Until she was 28, Kasia Jachnicka thought she was Catholic. Like the majority of Polish citizenry, her family celebrated Christmas and Easter. Then one day, Jachnicka’s mother, after years of internal struggle, ultimately revealed a new truth: her family is Jewish.
In the beginning, Jachnicka felt there were a lot of questions and very few answers. “What does it really mean? What should I do? I felt sorry for the fact that my mom saw her roots as a dangerous burden, a flaw that she passed to her children.” Surprised and fascinated, Jachnicka began a journey of tracing her roots and rediscovering her identity. Unlike the generations before her who, either by choice or by circumstance, hid their Jewish roots—first during the Holocaust and then under communism—Jachnicka could embrace her newfound heritage.
“After all these years, embracing my Jewish heritage was like coming back home. Finding a missing element of the whole picture,” Jachnicka reflected after more than a decade of research and learning. She is now deeply involved in Warsaw’s Jewish Community Center (JCC), where she has met others on the same journey.
I had the distinct pleasure of learning Jachnicka’s story—a familiar one in today’s Poland—on a weeklong study tour of Jewish Poland. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has conducted a series of study tours for select American Jewish professionals and lay leaders to experience Jewish Poland firsthand. At the invitation of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Washington, D.C., I had the honor to travel with the most recent study tour—the third of its kind—on behalf of B’nai B’rith International.
Our delegation of seven diverse Jewish professionals and lay leaders traveled between Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow for an intimate look at Jewish Poland through the juxtaposition of death and rebirth. The study tour featured visits to a variety of sites relevant to the historical presence of Jews in Poland and the Holocaust, including a visit to the esteemed POLIN Museum, the Jewish Historical Institute and Emanual Ringelblum Archives, the Okopowa Jewish cemetery, the Katyń Museum, the Museum of Yeshiva Chachmei, the Majdanek concentration camp and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.
In contrast to the dark and difficult history explored at those sites, meetings were also held with leaders of local communities breathing life into today’s Jewish Poland. We met with communal leadership, including those from the Mi Polin project, the Taube Center, the Nożyk Synagogue, AJC Central Europe and B’nai B’rith Poland. Over a festive Shabbat dinner, our group was hosted by Agata Rakowiecka, executive director of the JCC Warsaw, for a look at how her community is reasserting its identity and revitalizing Jewish life in Warsaw through weekly Shabbat programs, holiday celebrations, lectures, educational opportunities and more. Like Jachnicka, Rakowiecka is another member of the community emblematic of the newest generation of Polish Jews rediscovering their roots.
One thousand years of history and Jewish contribution to Polish society were nearly extinguished over 70 years ago. Alongside Jachnicka and Rakowiecka, among those who should be credited for Jewish revival in Poland are the non-Jewish Poles at the fore of preserving this memory and carrying it forward. Our group was briefed by a multitude of civil society organizations (CSOs) dedicated to exactly that. We met with leaders like Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, president of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation and former consul general of the Republic of Poland in New York, and Marta Usiekniewicz, communications coordinator for the Forum for Dialogue. Both organizations provide essential educational resources, trainings and programs across Poland and are staffed primarily or entirely by non-Jews.
Another important CSO, the "Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre" Centre, is a municipal cultural institution based in Lublin. In a visit with Deputy Director Witold Dąbrowski, we learned the Centre draws on the symbolic and historical significance of its residence, the Grodzka Gate, which had previously been used as a passage between the Christian and Jewish parts of the city. Beyond the gate today extends the empty space of the destroyed Jewish district. Through several unique exhibitions, educational and artistic initiatives, the Centre is dedicated to preserving the memory of the former Jewish quarter of Lublin. Dąbrowski and Junczyk-Ziomecka are two of thousands of non-Jewish Poles embracing roles as custodians of Jewish memory.
At the same time, today we are witness to a resurgence of anti-Semitism throughout Europe and around the globe. Weighing heavily on my mind heading into this trip was the dramatic increase in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial that has appeared in some sectors of Polish society in recent years. Just last year, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party silenced criticism of Polish complicity in the Holocaust by pushing a bill that criminalized the attribution of blame to Poland for any crimes committed during that period. The Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, or IPN law, popularly known as the Holocaust bill, was viewed widely as an attempt to regain control of a revisionist historical narrative that cast Poles as blameless victims. The law has since been watered down after facing severe international backlash, but there has yet to be significant movement on Poland’s part to have an open and honest discussion regarding the country’s wartime history.
Hosted for a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with Ambassador for Jewish Diaspora Affairs Jacek Chodorowicz, our group raised these concerns and advocated for mandated standards on Holocaust education, the adoption of the widely-accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, and a systematic and government-wide inquiry into the full history of the period of the Holocaust. While the sensitivity that Poles have around the issue of the Holocaust is understandable, not enough is being done at the highest levels to address the history of anti-Semitism that preceded the Holocaust and continues to this day.
A highlight of our delegation’s visit was a meeting with Commissioner for Human Rights Adam Bodnar, and Mr. Marcin Sośniak, head of the Migrants and National Minorities’ Rights Department, on combating anti-Semitism in Poland. The Commissioner is the independent constitutional authority charged with safeguarding the equal treatment of all persons. Bodnar and his team have taken an important and vocal stance as defenders of minority rights, even in the face of PiS-adopted legislation diminishing human rights protections and a prosecutor’s office which has been known, in Bodnar’s experience, to turn a blind eye to recommendations for legal proceedings against documented cases of anti-Semitism. The political reality leaves the Polish Jewish community acutely aware of their oft-perilous minority status. Bodnar is a critical voice in opposition to the ruling party, and this meeting offered a slightly more well-rounded picture of the political climate on the ground.
