging Jewish links to holy sites in Israel, including in Jerusalem,” Lauder urged the agency to return to its basic mission.
“UNESCO should be run by professionals, without regard to political considerations,” he said. “It should focus on education, culture, and heritage, instead of providing a platform to repeatedly attack Israel. This is simply not a place for politics.”
David Harris, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee, warned that “UNESCO without the United States will be a diminished organization, and the US outside UNESCO runs the risk of reducing our nation’s global role.”
“We can only hope that member states will address the US concerns seriously and swiftly,” Harris commented. “All will be better off with the US in, not out.”
Harris noted that a “minority of UNESCO members, led by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Arab countries, has long sought to exploit this body to castigate Israel.”
“They have shamelessly politicized the organization by blatantly — and repeatedly — denying the millennia-old and indisputable links between the Jewish people and Judaism’s holiest sites, including the Old City of Jerusalem, the Western Wall, and Hebron. In doing so, they have also challenged Christian history and belief. And their actions, we should remember, also led to an earlier US withdrawal during the Reagan administration, which continued for nearly two decades,” the AJC head stated.
“It is important in the current discussion to distinguish between a determined, troublemaking bloc of member states and the outgoing Director-General, Irina Bokova, who has valiantly tried to keep UNESCO away from an obsession with Israel, while appropriately addressing rising antisemitism, Holocaust education, genocide prevention, and counter-radicalism, but, alas, her powers in this regard are limited,” Harris added.
Bokova’s successor, French candidate Audrey Azoulay, takes up her new post at the climax of a bitter election campaign for the votes of the 58 members of UNESCO’s Executive Board. In the final round of voting on Friday, Azoulay faced off against Hamad Bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari, a former culture minister of Qatar with a long record of enabling and promoting antisemitism. Azoulay won 30 votes, with the remaining 28 going to her Qatari opponent.
On Sunday, Qatari officials expressed anger at Azoulay’s victory, with the editor of one leading Qatari newspaper deeming Al Kawari’s campaign a “success (that) reflects Qatar’s good reputation.”
“Qatar deserve to win the post of Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco),” Khalid bin Mubarak Al Shafi, Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula newspaper, told a local talk show in the emirate.
Al Shafi strongly criticized Egypt for supporting France over Qatar. Egypt is part of an Arab coalition that also includes Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that has isolated Qatar over its support for Islamist terror groups and its strategic alignment with Iran.
“It is shame for an Arab country to do like this while both Qatar and Egypt are members of Arab League,” Al Shafi said.
“The headquarters of Arab League must be moved from Egypt,” he urged.
Earlier on Sunday, Shimon Samuels, the international affairs director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told The Algemeiner that al-Kawari’s defeat had averted a “Qatarstrophe.”
“Now is not a time for democracies to abandon UNESCO,” Samuels said. “Their departure will leave a vacuum rapidly filled by the enemies of freedom.”