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U.S. to Withdraw From UNESCO. Here's What That Means.

Officials announced that the country will leave the international cultural organization in 2018, citing concerns over "anti-Israel bias."

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The United States will pull out of UNESCO, the international scientific and cultural heritage organization, at the end of 2018, the U.S. State Department announced Thursday morning.

UNESCO is best known for the heritage sites and biosphere reserves it designates, but the organization was founded on the broader principles of combating extremism and promoting peace. The organization works on all matters of global development, including gender equality, sex education, clean water, and literacy.

The U.S. decision to withdraw, which the U.S. State Department said “was not taken lightly,” stems from financial concerns, what the U.S. sees as a lack of needed reform, and “continuing anti-Israel bias.”

In a statement, the U.S. State Department said that it wanted to remain engaged with UNESCO as a non-member observer state, to continue promoting world heritage protection, press freedoms, and scientific collaboration.

“At the time when conflicts continue to tear apart societies across the world, it is deeply regrettable for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations agency promoting education for peace and protecting culture under attack,” Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova said in a statement. “This is a loss to the United Nations family. This is a loss for multilateralism.”

The United States has been involved with UNESCO since its beginning. According to the U.S. State Department, American author Archibald MacLeish—the first American member of UNESCO's governing board—wrote the preamble to the organization's 1945 constitution.

But the U.S. and UNESCO have had their disagreements. In 1974, Congress suspended the U.S. contribution to UNESCO's budget after the organization criticized Israel and recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Washington Post reported in 1984.

In December 1984, the Reagan Administration withdrew the U.S. from the organization, citing UNESCO's budget and what the U.S. deemed an ideological bent against Israel and free-market capitalism.

The U.S. rejoined UNESCO in 2002, but tensions haven't exactly dissipated in the years since. In 2013, the U.S. automatically lost its voting rights at the organization, after missing a deadline to pay its contribution to UNESCO's budget. In 2011, the U.S. stopped paying its annual dues—more than $80 million, more than a fifth of UNESCO's overall budget—in protest of the group's decision to admit Palestine as a member.

Foreign Policy's Colum Lynch reports that while the U.S. decision is based in part on capping what the U.S. owes to UNESCO—a sum of more than $500 million—the withdrawal is primarily a reaction to UNESCO's approach to Israel.

In July, UNESCO declared the old city in Hebron, a town in the West Bank, a World Heritage Site—but declared it for Palestine, not Israel. Israel contends that Hebron's designation weakens the site's connections to Judaism.

In 2016, Israel recalled its UNESCO ambassador after UNESCO's World Heritage Committee adopted a resolution that referred to one of Jerusalem's holiest sites only as a “Muslim holy site of worship.”

The site is revered by Jews as the Temple Mount—the elevated site of Judaism's ancient temples—and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The compound contains Islam's Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and is next to the Western Wall.