Citing anti-Israel bias, the Trump administration announced last week its decision to withdraw from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization at the end of 2018.
Art history associate professor Stephennie Mulder said regardless of its issues, such as sometimes being overly political, the work UNESCO does is too important to abandon.
“Despite some of the problems of UNESCO, it’s an organization that does really important work,” Mulder said. “It’s really the only (organization) that can coordinate international work to preserve cultural heritage sites around the world.”
UNESCO was first established in the 1940s to promote and preserve international education, communication and culture. The organization came under fire recently for criticizing Israeli occupation of the West Bank, a hotly contested area being fought over by Palestinians and the Israeli government.
One role of UNESCO is designating World Heritage Sites — important cultural or historical areas. Within the West Bank, there is one World Heritage Site called Hebron that houses shrines to the biblical figure Abraham and his wife. Mulder said Hebron is revered by all three major monotheistic
religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, but that the Israeli government is preventing Palestinians from accessing the area.
UNESCO condemned Israel’s actions in the area in a resolution passed in July.
“(UNESCO) deplores the ongoing Israeli excavations, works, construction of private roads for settlers and of a wall inside the Old City of Al-Khalil/Hebron which are illegal under international law and harmfully affect the authenticity and integrity of the site, and the subsequent denial of freedom of movement and freedom of access to places of worship,” the resolution said.
Rachel Mitchell, president of the student group Texans for Israel, said her organization represents a wide variety of opinions on the issues regarding Israel and Palestine, but as a whole they want to reduce anti-Israel bias within the UN.
“As an organization, we do look to the international community to address pretty blatant anti-Israel bias at the UN,” Mitchell said. “We’re hoping that the body will work toward a (solution) that is very desperately needs.”
Over two decades ago, the U.S. government passed a law barring funding to any United Nations organization that accepts Palestine as a member. In 2011, when UNESCO accepted Palestine as a member, the U.S. immediately stopped providing funding and now owes $550 million to the organization.
Mulder said the U.S. will lose much of its “soft power,” diplomatic achievements that the U.S. can use to boost its reputation and influence other countries. Mulder calls it a “tremendous lost opportunity.”
“It’s a way for the U.S. to be visible doing good around the world,” Mulder said. “If a U.S. team sponsored by UNESCO … comes to your country and starts to assist in rebuilding monuments, that’s very good for the local country. It’s also good for the U.S.’ reputation.”
State department representative Heather Nauert announced the decision regarding UNESCO but said it was not set in stone.
“If UNESCO wants to get back and wants to reform itself and get back to a place where they’re truly promoting culture and education and all of that, perhaps we could take another look at this, but we haven’t seen that taking place,” Nauert said.