The Cable

UNESCO Gets First Jewish Director, Day After U.S. Leaves Over ‘Anti-Israel’ Bias

Outgoing head defends organization after U.S., Israeli departure.

Audrey Azoulay, candidate for UNESCO director-general, delivers a speech at UNESCO headquarters in Paris on Oct. 13. (Chen Yichen/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Audrey Azoulay, candidate for UNESCO director-general, delivers a speech at UNESCO headquarters in Paris on Oct. 13. (Chen Yichen/Xinhua via Getty Images)

A day after the United States and Israel pulled out of the U.N. culture and education body citing anti-Israel bias, UNESCO elected its first ever Jewish director general.

Audrey Azoulay, France’s former culture minister, eked out a win over Qatar’s candidate and frontrunner Hamad bin Abdoulaziz Al-Kawari. UNESCO’s executive body voted on Friday.

Azouley will take the helm of UNESCO as it battles cash shortages, geopolitical rivalries, and the loss of two member states. This week, as first reported by Foreign Policy, the United States said it would pull out of the organization, which it said has an “anti-Israel” bias. Israel soon followed.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley didn’t mince words when she outlined the U.S. withdrawal in a statement released on Thursday: “Its extreme politicization has become a chronic embarrassment,” she said, citing a “long line of foolish actions” including designating the Israeli-occupied ancient city of Hebron as a Palestinian world heritage site, and keeping Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad on a UNESCO human rights committee.

“U.S. taxpayers should no longer be on the hook to pay for policies that are hostile to our values and make a mockery of justice and common sense,” Haley said.

UNESCO’s outgoing director general, Irina Bokova, pushed back against charges the U.N. body had an anti-Israel bias and said her successor has their work cut out, in a telephone interview with FP just before Azoulay’s win.

“While I’m not entirely surprised by this move, I always thought something more was at stake,” Bokova said about the U.S. departure. She acknowledged that the U.S. departure, coupled with that of Israel, is “a blow to the organization. It will certainly take its toll.”

But she sharply disputed the charge UNESCO was anti-Israel.

“My responsibility as [director general] has always been to look at the very balanced and very fair approach toward our mandate,” she told. “I would not say that UNESCO is an embarrassment,” she added.

One of UNESCO’s chief tasks, she noted, dovetails with a top Trump administration foreign policy priority: Countering violent extremism. UNESCO runs programs to fight the illegal antiquities trade that helped bankroll the Islamic State, and also conducts literacy and education programs in Afghanistan and Iraq meant to wither potential roots of radicalization. The organization has also restored cultural sites in the conflict-ridden Sahel.

“This work is so profoundly important…Protection of heritage is not just a cultural concern, nowadays it is a security imperative,” she said.

Azoulay’s election was a victory for the French, and will allay fears about UNESCO being led by candidates from authoritarian governments. Other frontrunners were Qatari, Egyptian, and Chinese candidates.

Her unexpected victory was also proof positive of the lingering diplomatic fissure in the Persian Gulf. The Qatari candidate could not round up support from fellow Gulf Arabs, a sharp blow to Doha’s efforts to emerge from diplomatic isolation since Saudi Arabia and its neighbors cut off ties in June.

While Haley and other U.S. officials made much of UNESCO’s alleged anti-Israel bias, diplomats familiar with the U.S. deliberations said the decision to leave was prompted by penny-pinching concerns. U.S. payments to UNESCO are now in arrears to the tune of about $550 million — and diplomats were worried that total would continue to grow.

Photo credit: JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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