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B’nai B’rith International’s 2024 annual Leadership Forum concluded today in Washington, D.C., with featured speakers throughout addressing topics relevant to the Jewish community, including the global impact of the Israel-Hamas war and the rise of anti-Semitism, as well as a moving Yom HaShoah commemoration at the Austrian Embassy.

In his State of the Organization address, President Seth J. Riklin spoke about the Hamas terror attack on Oct. 7 and the aftermath, which he witnessed firsthand on a recent B’nai B’rith mission to Israel. He highlighted B’nai B’rith’s mobilization to launch an Israel Emergency Fund to provide vital aid to Israel, made possible by the generosity of members and supporters who contributed funds and volunteered to help Israelis in need.

Strength—of Israelis and Jews—was a theme of his remarks. “We have to make sure the world knows that we are not going anywhere,” Riklin said. “The days of Jews cowering in fear are over.”

CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin delivered remarks Sunday morning, reflecting on the significance of Oct. 7 and the attack’s impact on the global Jewish community. He emphasized the importance of keeping the hostages at the forefront of people’s mind and condemned the allegations of genocide against Israel.

“Israel—the central focus of our lives as Jews—is a remarkable island of creativity and democracy and inspiration in a sea of darkness, in a sea of death cults, extremism and authoritarianism.”

Speaking on B’nai B’rith’s role in supporting Israel, Mariaschin expressed his intentions to redouble the organization’s efforts at the United Nations and speak out against its endemic bias against Israel.

“Our organization, from the establishment of the first lodge in Jerusalem in 1888, has stood behind and bolstered the idea of Jewish sovereignty and the rebirth in a modern state of Israel for the Jewish people,” Mariaschin said. “Now more than ever, we need to be true to that legacy and stand behind Israel and strong against those who seek to harm it in any way. We’re living through a pivotal moment in Jewish and world history.”

Guest speaker Josh Kraushaar, editor-in-chief of Jewish Insider, analyzed the upcoming presidential election and broke down pertinent issues on the minds of Jewish voters. Offering his expertise in tracking political trends, Kraushaar highlighted President Joe Biden’s approval rating based on polls and voters’ concern with the state of the country under his leadership: “Voters aren’t feeling that stability. They’re sensing that the world is spinning out of control; they’re not feeling economically better off than they were four years ago.”

Kraushaar predicts that the three top issues for this upcoming election cycle will be the economy, abortion, and immigration.

Eighty-five years since the ill-fated voyage of the SS St. Louis, a special program was held with the SS St. Louis Legacy Project, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about the ship carrying Jewish refugees in May 1939 that was refused entry into Cuba during World War II, and then was also refused entry into the United States and Canada. Founder Robert Krakow and surviving passengers of the ship took part in a presentation on legislation co-authored by B’nai B’rith and passed by the U.S. Senate, acknowledging the United States’ historical failure to accept these Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany.

Survivors Eva Wiener, John Shilling and Hans Fisher shared their experiences following the ship’s return to Europe and their escape from the Holocaust.

“The experience on the St. Louis at first was wonderful because we really thought we had been liberated,” Fisher said. “Until suddenly an American boat came by and we could hear them yelling at the officers on the St. Louis, telling them to get out of U.S. territory.”

A proclamation of gratitude was presented to B’nai B’rith by the survivors for its role in passing Senate resolution 111, accepted by Abbie Talmud, Jewish community coordinator for the Israeli embassy, who said that the history of the ship serves as a “stark reminder of the consequences of indifference and inaction in the face of evil.”

Keynote speaker Brigadier General Asaf Vardi, Israel’s Deputy Defense Attaché and Air & Space Force Attaché to the United States, provided an update on the ongoing war in Gaza.

Amid violent protests and blatant anti-Semitism on college campuses, students who have been vocal about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism participated in a panel addressing these issues plaguing American universities. Jessica Brenner, a sophomore at Barnard College; Shabbos Kestenbaum, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School; and Jamie Sharabani, a junior at the University of Miami, shared their experiences as Jewish students on campus and provided suggestions on actions university leaders must take to ensure the safety of Jewish students.

Brenner, who can often hear chants of “we don’t want Jews here” from her dorm room, shared the difficulties of being a student on Columbia University’s campus—the epicenter of student encampment protests: “It’s been very hostile. Just walking around, you feel it everywhere you go. I don’t take a step on campus without thinking about the war.”

She suggests steps for universities to take, including: prioritizing the seriousness of reports of anti-Semitism, refusing to tolerate areas on campus that ban Jewish students, reevaluating their hiring practices to avoid hiring professors involved in anti-Semitic activities, and evaluating what professors are teaching their students.

Sharabani transferred out of American University, well before Oct. 7, after feeling ostracized from students for speaking out about Jewish issues. Sharabani said when she wanted to write a paper about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising for her intersectionality course, she was told that it “has nothing to do with intersectionality—try again.”

Kestenbaum, who is suing Harvard for instances of anti-Semitism, spoke about how the university often overlooks discrimination against Jews on their campus and fails to protect Jewish students from threats and anti-Semitism. When Kestenbaum raised the issue of a known anti-Semite who was invited to speak on campus with the Harvard administration, he was told the speaker was protected by the First Amendment. “Anti-Semitism at Harvard did not appear on October 7th,” Kestenbaum said. “There was always this genteel, sweeping under the rug anti-Semitism.”

The Leadership Forum concluded on May 6 at the Embassy of Austria with a commemoration of Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day. Hosted by Ambassador Petra Schneebauer, Austria’s ambassador to the United States, B’nai B’rith honored the memory of those murdered in the Holocaust. Affirming her country’s support of Israel, Schneebauer noted that it is the duty of all Austrians to stand up against all forms of anti-Semitism., “It is crucial to face the shadows of the past,” she said. Schneebauer also was clear that since Oct. 7, it’s been made clear that anti-Semitism “is not a relic of the past, but a real and present danger.”

As part of the “Unto Every Person There is a Name” program of Yad Vashem, B’nai B’rith leaders, along with Schneebauer, recited the names of Holocaust victims to restore humanity to their memory, reminding us that they were not just numbers. B’nai B’rith has led the UNTO program in North America since 1989 to ensure each of the six million Holocaust victims is remembered.

Riklin and Mariaschin presented Schneebauer with a tzedakah box, which signifies charity and righteousness.