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PictureSienna Girgenti

Every few months, the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy hosts a Washington-area diplomat to speak about the pressing domestic and foreign policy issues of the day. The Diplomatic Encounter Series gives members, supporters and area professionals a chance to meet with high-ranking foreign and domestic officials and engage them in a conversation on topics of interest to B’nai B’rith. 

Since 2002, ambassadors have shared their perspectives pertaining to bilateral relations with the State of Israel, the status of their respective Jewish communities, regional affairs and their role in international bodies such as the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the European Union.

On Wednesday May 20, B’nai B’rith was honored to host the Honorable Roberta Jacobson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, for a rare on-the-record address about United States policy toward the Americas in 2015 and beyond. 

Jacobson—who, it was announced by the White House just days after her visit to B’nai B’rith headquarters, will be nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as the next U.S. ambassador to Mexico—is a key figure in strengthening U.S. cooperation in the hemisphere. The assistant secretary has built a distinguished career in public diplomacy and has made the rare transformation from career civil servant to senior diplomat and is the top State Department official for Latin America. 

B’nai B’rith follows developments in the region with great concern. In early May, B’nai B’rith Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin traveled to the region, visiting Buenos Aires with a leadership delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The delegation held successful meetings with local branches of the organization and congressional officials, in discussions of the harrowing death of Argentine-Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building case prosecutor Alberto Nisman. 

We have also keenly followed developments in U.S. rapprochement with Cuba over the past few months, and the geopolitical impact of these negotiations—led on the U.S. side by Assistant Secretary Jacobson. 

Jacobson began her remarks by highlighting the significant impact of the election of Pope Francis on the region: “For those of us who’ve spent any time in Argentina and are interested in the issue of the Jewish community or religious life in the Hemisphere or the role of religious communities in political and economic development, this election of Pope Francis was electric.” She explained how Pope Francis was a key figure in U.S rapprochement with Cuba, and for interreligious affairs broadly.

Throughout her address, Jacobson focused on three key areas of interest: Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba. Certainly, the unresolved cases of the bombing attacks on the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA building in Buenos Aires remain a very sober reminder of our shared difficulties in the region. 

Jacobson told attendees that the “Memorandum of Understanding with Iran has done nothing—done nothing—to support justice for the AMIA victims.” 

As a major focal point of B’nai B’rith’s engagement on issues related to Argentina over the years, we certainly agree there needs to be a transparent investigation into these outstanding cases, and into the mysterious death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman. 

Jacobson noted the administration’s efforts to “try to motivate and encourage the rest of the international community, and especially those in this hemisphere, to work with us to that end.”

Growth of anti-Semitism in the region was underscored by an emphasis on such developments in the hemisphere, particularly following Israel’s conflict with Hamas in and around Gaza in 2014. Jacobson suggested, “There were a number of instances in which religious intolerance masqueraded as political protest”—a very fine point that B’nai B’rith has long highlighted amidst our engagement with partners in the region. 

She noted vandalism and other attacks on the Jewish community in Venezuela, and that government’s comparison of Israel to Nazi Germany as prime examples. Jacobson lamented that there remain very real challenges to democracy in Venezuela.

Finally, Jacobson spoke to the primary source of her demanding schedule, negotiations with Cuba. With the return of Alan Gross to the United States in December 2014, in which she played an important role, Jacobson outlined the platform on which the U.S. government hopes to engage moving Cuba to a more open system. 

While interaction at the Summit of the Americas in April between President Obama and Raúl Castro serves to further the relationship and continue momentum for the normalization process, Jacobson emphasized that this engagement with Cuba will not deter the United States from speaking out on human rights violations. The administration’s view is that the human rights situation in Cuba is inadequate. 

Jacobson reiterated the need to respect international norms of human rights and that the United States continues to raise its concerns regarding democracy, human rights and freedom of expression to move the country forward. “It is changing,” she explained during the question and answer session, “but it’s still going to be a long haul until we’ve got a democratic Cuba.”

The importance of U.S. relations with our neighbors in the region today is unquestionable—to B’nai B’rith and the world. The Americas face many pressing challenges together, including the global economic crisis, the fight against drug trafficking and drug consumption, and the rise of transnational terrorism. 

B’nai B’rith has long advocated for the promotion of trade liberalization, a more humane immigration policy and more extensive cooperation in the fields of security and development. We are particularly grateful to have hosted Assistant Secretary of State Jacobson during this historic moment in history, and we pledge our continued support to build upon our relationship to confront these issues of mutual concern together.

The Diplomatic Encounter Series is made possible through a generous grant from the B’nai B’rith Jess and Mildred Fisher Memorial Endowment. 

Sienna Girgenti is the Assistant Director for the International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy at B’nai B’rith International. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.