In 2011, UNESCO became the first UN body to recognize Palestine as a state. Arab states at UNESCO have also pushed three times a year for passage of resolutions that disavow Israeli ties to Jerusalem and refer to its holy sites solely by their Muslim names.
Last year it inscribed Hebron’s Old Town and the Cave of the Patriarchs to Palestine on the List of World Heritage in Danger sites. stressing the history of the city and the cave post 1250 during its Muslim period while setting aside the more ancient Biblical and Jewish history of the city.
It was initially presumed that Azoulay could have little impact on the almost ritualized anti-Israel bashing in UNESCO, given her office’s limited purview over the decisions of member states that dictate the organization’s actions. There was also some concern that she would lean in the direction of pro-Palestinian forces.
But since taking office in November 2017, she has operated under the principle that the politicization of UNESCO, has tarnished the organization. Bolstered by the American and Israeli threats to exit UNESCO at the end of 2018, she has managed so far to neutralize controversial texts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The resolutions have not been eliminated, but actions on them at both UNESCO’s Executive Board meeting and the World Heritage Committee have been delayed for now.
In a speech in South Korea in June, Azoulay said that UNESCO was “working towards strengthening a fragile consensus among Member States through dialogue and by facilitating mediation.
She added, “This is what has allowed us to negotiate, for example, consensual texts on the Middle East in the past few months and weeks, adopted without a vote. The last two decisions were adopted on Jerusalem and Hebron this Tuesday during the World Heritage Committee.”
World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer said that “Azoulay has made great strides since entering office in working to curb the politicization that had been plaguing the organization in recent years.”
The WJC also credited her with important work on Holocaust education and the battle against antisemitism, including a joint website to provide young people with information about the Holocaust, including its denial and legacy.
Azoulay has also been outspoken about the need for UNESCO to combat extremism and antisemitism.
In a first, this year, UNESCO and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), released global guidelines to address antisemitism through education.
“The struggle against antisemitism cannot be undertaken by Jewish communities alone. Fighting it means defending human rights and liberties, because racism and antisemitism are one and the same in that they share hate of otherness,” Azoulay said at the program’s launch ceremony in June. “In this fight, education is a major factor. It must be harnessed to prevent the rise in extremism and violence. It is our responsibility to support teachers and educators in their mission, those who sometimes feel helpless in facing the scope of unbridled prejudice,” Azoulay declared.