A leading UN cultural agency official cited international efforts "to promote education for remembrance of the Holocaust," moments after the United States said it would withdraw from UNESCO due to "anti-Israel bias" at the agency.
"Together, we worked ... to promote education for remembrance of the Holocaust across the world as the means to fight antisemitism and genocide today," Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, said Thursday.
That was an apparent counterargument against State Department charges that UNESCO displays a persistent bias against Israel. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's team notified the agency Thursday of a plan to withdraw at the end of 2018.
That move builds upon the Obama administration's decision to cut funding for the agency in 2011. But Bokova suggested that the Trump administration's move undercuts efforts "to prevent hate" and fight terrorism.
"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 agency leading these issues," she said. "At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack."
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, has made combating anti-Israel bias in the international forum a top priority since taking office. She arrived at the UN weeks after the Security Council adopted a resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction in territory contested by the Palestinians.
UNESCO gave the stateless Palestinians full membership in 2011, which prompted the Obama team to withhold funding pursuant to federal law. In July, the agency declared the Old City of Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs — reputed to be the burial site of biblical fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — to be a Palestinian heritage site.
"The UNESCO vote on Hebron is tragic on several levels," Haley said in July. "It represents an affront to history. It undermines the trust that is needed for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to be successful. And it further discredits an already highly questionable UN agency."
Tillerson's team was more generally critical on Thursday.
"This decision was not taken lightly, and reflects U.S. concerns with mounting arrears at UNESCO, the need for fundamental reform in the organization, and continuing anti-Israel bias at UNESCO," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. "The United States indicated to the Director General its desire to remain engaged with UNESCO as a non-member observer state in order to contribute U.S. views, perspectives and expertise on some of the important issues undertaken by the organization, including the protection of world heritage, advocating for press freedoms, and promoting scientific collaboration and education."