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The real reasons Trump is quitting Unesco

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At first glance, the decision last week by the Trump administration, followed immediately by Israel, to quit the United Nation’s cultural agency seems strange. Why penalise a body that promotes clean water, literacy, heritage preservation and women’s rights?

Washington’s claim that the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) is biased against Israel obscures the real crimes the agency has committed in US eyes.

The first is that in 2011 Unesco became the first UN agency to accept Palestine as a member. That set the Palestinians on the path to upgrading their status at the General Assembly a year later.

It should be recalled that in 1993, as Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo accords on the White House lawn, the watching world assumed the aim was to create a Palestinian state.

But it seems most US politicians never received that memo. Under pressure from Israel’s powerful lobbyists, the US Congress hurriedly passed legislation to pre-empt the peace process. One such law compels the United States to cancel funding to any UN body that admits the Palestinians.

Six years on, the US is $550 million in arrears and without voting rights at Unesco. Its departure is little more than a formality.

The agency’s second crime relates to its role selecting world heritage sites. That power has proved more than an irritant to Israel and the US.

The occupied territories, supposedly the locus of a future Palestinian state, are packed with such sites. Hellenistic, Roman, Jewish, Christian and Muslim relics promise not only the economic rewards of tourism but also the chance to control the historic narrative.

Israeli archaeologists, effectively the occupation’s scientific wing, are chiefly interested in excavating, preserving and highlighting Jewish layers of the Holy Land’s past. Those ties have then been used to justify driving out Palestinians and building Jewish settlements.

Unesco, by contrast, values all of the region’s heritage, and aims to protect the rights of living Palestinians, not just the ruins of long-dead civilisations.

Nowhere has the difference in agendas proved starker than in occupied Hebron, where tens of thousands of Palestinians live under the boot of a few hundred Jewish settlers and the soldiers who watch over them. In July, Unesco enraged Israel and the US by listing Hebron as one of a handful of world heritage sites “in danger”. Israel called the resolution “fake history”.

The third crime is the priority Unesco gives to the Palestinian names of heritage sites under belligerent occupation.

Much hangs on how sites are identified, as Israel understands. Names influence the collective memory, giving meaning and significance to places.

The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has coined the term “memoricide” for Israel’s erasure of most traces of the Palestinians’ past after it dispossessed them of four-fifths of their homeland in 1948 – what Palestinians term their Nakba, or Catastrophe.

Israel did more than just raze 500 Palestinian towns and villages. In their place it planted new Jewish communities with Hebracaised names intended to usurp the former Arabic names. Saffuriya became Tzipori; Hittin was supplanted by Hittim; Muyjadil was transformed into Migdal.

A similar process of what Israel calls “Judaisation” is under way in the occupied territories. The settlers of Beitar Ilit threaten the Palestinians of Battir. Nearby, the Palestinians of Sussiya have been dislodged by a Jewish settlement of exactly the same name.

The stakes are highest in Jerusalem. The vast Western Wall plaza below Al Aqsa mosque was created in 1967 after more than 1,000 Palestinians were evicted and their quarter demolished. Millions of visitors each year amble across the plaza, oblivious to this act of ethnic cleansing.

Settlers, aided by the Israeli state, continue to encircle Christian and Muslim sites in the hope of taking them over.

That is the context for recent Unesco reports highlighting the threats to Jerusalem’s Old City, including Israel’s denial for most Palestinians of the right to worship at Al Aqsa.

Israel has lobbied to have Jerusalem removed from the list of endangered heritage sites. Alongside the US, it has whipped up a frenzy of moral outrage, berating Unesco for failing to prioritise the Hebrew names used by the occupation authorities.

Unesco’s responsibility, however, is not to safeguard the occupation or bolster Israel’s efforts at Judaisation. It is there to uphold international law and prevent Palestinians from being disappeared by Israel.

Trump’s decision to quit Unesco is far from his alone. His predecessors have been scuffling with the agency since the 1970s, often over its refusal to cave in to Israeli pressure.

Now, Washington has a pressing additional reason to punish Unesco for allowing Palestine to become a member. It needs to make an example of the cultural body to dissuade other agencies from following suit.

Trump’s confected indignation at Unesco, and his shrugging off of its vital global programmes, serve as a reminder that the US is not an “honest broker” of a Middle East peace. Rather it is the biggest obstacle to its realisation.

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Jonathan Cook

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is

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33 Responses

  1. JosephA on October 17, 2017, 1:01 pm

    Well-written, and spot on.

