November 21, 2018

Answering readers’ questions and comments on Unesco Shmunesco

From time to time, I use this space to answer questions or refer to comments on my New York Times articles (I write a monthly column for the Times). My latest column, published last week, was headlined Unesco Shmunesco, and it dealt with the recent decision by the U.S. to pull out of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Here is one paragraph:

Even amid Unesco’s repeated, ridiculous resolutions, the Israeli government resisted the temptation to withdraw from the organization. Israeli policy toward Unesco was — like its policy toward the rest of the United Nations — pretty simple: Remain a member and fight as hard as you can. Be a player. Do not give Israel’s foes what they want, which is Israel cast aside and ostracized by the international community… Enter President Trump. An Israeli strategy 70 years in the making is suddenly severely undermined…

You can find the full article here. The gist of it is simple: Israel is forced to pull out following the U.S., while its strategy for many years was to stay in — so Trump, by doing Israel a supposed favor, is not necessarily doing it a favor.

Now, some comments and questions from readers, followed by my responses to them:

A Jewish State

Lepton939 made this comment on Twitter, my favorite of this round:

But it was at the UN that the Jewish State was born, wasn’t it?

My response: On Twitter, I responded: “the irony.” Here, some explanation is due. Yes, Israel wanted the legitimacy of the UN and fought for it. And as it did — amid great difficulties — it alternated between ‘Um Shmum’ dismissals (Hebrew for ‘the UN means nothing’) and investment of resources, manpower, thought and manipulation in trying to remedy the damage done by the UN. A great example of that is the bitter fight against the “Zionism is racism” resolution (3379). If the UN is completely unimportant, why bother fighting against bogus resolutions? But Israel did, until the resolution was revoked (after more than 15 years).

Rapid overhaul?

Allan N. on Twitter:

Maybe the fear of lost $USD will lead to rapid overhaul and reversal. Or, UNESCO and its declarations become irrelevant.

My response: Maybe, hopefully. But I have some doubts, because of the history of the relations. One of the problems with writing (relatively) short articles for a daily paper is that a lot of the background to what one writes is lost — you just can’t include all the relevant information. But it is relevant to know that the U.S. already has pulled out of Unesco before, and has stopped funding Unesco before — namely, the Trump administration is not the first one to try to fix this organization. Can it succeed where previous administrations had difficulties? Maybe. Is it possible that it will not succeed? Sure. So, what is the difference between previous incidents and this one? The difference is simple: Since in this case the administration specifically mentioned Unesco’s behavior towards Israel as the reason for its action, it left Israel no choice but to follow through and take the same action (pulling out as soon as the U.S. does at the end of next year).

Give Credit

Avi Ulman on Facebook:

Look at the rather immediate result of this long overdue hardline — the antisemite Qatari who was the front-runner to lead UNESCO has lost to a French (Morrocan) Jew. Do not fool yourself, the very idea that the US will leave, and might be followed by other countries, each with its own grievances toward this shameful organization, has resulted in the unthinkable. We can loathe Trump’s unpresidential and erratic behavior (I do), but we should be intellectually honest and give credit where it’s due.

My response: Yes, Trump deserves credit for calling out this shameful organization, although the triumph of the French over the Qatari is more a result of intra-Arab political maneuvering. Clearly, the most problematic aspect of my article was the fact that it somewhat criticized a move that was meant, at least partially, as a show of support for Israel — support that is much appreciated. And surely, if Trump is able to heal Unesco by dealing with it bluntly, that’s good for Israel (and for everyone else). If Trump truly wants out, and Israel is forced to follow him, it is not as good for Israel. This is what I said at the end of my article: “this can work only if Mr. Trump’s motivation for quitting Unesco is truly to curb its anti-Israel bias. If, on the other hand, his main motivation is to free the United States from paying for something he does not value, then he hasn’t helped Israel. He has hurt it by forcing it out against its will.”