Here’s why US and Israel quit UNESCO

The US officially quit the UN Educational, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day, citing UNESCO’s anti-Israel bias. This marks the procedural end of its membership, which the US had initiated in October 2017.

The official exit of one of UNESCO’s founding members was triggered by Israel’s withdrawal a day before, which too had filed its notice to leave the agency in 2017. According to the UNESCO statute, withdrawals go into effect at the end of the following year.

In a declaration dated December 29, 2017, UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay wrote that she had been officially notified by the Israeli government that it would leave on December 31, 2018.

US and Israel’s grouse

On several occasions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had  the UN agency for its anti-Israel bias, especially after the agency called out Israel for its occupation of East Jerusalem, and granted full membership to Palestine in 2011. In fact, it was the first UN agency to vote Palestine in as a member state.

The same year, both the US (then led by Barack Obama) and Israel stopped contributing to UNESCO funds, after their demands for “fundamental reform” of the body fell on deaf ears. The has since been dealing with a 22% funding slash, with USA accruing dues worth $600 million, and Israel $10 million. According to reports, the US’s decision to withdraw was driven by a desire to make budget cuts.

“Unfortunately, UNESCO has adopted systematic discrimination against Israel and UNESCO is being used in order to rewrite history by people who hate the Jewish people and the state of Israel,” a US Foreign Ministry official said on Sunday. 

Whose heritage is it anyway?

Besides, Israel had also accused UNESCO’s 2016 resolution of ignoring Judaism’s ties to holy sites in Jerusalem as it referred to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount complex only by its Arabic and English names, omitting the Hebrew.

The close associations of heritage and national identity play a crucial role in shaping the conflict between the UN body and the middle-eastern state. On a related note, UNESCO has also criticised Israel time and again, calling it an occupying power and questioning its actions in Palestine.

In 2017, Netanyahu had welcomed the US declaration to withdraw, saying, “This is a brave and moral because UNESCO has become a theatre of absurd. Instead of preserving history, it distorts it.”


Co-founded by the US after the Second World War to foster global peace through educational, scientific and cultural partnership, the latest exits will deal a considerable blow to UNESCO’s agenda in the future. While Israel has been a steady member of the body since 1949, this is not the first time the US pulled out over diplomatic disagreement: under Reagan’s presidency, it had the UNESCO in 1984 accusing the agency of favouring the Soviet agenda, only to rejoin 19 years later. The re-entry in 2003 was also politically motivated as the Bush administration was keen on sending a message of international cooperation after it launched a war on Iraq.

The Paris-based , however, is the not the only international agency that the US has quit Donald Trump’s presidency. Adhering to his protectionist America First agenda, Trump has pulled out of major international alliances including NATO, UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and detached the nation from the Paris Climate Accord, all withinthe first two years of his presidency. The US has also abandoned several other strategic and economic partnerships including the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP), the Iran nuclear deal and World Trade Organisation (WTO).

But the trigger for and ramifications of this UNESCO withdrawal are not lost on political pundits, who ascribe this to a definitive move to consolidate fading support in the middle east.

UNESCO and the ire of Israel

UNESCO is best known for its work to preserve heritage, including designation of cultural sites and traditions, and maintaining a list of World Heritage sites. It also curates and coordinates programmes promoting education in developing countries, defending press freedom, fighting extremism and anti-Semitism. Israel has nine World Heritage Sites, including the Bahai Gardens in Haifa, the biblical site of Masada near the Dead Sea, and the White City in Tel Aviv.

The Old City of Hebron in East Jerusalem, which houses tombs of Hebrew patriarchs, was listed as a Palestinian World Heritage Site in 2017, upsetting Israeli officials. UNESCO has since added three other locations located in Palestinian territories like the West Bank, to its World Heritage List. 

A hitch in potential progress?

Earlier, the US had expressed the intent to engage with UNESCO as a non-member “observer state” on “non-politicised” issues, such as the protection of World Heritage sites, advocating for press freedom, and promoting scientific collaboration and education.

According to Azoulay, diplomatic spats had quietened in early 2018 as mediation efforts were introduced to keep Israel in the fold. This even included toning down UNESCO’s biannual resolutions on Jerusalem. But the progress was clearly not enough for Netanyahu, who declined an invitation to attend a conference on anti-Semitism, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, even questioning UNESCO’s legitimacy shortly before leaving the agency altogether.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius