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Top aide to first gentleman Emhoff set to lead US back into UNESCO

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden will nominate a longtime aide, whose responsibilities include dealing with antisemitism issues, to represent the United States at the United Nations agency devoted to education, science and culture, a White House official said Monday.

The US recently rejoined the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization after a five-year hiatus initiated by former President Donald Trump over the agency’s alleged anti-Israel bias.

Biden’s choice to become the US permanent representative to the Paris-based UNESCO, with the rank of ambassador, is longtime aide Courtney O’Donnell, according to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the nomination before a formal announcement.

O’Donnell currently wears two hats in the administration: She’s a senior adviser in Vice President Kamala Harris’ office and acting chief of staff for Harris’ husband, second gentleman Doug Emhoff.

She lends her expertise to a range of national and global issues, including gender equity and countering antisemitism, a top issue for Emhoff, who is Jewish.

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O’Donnell also was communications director for Jill Biden, when she was second lady during Joe Biden’s vice presidency when Barack Obama was president. O’Donnell helped Jill Biden raise awareness and support for US military families and promote community colleges.

She has extensive experience in developing global partnerships, public affairs and strategic communications, having held senior roles in two presidential administrations, nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, national political campaigns and the private sector, according to her official bio.

Courtney O’Donnell. (White House)

O’Donnell most recently oversaw global partnerships at Airbnb.

Former White House chief of staff Ron Klain said O’Donnell is trusted by colleagues worldwide.

“This is a fantastic pick and she will do a fantastic job at UNESCO,” he said in a statement.

Cathy Russell worked with O’Donnell in the second lady’s office and said she is skilled at developing global partnerships, creating social impact campaigns and providing strategic counsel on a range of issues.

“Everyone who knows Courtney knows she is committed to the value of global engagement and strengthening American leadership around the world,” Russell said.

Irish singer-songwriter Bono, Paul Pelosi, husband of US Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Ukrainian Ambassador to the US Oksana Markarova, US First Lady Jill Biden, and US Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff listen as US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 7, 2023. (SAUL LOEB / AFP)

The Senate must vote on O’Donnell’s nomination.

The first lady attended a ceremony in late July at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, where the US flag was raised to mark Washington’s official reentry into the UN agency after the absence initiated by Trump, a Republican. She spoke about the importance of American leadership in preserving cultural heritage and empowering education and science across the globe.

The United States announced its intention to rejoin UNESCO in June, and the organization’s 193 member states voted in July to approve the US reentry. The ceremony formally signified the US becoming the 194th member — and flag proprietor — at the agency.

The US decision to return was based mainly on concerns that China has filled a leadership gap since Washington withdrew, underscoring the broader geopolitical dynamics at play, particularly the growing influence of China in international institutions.

First Lady Jill Biden delivers a speech during a ceremony at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Tuesday, July 25, 2023. U.S. first lady Jill Biden visited Paris on Tuesday to attend a flag-raising ceremony at UNESCO, marking Washington’s official reentry into the U.N. agency after a five-year hiatus. (Bertrand Guay, Pool via AP)

Israel, which withdrew from UNESCO at the same time as the US, has yet to announce a return.

The January 1, 2019 exit by Israel and the US came after years of the agency passing resolutions that critics said denied the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and other revered locations, and singled out the Jewish state for criticism.

A 2011 move by UNESCO to include Palestine as a member state led the US and Israel to cease financing the agency.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.