The United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) was founded on November 16, 1945. UNESCO has 195 Members and eight Associate Members. It is governed by the General Conference and the Executive Board. The Secretariat, headed by the Director-General, implements the decisions of these two bodies.
The Organization has more than 50 field offices around the world. Its headquarters are located at Place de Fontenoy in Paris, France.
UNESCO is responsible for coordinating international cooperation in education, science, culture and communication. It strengthens the ties between nations and societies, and mobilizes the wider public so that each child and citizen:
• has access to quality education; a basic human right and an indispensable prerequisite for sustainable development;
• may grow and live in a cultural environment rich in diversity and dialogue, where heritage serves as a bridge between generations and peoples;
• can fully benefit from scientific advances;
• and can enjoy full freedom of expression; the basis of democracy, development and human dignity.
UNESCO has declared several sites in Israel “World Heritage Sites”:
- Old City of Acre
- White City of Tel-Aviv -- the Modern Movement
- Biblical Tels - Megiddo, Hazor, Beer Sheba
- Incense Route - Desert Cities in the Negev
- Bahá’i Holy Places in Haifa and the Western Galilee
- Sites of Human Evolution at Mount Carmel: The Nahal Me’arot / Wadi el-Mughara Caves
- Caves of Maresha and Bet-Guvrin in the Judean Lowlands as a Microcosm of the Land of the Caves
- Necropolis of Bet She’arim: A Landmark of Jewish Renewal
In recent years, however, UNESCO has become politicized as the Palestinians have used the organization to try to erase Jewish (and Christian) history from sites around Israel and the disputed territories and, in some cases, to fabricate a Palestinian connection to these areas. The Palestinians are also trying to use international organizations to recognize a Palestinian state. Thus, although “Palestine” does not exist as a state, UNESCO has declared two sites there as World Heritage Sites:
- Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem
- Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines – Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem, Battir
The Palestinian campaign has also led to a number of ahistorical decisions by UNESCO. For example:
- On July 7, 2017, UNESCO recognized Hebron’s Old City—and with it the Cave of the Patriarchs—as a Palestinian World Heritage Site In Danger, ignoring the ancient Jewish connection to the city.
- In July 2017, a UNESCO committee approved the wording of an Arab-sponsored resolution denying that Israel is the sovereign power over Jerusalem and condemning it for conducting archeological excavations in the Old City.
- In May 2017, UNESCO approved a resolution that criticized Israeli actions in Jerusalem and affirmed the holy city’s global significance. Following the vote Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that Israel would be pulling $1 million in funding from the United Nations.
- In October 2016, UNESCO passed a resolution that included language ignoring Jewish ties to many holy sites throughout Israel including the Temple Mount and the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The sites were referred to by their Muslim/Arabic names (al-Aqsa, or al-Haram al-Sharif) and not once by their Jewish/Israeli names. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi calling the resolution “shocking,” and stated that “to say that the Jews have no links to Jerusalem is like saying the sun creates darkness.” Israel subsequently suspended cooperation with UNESCO.
- In October 2013, UNESCO voted in favor of six resolutions explicitly condemning Israel over a variety of issues, including the preservation of archaeological sites in the Old City, the construction of a visitors’ center, plans to build an elevator by the Western Wall, accusations of archeological excavations said to be damaging Muslim sites atop the Temple Mount, the alleged deterioration of educational and cultural institutions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and plans to invest in sites its considers national heritage sites, like the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
Israeli officials see some positive signs in the number of states that no longer automatically support efforts to delegitimize Israel and rewrite history. In the case of the July 2017 resolution on Jerusalem, for example, Israel gained what Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen described as “a moral majority” in the body’s cultural committee since eleven countries out of 21 either opposed the proposal or abstained.
In 1984, the U.S. left UNESCO, in part because of its bias against the Jewish State. George W. Bush rejoined the organization in 2003.
Federal law bars any U.S. funding for UN agencies or affiliates that “grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood.” In the official U.S. view, “Palestine” is not a state. Thus, when the Palestinian Authority joined UNESCO in 2011, it triggered federal defunding of that organization. The United States subsequently lost its voting rights to the UNESCO general assembly in November 2013 after Washington failed to pay its dues, although it remained on the executive board. Secretary of State John Kerry convinced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015 not to oppose a restoration of U.S. funding to UNESCO; nevertheless, Congress rejected the request to restore funding.
U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley aggressively opposed the Palestinian campaign at UNESCO. Prior to the May 2017 vote, President Trump sent a letter opposing the resolution, signed by all 100 senators. U.S. opposition has not prevented the adoption of any resolutions, but has had an impact on the size of the vote against them. Haley and members of Congress have also warned that funding for UNESCO and other UN agencies is at risk if the organization continues to unfairly target Israel.
In December 2018, the United States and Israel left UNESCO. The U.S. State Department explained America left because of “mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing ‘anti-Israel bias.’”
The Biden administration, however, was considering returning to UNESCO, reportedly with Israel’s blessing, and paying more than $500 million it owes to become a full member.
A milestone was reached in October 2005 when Israeli architect Michael Turner, chairman of the Israeli World Heritage Committee, was chosen for the first time to serve as a member of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.
Itamar Eichner, “UNESCO denies once more Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem,” Ynetnews.com, (July 4, 2017);
“Italy's Prime Minister: UNESCO’s Jerusalem Resolution ‘Shocking,’ Next Time We’ll Vote Against It,” Haaretz, (October 21, 2016).
Times of Israel, (October 5, 2013);
Christopher Wallace and Ben Evansky, “UN ignores unanimous Senate to pass anti-Israel measure,” Fox News, (May 2, 2017);
Barak Ravid, “Israel Drops Opposition to Renewal of U.S. Funding to UNESCO at Kerry’s Behest,” Haaretz, (December 9, 2015);
Congress Rejects Obama Move to Restore Funding for Anti-Israel U.N. Group, Washington Free Beacon, (December 16, 2015).
Daniel Marwecki, “Why Did the U.S. and Israel Leave UNESCO?” E-International Relations, (February 14, 2019).
Barak Ravid, “Israel wouldn't oppose U.S. return to UNESCO,” Axios, (February 9, 2022).