In a few weeks, Israel’s decision to withdraw as a member of UNESCO will take effect. The withdrawal from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization comes a year after Israel followed the lead of the United States, which announced it was quitting the organization due to “continuing anti-Israel bias” and "concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO."
People who understand the value and importance of membership in the United Nations agency, one of the most important organizations in the world, are expressing doubts over the wisdom of leaving it, citing possible harmful ramifications and declaring that the loss will be entirely Israel’s.
When Israel officially announced its decision a year ago, many people viewed it as necessary, particularly in light of the U.S. move to leave and the series of anti-Israeli resolutions by UNESCO that preceded it, but now the decision seems to be divorced from reality. Since then, UNESCO hasn’t passed any other anti-Israeli resolutions and in any event the move to withdraw membership is taking place without any fanfare.
The Education Ministry, which is responsible for dealing with UNESCO, confirmed to Haaretz this week that, “on January 11, 2019, Israel will halt its ties with the organization and all of its units, with the exception of particular instances requiring technical contacts alone with respect to [heritage] sites that [UNESCO] has already declared in Israel.”
The move will not affect the man-made or natural landmarks in Israel that have already been recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, due to their historical or cultural significance, but there will be no new cooperation between Israel and the UN organization, the ministry said.
Heritage sites are members of an exclusive club, according them international prestige as well as ongoing preservation, and making them a drawing card for tourism. Research has shown than inclusion on the list boosts revenues at the sites by an average of 30 percent.
The Education Ministry’s response suggests that Israel is not relinquishing the branding and prestige of landmarks that have been designated heritage sites around the country, and the UNESCO symbol will continue to be displayed at these tourism attractions. However, Israel is forgoing future relations with the Paris-based international organization and its huge range of activities in many realms.
For his part, Daniel Bar-Eli, who until early 2012 was secretary general of the Israel National Commission for UNESCO, laments Israel's decision to quit the international organization.
“We built an important relationship over many years. We sat on various UNESCO committees and influenced the debates and the resolutions. The subjects have been varied – education, marine studies, World Heritage Sites, music, language research,” Bar-Eli told Haaretz, who also cited the Yad Vashem Holocaust authority and the Israel Folktale Archives, both designated by UNESCO as part of its Memory of the World Register.
Membership in UNESCO has showed Israel what it means to be part of the family of nations – “and now we are giving it up at our own initiative. If you’re not there, you have no voice,” added Bar-Eli. Quoting from the Book of Isaiah, he said withdrawal from the organization means one can no longer say: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law.”
The United States already left UNESCO once before and was allowed to rejoin in 2005, Bar-Eli pointed out, and if the Americans sought to resume their membership again, they would probably succeed. But Israel’s standing as a small country with limited influence means that its status is different from that of a world power, and it’s not at all certain that Israel would be allowed to rejoin UNESCO should it so desire.
Israel’s decision to leave the organization was based on emotions, not clear thinking, Bar-Eli said. He acknowledged that since the 1990s, UNESCO has adopted resolutions reflecting the growing influence of Arab and Muslim countries, including decisions critical of Israel's policies regarding Jerusalem's Old City, and the state of education and culture in the West Bank and Golan Heights, and the resolution admitting Palestine as a member of the organization.
However, despite the prominent role the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has played in Israel’s relationship with UNESCO, Bar-Eli said, “We have managed to put it aside and to promote scientific, cultural and professional understandings without political resolutions.”
Ironically, announcement of Israel’s withdrawal from UNESCO coincided with the appointment late last year of Audrey Azoulay, 46-year-old French-Jewish woman and former culture minister of France, as the organization’s director general. Her father, who was a senior adviser to the king of Morocco, was one of the intermediaries who helped forge peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors.
When Azoulay took the helm of UNESCO, she asked for a period of grace to address certain issues affecting the organization. As Bar-Eli sees it, she has taken a number of important steps but they are not sufficient. He asked the Israeli Foreign Ministry to invite her to Israel, but no one took up the suggestion.
To date, nine sites in Israel have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Masada; the Old City of Acre; Tel Aviv’s White City; the biblical archaeological mounds (tels) at Megiddo, Hatzor and Be’er Sheva; the Beit Guvrin caves; Beit She'arim; the Negev Incense Route; the Baha’i holy places in Haifa and Acre; and the Nahal Me’arot prehistoric caves on the Carmel Mountain. The Old City of Jerusalem received the designation while it was still under Jordanian control. Over a dozen other sites in the country have been suggested as nominees for the special UNESCO status.
Three World Heritage Sites are located within the territory of the Palestine Authority: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Battir agricultural terraces on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem and Hebron’s Old City in the West Bank.