FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration claims the cultural organization is biased against Israel.

Jess McHugh
October 13, 2017

President Donald Trump's administration announced the United States' intention to pull out of the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO, citing the group's alleged “anti-Israel bias.”

“With this anti-Israel bias that’s long documented on the part of UNESCO, that needs to come to an end,” Heather Nauert, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said Thursday at a press conference. The U.S. is also in arrears of $550 million, and Nauert cited a lack of desire to pay the debt.

The move came after UNESCO declared Hebron, a historical city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a Palestinian world heritage site in danger in July. The heritage site includes the Cave of the Patriarchs, a burial place that Christians, Jews, and Muslims consider holy. In its declaration, UNESCO sharply criticized Israel's behavior in the West Bank, accusing Israel of "illegal measures against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to their holy site, Al Aqsa Mosque.” 

Israeli and U.S. officials were quick to condemn the decision to choose Hebron, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling the decision "delusional," The New York Times reported.  

UNESCO is the educational, scientific, and cultural arm of the U.N., seeking to preserve and promote cultural understanding around the world. One of its main missions is to to identify and protect places of world heritage, and sites include everything from the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria to the riverbanks of the Seine in France. 

The U.S.' withdrawal would not be immediate, however. It would come into effect at the end of 2018, and diplomats could revisit the decision during the interim.

Current UNESCO general director Irina Bokova urged the U.S. to reconsider in a lengthy written statement.

“At the time when the fight against violent extremism calls for renewed investment in education, in dialogue among cultures to prevent hatred, it is deeply regrettable that the United States should withdraw from the United Nations leading these issues,” she said.

If the U.S. does decide to leave UNESCO, it won't be for the first time. Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan withdrew in 1984, citing a bias to the Soviet Union, and George W. Bush pledged to rejoin in 2002.

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