Will a Jewish head of UNESCO change its anti-Israel bias?

Many UN member states hold anti-Israel stances, could the new head of UNESCO change their minds?

October 16, 2017 00:40
3 minute read.
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay. (photo credit: PHILIPPE WOJAZER / REUTERS)


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A Jewish UNESCO director- general might seem like some kind of cosmic payback to an organization famous for almost five decades of anti-Israeli bias.

The idea that former French culture minister Audrey Azoulay could best Arab candidates – precisely when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was under pressure to elect a Middle Eastern or African director-general – seemed like a pipe dream just six months ago.

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Friday’s secret ballot for Azoulay by UNESCO’s Executive Board came just two days after an equally unusual occurrence – a board decision to delay by half-a-year approval of two anti-Israel resolutions.

Those who believe Azoulay can end the politicization of UNESCO should wait before popping champagne corks and throwing confetti. The dawn of a new era in the organization dedicated to preserving the world’s culture has likely not arrived.

Outgoing director-general Irina Bokova had good ties with Israeli officials and Jewish groups. Initially, the relationship appeared problematic because the 2011 UNESCO vote to recognize Palestine as a member state occurred on her watch. The situation improved as Bokova opposed some of the more contentious resolutions.

This included those in 2016 that disavowed Jewish ties to the religion’s most sacred site, the Temple Mount.

“The heritage of Jerusalem is indivisible, and each of its communities has a right to the explicit recognition of their history and relationship with the city. To deny, conceal or erase any of the Jewish, Christian or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site and runs counter to the reasons that justified its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage list,” Bokova wrote after the resolution passed in 2016.


More significantly, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Bokova held an exhibit at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 2014 about Jewish history in Israel from biblical times to the present called “People, Book, Land: The 3,500-Year Relationship of the Jewish People with the Holy Land.”

Bokova’s desire for a fairer approach to Israel at UNESCO in Paris was hampered by the same issue that plagues the UN in Geneva and New York when it comes to the Jewish state; most UN decisions are not made by administrators, but rather by a majority of member states, many of which hold anti-Israel stances.

Azoulay ran as a French, not a Jewish, candidate. Immediately after the results were announced, she promised to work to restore UNESCO’s credibility, but did not mention Israel in her speech.

Many believe that Azoulay is quite capable of leading the organization, but worry she will be plagued by some insurmountable problems. According to diplomats, Azoulay’s socialist left-wing background has made Israel nervous that she will not automatically be supportive of the Jewish state.

If Azoulay is to succeed, it is likely that timing, rather than religion, might be her best asset.

On the presumption that Azoulay’s election will be confirmed in November by UNESCO’s 195 member states, she will take the helm just after the US announced it will leave the organization by the end of December 2018 because of anti-Israel bias. Israel immediately announced that it would follow the US’s lead and also withdraw.

It is assumed that if Azoulay can hold true to her promise for reform, the US will change its mind and remain in the organization.

“In this time of crisis, I think we need more than ever [to] work within UNESCO [to] support, strengthen and reform it and not leave,” Azoulay said on Friday.

The threat to leave UNESCO is probably the single strongest weapon Azoulay will have in arguing for reform. It could be the factor that allows her to chart a more balanced and less politically motivated course for the organization. This could have a positive impact for Israel in the culture war that has been waged between it and the Arab states at UNESCO.

The US provided 22% of the organization’s funding until 2011, when it stopped payments to protest the inclusion of Palestine as a member.

As a result, the US now owes UNESCO almost $600,000 in needed funding. Ultimately, if change is to occur in UNESCO, it is more likely to be the result of member states desiring the organization’s financial viability than from the actions of its leader.

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