The United States is to withdraw from the United Nation’s cultural and educational body UNESCO at the end of the year, citing its “anti-Israel bias” as the reason.

The U.S. State Department said the decision “was not taken lightly” but was based concerns about the number of resolutions criticising Israel. Officials said the U.S. would “remain engaged… as a non-member observer state”.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has long been criticised for its “obsessive” focus on Israel, and earlier this year, Jewish representatives and Israel advocates strongly criticised its “shameful” protest vote against Israeli action in Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories.

The UK Government voted against the motion, which its authors said was to “safeguard the cultural heritage of Palestine and the distinctive character of East Jerusalem”. It was approved by 22 votes to 10, with 26 abstentions or absences. 

The motion said Israeli action in Jerusalem had “altered the character and status of the Holy City” and was therefore “null and void,” prompting howls of protests from Jewish groups around the world. 

Board of Deputies’ President Jonathan Arkush said it was “another unacceptable UNESCO resolution,” that was “one-sided and inflammatory” while former Conservative Friends of Israel chair Sir Eric Pickles called the vote “shameful” and “an attempt to rewrite the Jewish connection to Jerusalem”.

In October last year, the human rights body again united the Jewish world in incredulity by passing a resolution acknowledging Temple Mount’s importance to Islam – with no reference to its importance in Judaism.

The 58-member body passed what Jewish leaders called an “inflammatory” resolution with 24 votes in favour and 26 abstentions. Six countries, including the UK and the US, voted against.

Following America’s decision to pull out,  Unesco director-general Irina Bokova, who is Bulgarian, expressed “profound regret” and said the departure was a loss for “the United Nations family” and for multilateralism.

She said the US and Unesco matter to each other more than ever now because “the rise of violent extremism and terrorism calls for new long-term responses for peace and security”.

Ms Bokova defended Unesco’s reputation, noting its efforts to support Holocaust education and train teachers to fight anti-Semitism.

She traced the decades-long US ties with Unesco, and noted that the Statue of Liberty is among the many World Heritage sites protected by the UN agency.

Ms Bokova’s two terms as director have been deeply scarred by the 2011 Unesco vote to include Palestine as a member, funding troubles and repeated resolutions seen as anti-Israel.

James Sorene, CEO of Israel and Middle East think tank BICOM said: “UNESCO is a shocking example of how easily a UN organisation with far reaching global responsibilities can be used as a political vehicle to
isolate and harass Israel.

Recent UNESCO resolutions questioning the Jewish connection to Jerusalem undermined its credibility and tarnished its reputation.”

“The US decision to leave sends a powerful message to UNESCO about the need for change. But with the US now only an observer, and unable to vote or influence its agenda, the politicisation of UNESCO may get worse in the short term.”