  2. Boomer on October 17, 2017, 2:23 pm

    Thanks for this. Many readers here would have been familiar, at least with the basics of this history, but it is good that you memorialized it as you have. Goodness knows, one won’t find the corporate media in the US doing so.

  3. Keith on October 17, 2017, 2:29 pm

    JONATHAN COOK- “Six years on, the US is $550 million in arrears and without voting rights at Unesco. Its departure is little more than a formality.”

    We need to keep in mind that the funding cut to UNESCO occurred in 2011 during the Obama administration.

  4. MHughes976 on October 17, 2017, 3:49 pm

    The newly elected leader of Unesco, Audrey Azoulay, a former French minister, is well qualified, I’m sure. But the fact that a Euro Jewish candidate was successful against a Qatari, whose regime has a record of support for Hamas, tells us something about the attitudes of the Unesco electorate, quite possibly that Trump has scared them. We won’t see many more pro-Palestinian decisions in a hurry, I think.

    • mcohen.. on October 18, 2017, 7:59 am


      up the slipper old chap.her father is adviser to the king of Morocco. she is a left wing pro Arab.Qatar had no chance because they are misbehaving, cavorting with the Iranians and such.normally you are one of the few balanced commentors.what’s going on?

      • MHughes976 on October 18, 2017, 5:27 pm

        You clearly know more about Ms Azoulay than I do, mc. I didn’t know she had Moroccan connections. Mind you, that is surely a connection with one of the most right wing and one of the least pro-Palestinian parts of the Arab cosmos? Thanks for kind word anyway

  5. amigo on October 17, 2017, 4:51 pm

    Johnathan Cook describes for us part of the reason why America should not be advancing it,s ideals around the globe.The USA is doing what the British Empire did for centuries—screw up every nation they involve themselves in.John Mc Cain is no different than Trump. Who needs their leadership if what we get is Neo Imperialism .Last hope on Earth , my left foot.

    John Mc Cain

    “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems ”

    • RoHa on October 17, 2017, 7:54 pm

      The British did, however, pass on some of their own ideas about freedom and equality, though more in theory than in practice, and, of course, gave them the English language. The Americans seem to be destroying both these benefits.

  6. JLewisDickerson on October 18, 2017, 1:32 am

    RE: “Trump’s confected indignation at Unesco, and his shrugging off of its vital global programmes, serve as a reminder that the US is not an “honest broker” of a Middle East peace. Rather it is the biggest obstacle to its realisation.” ~ Jonathan Cook

    MY COMMENT: Truer words were never spoken! If you have any doubts take another look at this photo. Study it very closely!*

    * P.S. Knowing precisely how to provide a malignant narcissist with his requisite “narcissistic supply” is like having the key(s) to “The Kingdom (That Cometh)”.
    Oh nonsense, John (if I may call you that)! It’s true that such knowledge can be used to considerable advantage, but you really need to dispense with the far too cute religious analogies if you want to have maximum impact.
    You do want to have “maximum impact”; don’t you, John?

  7. Bandolero on October 18, 2017, 9:48 am

    I think it’s important to follow different stories to see how Trump caves in or doesn’t cave in to Bibi and his lobby. So, for the UNESCO story I agree with Jonathan Cook:

    Six years on, the US is $550 million in arrears and without voting rights at Unesco. Its departure is little more than a formality.

    The US departure from UNESCO tp please Bibi and the lobby is a meaningless symbol and doesn’t change anything.

    But here is a different developing story that is on the verge to change the course of history. Jonathan Cook published a great article here about it two weeks ago: How Kurdish independence underpins Israel’s plan to reshape the Middle East.

    So how did this story develop in recent hours. Here’s some news:

    The Algemeiner, 17/10/2017: US ‘Helping Iran Conquer Kirkuk,’ Kurdish Military Official Tells Israeli News Outlet

    Arab News, 18/10/2017: Kurds’ statehood dream dies as Baghdad retakes oil fields

    So, in short, Barzani, Israel’s most important proxy in Iraq, is handed a largely bloodless, but bitter strategic defeat by Iran-friendly Iraqi forces. So, as Israel’s best friend in the region is defeated and Israel’s plans to reshape the Middle East are crushed, what does Trump do or not do? Here is the answer:

    Reuters, 16/10/2017: U.S. ‘not taking sides’ in Iraqi-Kurdish dispute – Trump

    Trump does exactly nothing to help the team Israel-Barzani, leaving Barzani alone with Israel for a historic defeat brought to them by Iran-friendly forces. While Israel is very silent about this, Israels stooges like McCain fume in rage.

