The United States withdraws from UNESCO, alleging "anti-Israel" bias

Flag of UNESCO Courtesy of Wikicommons

Flag of UNESCO Courtesy of Wikicommons


 The Trump administration announced its intent to withdraw from the U.N.’s Educational, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) by the end of next year on Thursday, Oct. 12 due to an “anti-Israel bias,” as well as concern over mounting debt and the need for fundamental reform. 

According to Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., the final decision was made when UNESCO designated the old city of Hebron, in the West Bank, a Palestinian World Heritage site.

As reported by the Independent, the current director general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, expressed in a statement her disappointment at this decision. She said“universality is critical to UNESCO’s mission to strengthen international peace and security in the face of hatred and violence, to defend human rights and dignity.” 

“It sends a strong message that we need to see fundamental reform in the organization, and it raises everyone’s awareness about continued anti-Israel bias,” said a State Department official anonymously to the Washington Post.

Founded by 37 countries (including the U.S.) after World War II, UNESCO strives for “peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture.”

The U.S. has historically made several moves in protest of UNESCO’s stances on international political issues. In 1974, the U.S. suspended its contribution to the organization, condemning its recognition of the Palestinian Liberal Organization. In 1985, under the Reagan administration, the U.S. officially withdrew from the agency for the first time, claiming it to be politically left-wing (pro-Soviet) and financially irresponsible.

Although the U.S. rejoined UNESCO in 2002 under the Bush administration, tensions continued to rise between the U.S. and UNESCO on issues regarding Israel and Palestine territorial disputes. 

In 2011, the U.S. stopped contributing funds for UNESCO in protest of the U.N.’s recognition ofPalestine as a membership state. Since then, the U.S. debt to this organization has been accumulating. According to Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, it has now reached “$550 million or so.” 

“The question is,” asked Nauert, “do we want to pay that money? With this anti-Israel bias that’s long documented on the part of UNESCO, that needs to come to an end.” 

Following the withdrawal, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said on his official Twitter account that he had “instructed the Foreign Ministry to prepare Israel's withdrawal from UNESCO in parallel with the United States.” 

“UNESCO has become a theater of the absurd because, instead of preserving history, it distorts it,” said the prime minister in another tweet.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he "deeply regretted" the U.S. decision,  but that the U.N. would continue to "interact with the United States very productively on a range of issues through a range of organizations,” according to BBC News. 

The Statwe Department responded that it hopes the withdrawal will push UNESCO to make changes, and that it would resume full membership if adequate reforms are carried out. It also stated that the U.S. would like to remain as a nonmember observer state in the agency in order to contribute U.S. opinions and expertise on issues like press freedoms and protecting world heritage. This position will allow the United States to participate in debates and activities, but it will lose its right to vote. 

“While the decision to withdraw from UNESCO is not unprecedented, it doesn’t mean it is a good decision. This is the decision of an administration with a disturbing lack of faith in the international system. President Trump continually demonstrates that he is willing to sacrifice the US’s political capital and influence in the international system to prove a point. I am unsure that this does anything more than further isolate the US, which is dangerous in an international system that succeeds only through diplomacy and cooperation,” said Amy Argo ’20.