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The hope of change at UNESCO lies with new French Jewish leader

Former French Minister of Culture Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO's newly elected director-general. Credit: U.N. Photo/Manuel Elias.
Former French Minister of Culture Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO's newly elected director-general. Credit: U.N. Photo/Manuel Elias.

The election of the first Jewish director-general of the United Nations cultural body UNESCO, French politician Audrey Azoulay, is raising hope that with her background and political experience, she could return the organization to its original mission.

UNESCO in recent weeks has seen announcements from the U.S. and Israel of their plans to withdraw from the agency over its persistent anti-Israel bias.

Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) European offices, has met Azoulay on several occasions and said she is a well-respected figure in France. Azoulay served as an adviser to French President Francois Hollande before being appointed as the country’s minister of culture, a role she filled until May 2017.

“She is generally regarded as a true professional and expert in the field of culture and was a very respected minister,” Rodan-Benzaquen told

Azoulay was raised in Morocco and France and is the daughter of André Azoulay, an adviser to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. After her election, she vowed to refocus and strengthen UNESCO.

“In a time of crisis, we need more than ever to get involved [and] work to strengthen the organization,” she said.

While Azoulay is not a prominent figure in the French Jewish community, she has strong knowledge of Israel and Jewish-Muslim relations through her father and personal experience, Rodan-Benzaquen said.

“Her father…has been very involved in Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Audrey Azoulay also knows Israel and Israel’s civil society well, having travelled there often,” she said.

Nevertheless, Azoulay’s election comes at a contentious time for UNESCO, as the U.S. and Israel have made it clear they will no longer tolerate the cultural body’s anti-Israel bias and politicization, which they contend deviates from the organization’s stated mission to promote education, science and culture across the world.

In July, UNESCO approved a resolution denying Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem’s Old City as well as a measure declaring Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs, where the biblical Jewish matriarchs and patriarchs are believed to be buried, as an endangered Palestinian heritage site. That resolution followed a resolution in May denying Israel’s sovereignty over its capital of Jerusalem, and two other resolutions in October 2016 that ignored Jewish and Christian connections to Jerusalem’s holy sites.

‘Hijacked’ by anti-Israel entities

Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon told that Israel hopes Azoulay can bring real change to UNESCO.

While Israel also enjoyed a good relationship with UNESCO’s outgoing leader Irina Bokova, who had condemned previous one-sided resolutions against the Jewish state and worked to combat rising anti-Semitism, the organization has been “hijacked” by anti-Israel entities, Danon said.

“Israel had a good relationship with the previous director-general as well, but UNESCO has been hijacked by entities who seek to sever the bond between the Jewish people and Jerusalem instead of promoting education and culture,” he said. “As long as particular members of UNESCO continue to push this anti-Israel agenda, real reforms will not be able to take place.”

Michal Hatuel-Radoshitzky, a research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, told that despite promises of change, Azoulay will likely have little influence in ending the agency’s anti-Israel bias.

“UNESCO’s attitude towards Israel is a product of the organization’s member states and the new head’s ability to influence this attitude is thus limited,” she said.

UNESCO’s structural flaws

Despite formerly subsidizing a significant portion of UNESCO’s budget, the U.S. was limited to a single vote in the 195-member body, like all other states. As such, American influence and interests are often ignored. This situation led to the U.S. pulling out of UNESCO in 1984 under President Ronald Reagan, who complained that the body only served the interests of the Soviet Union, despite Western countries paying a large portion of the body’s funding. In 2002, under President George W. Bush, the U.S. rejoined UNESCO out of hope the organization had shed its bias. But after UNESCO admitted the Palestinian Authority as a member in 2011, the U.S. cut off funding to the organization.

One main grievance the U.S. and other wealthy nations have with international organizations like UNESCO is the “one country, one vote” principle, despite the agency receiving disproportionate financial contributions from economically strong nations. Prior to cutting funding in 2011, the U.S. was contributing nearly 22 percent of the organization’s budget, or $550 million.

Today, UNESCO’s committees—such as the influential World Heritage Committee, which passed the anti-Israel Hebron resolution in July—have become a bastion of anti-Israel sentiment as many of its member countries, including Cuba, Kuwait, Lebanon and Tunisia, do not recognize the Jewish state.

To leave or not to leave

While both the U.S. and Israel have lamented the organization’s bias, Hatuel-Radoshitzky argued America leaving the international body would not benefit the Israelis.

“U.S. policy to disengage from UNESCO, at least as far as the ability to vote and influence decisions is concerned—the State Department notice emphasizes that the United States will remain a non-member observer state—does not serve Israel’s interest,” she said.

Rather, American and Israeli engagement in UNESCO would be more effective than departing the agency as a method to counter anti-Israel bias, she added.

AJC’s Rodan-Benzaquen believes Azoulay wants UNESCO to return to its original mission.

“It will be challenging though, not only because both the U.S. and Israel have decided to leave UNESCO, but that the very structure of UNESCO remains,” she said. “Director-General Bokova did a lot to combat the politicization of UNESCO by appropriately addressing rising anti-Semitism, Holocaust education, genocide prevention and counter-radicalism, but, alas, her powers in this regard were limited….One can only hope that Audrey Azoulay will be more successful.”

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