    • Keith on October 18, 2017, 11:01 am

      BANDOLERO- “I think it’s important to follow different stories to see how Trump caves in or doesn’t cave in to Bibi and his lobby.”

      Excellent points. The imperial failure to destroy Syria with proxy forces has serious consequences. One of which is that pleasing Israel must be balanced against antagonizing Turkey which is opposed to Kurdish independence of any sort and has been drawing closer to Russia and Iran to counter this happening. Thanks to US/Israel meddling, the entire Middle East is explosively volitile. The empire is walking a fine line between applying pressure and applying too much pressure. It is never as simple as AIPAC calling the shots. A quote from a previous thread to make a point.

      “Another thing which has contributed to the US’ animosity against Turkey is the country’s vastly improved military relationship with Iran, particularly over the Kurdish issue in recent weeks but with the original breakthrough being made through the Moscow Declaration at the end of last year.” (Andrew Korybko)

    • JLewisDickerson on October 19, 2017, 10:43 pm

      John Lewis-Dickerson‏
      Replying to @BarakRavid

      ■ Does the U.S. expect to remain engaged with UNESCO as a non-ember observer while being in the arrears by nearly $500 million?
      Chutzpah much?

      12:09 AM – 13 Oct 2017

      LINK –

  8. Maghlawatan on October 18, 2017, 10:17 am

    The US is turning into a joke. Israel is already a joke. Trump has pulled out of UNESCO and gone back on the Iran treaty. The word of POTUS means nothing.

  9. Misterioso on October 18, 2017, 10:30 am

    “Video: Why UN should say ‘good riddance’ to Israel”
    Oct. 14/17

  10. James Canning on October 18, 2017, 1:44 pm

    Compelling American politicians to be stooges of the Israel lobby is an art that has very nearly been perfected.

    • Maghlawatan on October 18, 2017, 4:33 pm

      It is shameful. When it all falls apart will be popcorn time. The whole charade is so contrived. Money is at the rotten heart of it.

  11. Stogumber on October 23, 2017, 2:05 am

    Well, Trump has to play his cards. As the leading American Jewish publicists are fiercely and hopelessly anti-Trump, his only chance is supporting Israel and this way making the average Jews in America uncertain and divided about him.

    • Mooser on October 23, 2017, 1:00 pm

      “As the leading American Jewish publicists are fiercely and hopelessly anti-Trump.

      You know, I think you’re on to something. I’m convinced there is less there than meets the eye.

    • Mooser on October 23, 2017, 1:02 pm

      “Well, Trump has to play his cards.”

      If you ask me, a guy who went broke multiple times running casinos might want to avoid games of chance.

  12. Mayhem on October 23, 2017, 9:20 am

    What did UNESCO say in 1999 when thousands of years’ worth of fragile and irreplaceable Jewish archaeological antiquities were surreptitiously and violently dug up by Arab bulldozers at Judaism’s holiest site, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, to build an entrance to a subterranean mosque?
    The resulting thousands of tons of invaluable debris – believed to contain over 1 million artifacts dating back to the First Temple period – were then carted off in dump trunks and discarded like garbage to a nearby landfill in Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley.

    • Mooser on October 23, 2017, 12:43 pm

      “The resulting thousands of tons of invaluable debris…”

      “Invaluable debris”? Ho-kay!

    • amigo on October 23, 2017, 1:34 pm

      “were then carted off in dump trunks and discarded like garbage” Mayhem.

      When I was young my father used to fill the trunk , (boot to you USAers) of our Ford Anglia ,(Black) with tons of invaluable debris and take it to the dump .The last time we went , we came home with the debris and left the Ford Anglia.

      Btw , what,s grey and very large and has a trunk.(apologies Mooser , just borrowing ) and has a huge dump.

      • Mooser on October 23, 2017, 5:06 pm

        “(apologies Mooser …”

        Don’t blame me, it’s just standard Marxist dialectic (at 0:35)

    • amigo on October 23, 2017, 1:52 pm

      “Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley.”.Mayhem.

      Surely you meant “Qidron Valley;”.

