Withdrawing from UNESCO, Trump's promise to broker the 'deal of the century' between Palestine and Israel is drowned by its acceptance of a history that has little to do with fact.
The United States has formally withdrawn from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the culmination of three decades of bipartisan foreign policy designed to please Israel at the expense of international peacemaking and American interests.
The US leaving UNESCO also renders even more absurd and impossible President Donald Trump’s promises of finding a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians. How can the US be an honest broker when it harms not only Palestinians, but also itself? Israel, for its part, has also left the organisation.
Although the decision was made on Trump’s watch, leaving UNESCO wasn’t his idea. President Barack Obama pulled the US away from UNESCO after its recognition of the Palestinian Authority in 2011. A US law passed by a Democratic-controlled Congress in 1990 prohibited US funding for any organisation that recognised Palestine.
Unlike Trump moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, a pointless and provocative act, or his withdrawal of humanitarian funds from the Palestinian Authority, the UNESCO departure represents deeper problems in how the US relates to Israel.
The United States was a main supporter of the creation of UNESCO, back during the founding of the United Nations after World War II. The international body’s purpose was to prevent another world war. UNESCO’s role is one that lets countries manage each other’s ‘soft power’ as a collective. Soft power is a hard-to-quantify quality, but one can imagine it as everything a country does to enhance its image and reputation. Protecting ancient historical sites and providing information about other countries became UNESCO’s role.
Although this sounds easy, the historical narratives of national leadership and the historical facts often diverge. Getting countries to agree on a single interpretation of history is perhaps harder than getting them to agree on the limitations of nuclear weapons. One can count nuclear weapons, but there’s no way to quantify national standing or pride.
For Israel, one of their problems with UNESCO was classifying the ancient city of Hebron as a Palestinian heritage site. The city is where Jews and Muslims can worship near the tombs of Abraham and his family. It is also under military occupation, where soldiers stand guard around Israeli settlements. Designating the city as Palestinian did not force the soldiers or settlers to leave, but appeared to undermine the entire Zionist project of restoring a Jewish homeland on Biblical territory. There’s no price tag you can put on such matters, and rather than trying to help both sides find a solution, the US has just given up.
Everybody wants to look good, and few countries want to take an honest, much less apologetic or regretful, look at their past. In the United States, for instance, the history of the Boston metropolitan area includes both the events of the American Revolution in the 18th Century and the rise of the anti-slavery Abolitionist movement in the 19th Century.
Boston's history also involves the genocide of Native Americans and the hanging of people accused of witchcraft in the 17th Century. In the 20th Century, the city became a world-renowned educational hub, but also saw violence over the integration of black and white students in the same public schools. And that’s just one American city.
Israeli nationalism relies on interpretations of history that occurred both in the 20th century and thousands of years ago, and the supposed ‘anti-Israel’ bias of UNESCO shows how important these events are to Israel’s national story. No one wants to live in a country responsible for genocide. How can one have pride in a place like that? It would be easier to imagine it didn’t happen, rather than come to terms with it. In the US, for instance, some high school textbooks still treat the Civil War as a matter of ‘states’ rights’ and not slavery.
Monuments to Confederate generals, who fought to keep people in chains, still stand in American cities and have provoked protests. In Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, one of those protests turned deadly when a white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of people, killing demonstrator Heather Heyer. How will the world remember that day, August 12, 2017, in 200 years? Let’s just imagine that UNESCO will be around in 200 years. What kind of plaque will Charlottesville get?
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