(JTA) — Here we go again: The issue of how and why the United States should engage with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is back in the news.
The announcement by the Trump administration that the U.S. will be pulling out of UNESCO over its biased treatment of Israel is only the latest manifestation of a fraught relationship between America and this U.N. body.
Established soon after World War II as an effort to ensure the de-Nazification in Germany and the promotion of democratic values, UNESCO took a more complicated turn in later decades. While still doing important work in preserving cultural heritages and reinforcing the value of education, science and culture, UNESCO also entered treacherous terrain in two areas: Reflecting its huge expansion in the 1960s and ’70s consisting mostly of new emerging states, it began to challenge Western notions of a free press and the independence of journalism from government; and, echoing the trend in the General Assembly and other U.N. bodies, it singled out Israel as an alleged major violator of cultural and religious sites dear to Muslims and Palestinians.
This combination of behavior led the United States to take action on three occasions. The first was in 1974, when Congress suspended appropriations to UNESCO because the U.N. body had excluded Israel from a regional working group.
The second was in 1983, when the U.S. pulled out of UNESCO, saying the body has shown hostility to a free market and a free press.
And in 2011, Congress again cut funding to UNESCO, citing the organization’s recognition of Palestine as a member, in violation of U.S. law going back to the early 1990s, requiring cuts to any U.N. agency if the “State of Palestine” were accepted as a full member.
The arguments about U.S. policy toward UNESCO remain pretty much what they have been for years.
Those who argue for leaving conclude that America should not be a party to an institution that engages in such egregious behavior. And if we are ever going to get UNESCO back to first principles we need to be firm, tough and consistent. The U.S. can always return as a full member, and for now can continue to provide American perspective and expertise as a nonmember observer.
Pulling out is “a courageous and ethical decision because UNESCO has become a theater of the absurd and instead of preserving history, distorts it,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted in response to the U.S. announcement.
Advocates of continuing support agree that UNESCO does disturbing things, particularly through resolutions passed by various committees, including its executive board, that condemn Israel and even, at times, seem to deny the legitimacy of Israeli historic claims to the land of Israel. Still, they argue, the organization does a lot of good work in the scientific, educational and cultural fields that particularly benefits less developed nations. This work includes Holocaust education and efforts to counter violent extremism.
Moreover, proponents argue, even though the U.S. loses many votes, it should stay in and fund the body because the potential for influence and changing minds is far greater from inside than outside. And since most of the voting decisions are made by member-states themselves, the U.S. is best positioned to change behaviors through direct diplomacy with those countries and not through punishing UNESCO itself.
Then there are questions of timing and context.
UNESCO’s executive board just elected a new director of the organization, turning down the original favorite, Qatari diplomat Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari, who is known for his history of anti-Semitism. Instead they chose a French diplomat, Audrey Azoulay, a former culture minister who also happens to be Jewish. While Azoulay has voiced criticism of Israel in the past, she at least offers the possibility of tempering the institution’s bias against the Jewish state.
While the director-general does not have the power to cancel votes, the outgoing diplomat in that position, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, was an outspoken critic of anti-Israel politicization at UNESCO and made great efforts behind the scenes to mitigate extreme campaigns. Should we not give Ms. Azoulay a chance to improve the situation?
On a broader scale, the Trump administration’s decision comes at a time when our allies and adversaries are questioning American leadership in the world. With all the mistakes of our foreign policy, U.S. leadership for almost 70 years has been good for the world and good for the Jewish people.
In that regard, this move may well be seen as inconsistent with American values and tradition, and one more step of dismantling the unique role America has played on the world scene for decades.
In sum, despite its legitimate concerns, America will be shooting itself in the foot by leaving.
Both sides make legitimate claims. This is no slam dunk. It is always encouraging to see a U.S. administration taking a strong principled position based on its rejection of institutional bias against the State of Israel. This sets a good example.
If only many of our allies would be as interested in standing up for Israel when it is under unfair attack, Israel not only would be in a better place, but chances for peace would increase and the reputation and functioning of the United Nations would rise to a higher level.
The most recent UNESCO vote condemning Israel for its actions in Hebron did show more nations willing to abstain or even vote “no,” but not nearly enough to change the outcome.
The U.S. decision on UNESCO has been announced, but there is still time before it is implemented. A further discussion and assessment are in order even if we end up in the very same place.
(Ken Jacobson is deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League.)