The headquarters of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris. Photo: Francois Mori

United States and Israel Withdraw from UNESCO

The United States and Israel announced today that they will pull out of UNESCO, an organization established by the United Nations in 1945 to safeguard cultural heritage. Both countries cited the agency’s “anti-Israel bias” and the cost of participation as their reasons for withdrawing their memberships.

“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,” UNESCO director general Irina Bokova said. “This is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism.”

The Trump administration has apparently been planning to leave UNESCO for several months. A statement released by the US State Department said “this decision was not taken lightly.” It also called for “fundamental reform” in the organization and said that the US will “remain engaged . . . as a non-member observer state in order to contribute US views, perspectives, and expertise.”

According to a report by John Haltiwanger in Newsweek, the US and Israel have a history of standing together over issues regarding UNESCO. In 2011, the US canceled its budget contribution in protest of the organization’s vote to make Palestine a member. Earlier this year, Israel was angered over UNESCO’s decision to designate the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank as a Palestinian World Heritage site.

America has left the UN agency once before. In 1984, the US withdrew its membership under Ronald Reagan, whose administration claimed that it “extraneously politicized virtually every subject it deals with, has exhibited hostility toward the basic institutions of a free society, especially a free market and a free press, and has demonstrated unrestrained budgetary expansion.” The US rejoined UNESCO in 2003 under President George W. Bush.

The majority of world leaders were surprised over the withdrawal. France’s ambassador to the UN, Francois Delattre, said that UNESCO’s ideals are “part of America’s DNA” and that “we need an America that stays committed to world affairs.”

Tatiana Dovgalenko, Russia’s deputy permanent representative to the agency, told the Associated Press that the departure of “one of the countries that founded the UN system” is “a shock and a pity.”

Daniel H. Weiss, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum, condemned the decision. “For more than half a century the Met and countless other museums have successfully partnered with UNESCO, an organization that has earned the respect of nations and communities worldwide for bringing together curators, conservators, and a range of other scholars to educate, preserve, protect, and support the intellectual and artistic traditions of our shared cultural heritage,” he said in a statement. “President Trump's decision to withdraw from UNESCO undermines the historic role of the United States as a leader in this effort and weakens our position as a strong advocate for cultural preservation.”

The US will officially leave UNESCO on December 31, 2018.