UNESCO has elected Audrey Azoulay, a French Jew, over a Qatari candidate as its new director-general. 

Azoulay narrowly beat Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari in the final 30-28 vote after she won a runoff with a third finalist from Egypt earlier Friday. The outcome was a blow for Arab states that have long wanted to lead the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

In brief remarks after she won the election, Azoulay, 45, said the response to UNESCO’s problems should be to reform the agency, not to walk away from it.

“In this moment of crisis, I believe we must invest in UNESCO more than ever, look to support and reinforce it, and to reform it. And not leave it,” she said.

The election itself had become highly politicized even before the US announced its planned departure.

Azoulay started the week with much less support than Qatar’s al-Kawari but built up backing as other candidates dropped out. She went on to win a runoff with a third finalist, Moushira Khattab of Egypt.

Jewish groups opposed al-Kawari, citing a preface he wrote to a 2013 Arabic book called “Jerusalem in the Eyes of the Poets” that they claimed was anti-Semitic. He wrote, “We pray to God to liberate (Jerusalem) from captivity and we pray to God to give Muslims the honor of liberating it.”

In March, the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) wrote an open letter to German Ambassador Michael Worbs, chair of the UNESCO Executive Board, to criticize the organization for accepting the former Qatari culture minister’s candidacy.

During the months leading up to the election, Egypt and three other Arab nations were engaged in a boycott of Qatar over allegations that the government funds extremists and has overly warm ties to Iran.

Azoulay’s late entry into the leadership race in March also annoyed many UNESCO member states that argued that France shouldn’t field a candidate since it hosts the agency. Arab intellectuals urged French President Emmanuel Macron to withdraw his support for her.

She will be UNESCO’s second female chief and its second French chief after Rene Maheu, UNESCO’s director general from 1961-74. She is Jewish; her father is Moroccan and was an influential adviser to Moroccan kings.

The Trump administration had been preparing for a likely withdrawal from UNESCO for months, but the timing of the State Department’s announcement that it would leave at the end of 2018 was unexpected. Along with hostility to Israel, the US cited “the need for fundamental reform in the organization.”

Azoulay acknowledged the image of the organization needed rebuilding.

“The first thing I will do will be to focus on restoring its credibility,” she said.

While UNESCO’s general assembly must sign off on the executive board’s leadership pick, officials said the confirmation vote typically is a formality.

Source: World Israel News with edits