What We Learned from the UNESCO Advocacy Seminar

Photo by Lou Aron

By Seffi Kogen and Alex Jakubowski

On October 12, President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced their intentions to withdraw the U.S. and Israel from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. One of their stated reasons was the institution’s longstanding anti-Israel bias. One week later, we arrived in Paris, where UNESCO is headquartered, with 18 Jewish student leaders – half of whom were Americans studying abroad in Europe, and half of whom hailed from across Europe and beyond. They came for three days to learn together about Jewish advocacy and identity, and to immediately put that training into practice.

Our organizations are among the most globally-minded Jewish groups. One of us is Director of Campus Affairs for AJC (American Jewish Committee), overseeing the global Jewish advocacy organization’s work on college campuses. The other is Executive Director of KAHAL, connecting Jewish students studying abroad to transformative Jewish experiences in their host communities. We co-sponsored this summit to explore with the participating students the meaning of global Jewish peoplehood and to advocate for change during this tumultuous time of global uncertainty.

Over the first two days of the seminar, students learned about and discussed the most pressing issues they face, including rising anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity on their campuses. They shared their own experiences making change in these arenas. They heard from representatives from AJC Paris, CRIF (the French Jewish umbrella body), and UEJF (the French Jewish student union).

On the third day we put our new advocacy skills to work. The students met with high-ranking U.S. and Israeli diplomats based in Paris, and top UNESCO officials, including Dr. Mechtild Rossler, Director of the World Heritage Center, and Eliot Minchenberg, Chief of the Europe and North America desk in the Director General’s office.

Issues raised by the students included the growing politicization of UNESCO, the responsibility of UNESCO officials in fighting bad actors in the organization, and the importance of Holocaust education as a tool to combat radicalization. Our interlocutors all shared the students’ concerns about UNESCO’s anti-Israel posture. At the same time they detailed the many positive, and perhaps overshadowed, aspects of UNESCO’s work.

Here’s what we learned from the seminar:

1. When Jewish students come together, magical things happen. They arrived in Paris as strangers, from nine countries, speaking five languages, and possessing vastly different levels of Jewish literacy and background knowledge on the issues. As they grew from individuals into a cohort, the remarkable impact of this international convergence of Jewish student leaders became palpable.

For example, the Chilean student, already a leader in his local Jewish community, was thrilled to hear from one French participant about the French law that makes BDS illegal. Chile is home to the largest population of Palestinians outside of the Middle East, and that community has lately been finding its political voice. The two immediately began exchanging notes on how the Chilean Jewish community might work to get a similar BDS ban in place to head off hateful boycotts of the Jewish state in South America.

2. Global Jewish advocacy is inspiring work. What was most striking to us, as organizers, was the marked change in the students. When the seminar began, most of the students viewed UNESCO as unsalvageable. By the end they were excited to meet with and hold accountable those officials with whom they disagreed, rather than ignore or dismiss them.

When students asked one speaker about steps UNESCO officials could take to combat politicization and anti-Israel bias, he flipped the question, asking “what steps could you, as citizens of nine countries active in UNESCO, take to restore seriousness and credibility to the once-venerated body?” The students were eager to answer this call. In their post-seminar evaluation, 95% of the students said that the seminar made them “more likely to be involved in Jewish advocacy and activism.” While fewer than 50% of them had considered working in international institutions before the seminar, 100% expressed interest in doing so after three days together.

3. Students get excited about collective accountability. We spent our last hours together encouraging students to concretize how they plan to bring the lessons they learned in Paris to their home communities. Breaking down into six groups of three, each set tangible goals for the next three months about how they will work toward combating anti-Semitism, fighting anti-Israel activity, and getting UNESCO to focus on its founding mission. Imbued with a stronger sense of global Jewish peoplehood and identity, students pledged to hold each other accountable and to not let their passions dwindle after our time together.

One American participant summed up this experience for the group: “This seminar inspired me to continue my activism against anti-Semitism and racism with more enthusiasm and better tactics. I intend to work with my peers to build coalitions and ensure for that for our people, and for others marginalized groups, ’Never Again’ is not merely a slogan.”

During this time of intense challenge for Israel and the Jewish people at UNESCO, we are proud to have brought representatives of the Jewish future into the room. We look forward to the changes they will bring about in their own communities with the skills they learned, and excited to replicate these transformative moments in the future.

Seffi Kogen is Director of Campus Affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
Alex Jakubowski is Executive Director of KAHAL.