      • annie on October 23, 2017, 4:09 pm

        hebrew transliteration and unnecessary in english. on the bright side, they use the arabic (palestinian) name. the original hebrew name was (allegedly) valley of jehoshaphat. however:

        It should be noted that not all scholars agree with the traditional view that the Kidron Valley is the location of the Valley of Jehoshaphat. Biblical commentator Adam Clarke maintains this view, claiming that the Valley of Judgment is a symbolic place.[6] Kidron Valley was not associated with the Valley of Jehoshaphat until the 4th century AD.[7]

        A passage in the Bible mentions that God will assemble all nations in the “Valley of Jehoshaphat” (Joel 3:2, Joel 3:12). Some hold that the Valley of Jehoshaphat (“Yahweh shall judge” ) refers to the valley situated between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives to the east. It was in this valley where king Jehoshaphat is thought to have overthrown the enemies of Israel (2Chr. 20:26). Its identification with the Kidron Valley, which began in the fourth century, is somewhat uncertain since no actual valley of this name is known to pre-Christian antiquity.

    • MHughes976 on October 23, 2017, 4:01 pm

      The debris removal caused the ‘sifting’ to be undertaken.

      • just on October 23, 2017, 5:12 pm

        Such is “archeology” … or something.

        When will the Israeli gov’t or delusional Zionists of all stripes give a damn about their erasure of all things Palestinian and indigenous?

        “How Arabic became a threat to ‘social cohesion’ in Israel

        The absurd arrest of a Palestinian worker who was mistranslated by the police is a reminder that Arabic has been turned into a tool to oppress the native population in this country.

        Israelis read Sunday morning that Israeli police had mistakenly arrested a Palestinian worker after relying on a Facebook translation of a post he had written a week earlier. The worker had uploaded a photo of himself standing next to a bulldozer with the caption, “good morning,” which the police then misinterpreted to say, “attack them,” leading to his arrest for incitement to violence.

        The incident exemplifies something about the Israeli complex vis-a-vis the Arabic language. One may wonder how the hell it is possible that a language used by nearly half the people living in this land, which is spoken by millions across the region, has become so esoteric and exotic to us to the point that we must resort to Facebook’s poor translation software in order to understand it. Beyond that, one can see how the incident is the result of the state’s attempt to empty Arabic of its power to connect people — as a language that contains its own history, culture, and memory — and turn it into something entirely different. …

        … But the truly interesting thing is that those who proposed the law are not trying to make Arabic disappear: they just want to strip it of its essence and turn it into something else. When Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman takes pride in being the only one who “really understands Arabic,” he treats the language as a simple matter of power and control. Arabic becomes a fist or a whip. When Culture Minister Miri Regev attacks MK Haneen Zoabi on the Knesset podium in broken Arabic, she turns Arabic into a tool of humiliation. As such, Arabic is first stripped from its native speakers before it is taken away from second and third generation Mizrahi Jews — such as Regev. Only then is it adopted by its enemies as a means of oppression.

        At first glance, one could have understood the logic behind the law as an attempt to include the Arab public in that same vaunted “social cohesion,” which Arabs seem to avoid, ostensibly because they lack a grasp on Hebrew. But as usual, this is an inter-Jewish story; Arabic is not an obstacle that prevents the inclusion of the Arab public in Israel’s imagined cohesion, rather it stands in the way of the Jewish ethnocracy’s total control over language — both concrete and symbolic.

        Any shards of Arabic that survive outside of that context are a threat that the Israeli hegemony no longer understands, if it ever wanted to in the first place. This is true not only when it comes to a poem written by a young Palestinian poet, which required the interpretation of numerous experts on Arabic literature, or a satirical Facebook status by a Bedouin journalist that was wrongly interpreted by the authorities. Nowadays, we have a hard time understanding a simple “good morning.”

      • MHughes976 on October 29, 2017, 4:56 pm

        I thought that it was unwise for the Waqf not to allow, for the sake of full information, some participation by Israeli archaeologists when they wanted to dig beneath their property. However, we should note that the Sifting Project, which involves examining the rubble, is now losing its funding because, I think, of persistent failure to find anything interesting.

      • Mayhem on November 4, 2017, 7:59 am

        @MHughes976, the Sifting Project has been going for over a decade with a wealth of discoveries. For you to suggest that it may be ending as a result of persistent failure to find anything interesting is just reflecting your smug, snivelling bias against anything non-Palestinian.

      • Mooser on November 4, 2017, 1:09 pm

        ” your smug, snivelling bias against anything non-Palestinian.”

        “Mayhem”, are you possibly confusing “MHughes976” with another commenter?
        That ain’t him, not by a long shot.

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