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October 20, 2017 10:41 am

New French Jewish Leader Brings Hope of Change to UNESCO

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Audrey Azoulay. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. – The election of the first Jewish director-general of UNESCO — French politician Audrey Azoulay — is raising hopes that she might return the organization to its original mission.

In recent weeks, the US and Israel have announced their plans to withdraw from the agency, due to its persistent anti-Israel bias.

Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) European offices, has met Azoulay on several occasions, and said that she is a well-respected figure in France. Azoulay served as an adviser to French President Francois Hollande before being appointed as the country’s minister of culture — a role she held until May 2017.

“She is generally regarded as a true professional, and [an] expert in the field of culture, and was a very respected minister,” Rodan-Benzaquen told

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Azoulay was raised in Morocco and France, and is the daughter of André Azoulay, an adviser to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. After her election to the UN-sponsored body, she vowed to refocus and strengthen UNESCO.

“In a time of crisis, we need more than ever to get involved [and] work to strengthen the organization,” she said.

While Azoulay is not a prominent figure in the French Jewish community, she has strong knowledge of Israel and Jewish-Muslim relations, Rodan-Benzaquen said.

“Her father … has been very involved in Muslim-Jewish dialogue,” she said. “Audrey Azoulay also knows Israel and Israel’s civil society well, having traveled there often.”

Nevertheless, Azoulay’s election comes at a contentious time for UNESCO. The US and Israel have made it clear that they will no longer tolerate the cultural body’s anti-Israel bias and politicization, which they contend deviates from the organization’s stated mission to promote education, science and culture across the world.

In July, UNESCO approved a resolution denying Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem’s Old City, as well as a measure declaring Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs — where the biblical Jewish matriarchs and patriarchs are believed to be buried — as an endangered Palestinian heritage site. That resolution followed a resolution in May denying Israel’s sovereignty over its capital of Jerusalem, and two other resolutions in October 2016 that ignored Jewish and Christian connections to Jerusalem’s holy sites.

Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, told that Israel hopes Azoulay can bring real change to UNESCO. But he is somewhat skeptical.

While Israel also enjoyed a good relationship with UNESCO’s outgoing leader Irina Bokova — who condemned previous one-sided resolutions against the Jewish state and worked to combat rising antisemitism — the organization has been “hijacked” by anti-Israel forces, Danon said.

“Israel had a good relationship with the previous director-general as well, but UNESCO has been hijacked by entities who seek to sever the bond between the Jewish people and Jerusalem instead of promoting education and culture,” he said. “As long as particular members of UNESCO continue to push this anti-Israel agenda, real reforms will not be able to take place.”

Michal Hatuel-Radoshitzky, a research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, told that despite promises of change, Azoulay will likely have little influence in ending the agency’s anti-Israel bias.

“UNESCO’s attitude towards Israel is a product of the organization’s member states and the new head’s ability to influence this attitude is thus limited,” she said.

Despite formerly subsidizing a significant portion of UNESCO’s budget, the US was limited to a single vote in the 195-member body. As such, American influence and interests were often ignored. This situation led to the US pulling out of UNESCO once — in 1984, under President Ronald Reagan, who complained that the body only served the interests of the Soviet Union, despite Western countries paying a large portion of the body’s funding.

In 2002, under President George W. Bush, the US rejoined UNESCO out of hope that the organization had shed its bias. But after UNESCO admitted the Palestinian Authority as a member in 2011, the US — led by the Obama administration — cut off funding to the organization.

One main grievance that the US and other wealthy nations have with international organizations like UNESCO is the “one country, one vote” principle, despite the agency receiving disproportionate financial contributions from economically strong nations. Prior to cutting funding in 2011, the US was contributing nearly 22 percent of the organization’s budget, or $550 million.

Today, UNESCO’s committees — such as the influential World Heritage Committee, which passed the anti-Israel Hebron resolution in July — have become bastions of anti-Israel sentiment. This is partly because many of its member countries, including Cuba, Kuwait, Lebanon and Tunisia, do not recognize the Jewish state.

While both the US and Israel have lamented the organization’s bias, Hatuel-Radoshitzky argued that America leaving the international body would not benefit Israel.

“US policy to disengage from UNESCO, at least as far as the ability to vote and influence decisions is concerned … does not serve Israel’s interest,” she said.

Rather, American and Israeli engagement in UNESCO — and efforts to counter the Israel bias there, would be more effective, she added.

AJC’s Rodan-Benzaquen believes that Azoulay wants UNESCO to return to its original mission.

“This will be challenging though, not only because both the US and Israel have decided to leave UNESCO, but because the very structure of UNESCO remains,” she said. “Director-General Bokova did a lot to combat the politicization of UNESCO by appropriately addressing rising antisemitism, Holocaust education, genocide prevention and counter-radicalism, but, alas, her powers in this regard were limited. … One can only hope that Audrey Azoulay will be more successful.”

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