The US Just Withdrew its UNESCO Membership and Here's Why

Tomb of the Patriarchs
Tomb of the Patriarchs | © Derek Winterburn / Flickr
Juliet Bennett Rylah

The United States has elected to withdraw its membership from UNESCO, claiming that the organization has exhibited “continuing anti-Israel bias.” This decision follows Israeli outrage over the declaration of the old town of Hebron as a Palestinian World Heritage Site in July of 2017. The withdrawal will not be official until December 31, 2018. Before that date, the U.S. will continue to be a full member of UNESCO.

UNESCO stands for United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Based in Paris, France, UNESCO is an agency of the United Nations founded in 1945 whose mission is to “contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information.” UNESCO maintains a list of World Heritage Sites around the globe that are considered of “outstanding value to humanity” from either a cultural or natural perspective. In the United States, sites include numerous national parks, as well as Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Statue of Liberty in New York City, and the San Antonio Missions.

The United States has long had a tenuous relationship with UNESCO, last withdrawing under Ronald Reagan during the Cold War in 1984. The United States rejoined UNESCO during George W. Bush’s presidency and then slashed funding under Barack Obama in 2011 after Palestine was admitted as a full member.

A market in Hebron

Hebron is a city of religious significance to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and both Jews and Muslims alike consider it a holy city. Of particular interest is a site known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque. Both faiths regard it as the burial site of several biblical figures. Israeli officials were angered when UNESCO voted to honor Palestine’s request to name Hebron a Palestinian heritage site. At the time, the Palestinian foreign ministry called the decision a “success for the diplomatic battle fought by Palestine on all fronts, in the face of Israeli and American pressure on member states.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, referred to it as “another delusional UNESCO decision.” Israel also plans to withdraw its UNESCO membership, with Netanyahu calling the United States’ decision to do so “brave and moral,” according to the BBC.

Tomb of the Patriarchs

UNESCO director Irina Bokova did not echo those sentiments, instead, calling the United States’ decision to withdraw from the organization a loss to both UNESCO and the United States.

“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,” Bokova said.
Bokova is on her way out, the Washington Post reports, with UNESCO members in the process of voting on who will replace her. Currently in the running are Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari of Qatar, Audrey Azoulay of France, and Moushira Khattab of Egypt. Chris Hegadorn, UNESCO’s U.S. representative and the U.S. Charge d’Affaires, said that the U.S. will be monitoring how the new director “steers the agency.”

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