Without a doubt, Poland has much to celebrate. It has one of the fastest-growing Jewish communities in the world, and there are many within Polish society and government who are fighting tirelessly to combat the ills of anti-Semitism, revive Jewish life and preserve Jewish memory. While Poland’s broader relationship with the Jewish people remains complicated, projects like these study tours are an important tool to bridge the divide. Cultivating a space that is open to the tough and earnest dialogue necessary to carry relations forward is challenging but invaluable. I am most grateful to our hosts for this compelling look at Polish-Jewish relations.
Sienna Girgenti is the Program Director for Strategic Engagement at B'nai B'rith International. She joined the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy in 2013. To view some of her additional content, click here.
Anyone driving near Jerusalem’s government district cannot miss it. On a triangle-shaped lot bordering the Knesset, the Israel Museum and government ministries (did anyone say “location, location, location”?), a magnificent addition to the capital city’s landscape is taking shaper under a jumble of cranes, earthmovers and other heavy machinery: The National Library of Israel building.
In the scintillating promotional material posted on the library’s web site, the futuristic design is described as follows: The building’s curved, elevated and cantilevered form necessitates a contemporary take on the cut Jerusalem limestone found throughout the rest of the city …Openings and carvings, whose shapes are derived from a projection of erosions on ancient stone walls, are designed to minimize solar heat gain on the windows behind. The pattern is reminiscent of culturally specific imagery and text but remains abstract in origin. The mineral surface continues to the vitrine legs below…Uncommon in contemporary Jerusalem, the wood brings a human scale and detail to the pedestrian experience while linking the building to timber traditions important to the local vernacular from ancient to early modern times…Our design responds to the context and reflects the ambitions of the National Library of Israel. It is open and transparent but grounded in the traditions of great libraries and the city itself. As in the past, books will remain at the center…”
The National Library’s new building – which, like the Knesset and other monumental projects in Israel, is being funded by the Rothschild Foundation – is ambitiously slated to open in 2020.
But this institution has its foundation 108 years earlier in a historic decision by members of the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem Lodge to establish a library in Jerusalem that would be the home to the huge fountain of Jewish wisdom contained in its great written tomes. Led by visionary and pragmatic figures like David Yellin, Zeev Hertzberg, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Yosef Meyuchas and Yehiel Michel Pines – all leaders of the “New Yishuv” - who were inspired by the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Jerusalem Lodge (est. 1888) succeeded where two earlier attempts had failed to establish a sustainable library in the cradle of Jewish renaissance then stirring in the Land of Israel – Jerusalem – after libraries had been established by B’nai B’rith lodges in Jaffa and Tzfat (both chartered by the Jerusalem Lodge). Founded to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World and the Spanish Inquisition, the library in Jerusalem was named for the great Jewish statesman and scholar Don Isaac Abravanel, who led the convoy of denuded Jews out of the Spanish kingdom. It opened with 947 books donated by lodge members and other Jewish residents of Jerusalem. Two years later, 2,000 books from a defunct library established earlier by Eliezer Ben Yehuda – the father of modern Hebrew – were gifted to the B’nai B’rith Library, and in 1895, Dr. Josef Chasanowich augmented the collection with his private corpus of 10,000 Jewish books, sending them from Bialystok to Jerusalem. The library was officially renamed “Midrash Abravanel ve’Ginzei Yosef” (Abravanel Seminary and Yosef Archives”). In 1899, Theodor Herzl, in the name of the Zionist Congress, sent Chasanowich a congratulatory letter and a donation towards the library, to which Chasanowich remained committed. By 1886, the rented quarters had become cramped and the lodge began to plan a purpose-built facility which opened in 1902 to great fanfare. The building, which sits on B’nai B’rith Street in the center of the historic district surrounding Prophets Street, is still owned by the Jerusalem Lodge. In 1920, the collection was transferred to the World Zionist Organization and subsequently (in 1925) to the Hebrew University, at which time it took on the name Israel National and University Library. The next year, it opened in its new venue as the Israel National Library.
Leading historians have long recognized the role of the B’nai B’rith Library in the development of Jewish culture and education in Jerusalem and as the foundation of the National Library. Writing in The Book of Jerusalem, Yosef Salmon writes “…the ‘B’nai B’rith’ library…served at the time also as a community center for the New Yishuv in Jerusalem and eventually became the National Library…”. Dov Sidorsky, writing in Libraries and Books in Eretz Israel at the Close of the Ottoman Period, notes “The ambition to establish ‘the treasury of Jewish books’ in the city, which is a center for Judaism, indicates the primary purpose of the library and was a guiding light of the board of the B’nai B’rith library…” Writing in “New Jerusalem at its Beginning”, Yehoshua Ben-Arie writes, “Behind the idea of combining the two libraries in Jerusalem and the addition of Sirkin’s books to the ‘B’nai B’rith’ library in Jerusalem stood Zionist ideology about creating a national library in Eretz Israel.” Finally, writing in “Prophets Street, Ethiopia Neighborhood and Musrara Neighborhood”, David Koryanker writes “In 1892…the third attempt [to establish a library] … was crowned with success at the initiative of B’nai B’rith …The establishment of the library – the nucleus of the National University Library – was the fruit of a determined decision by Jerusalem intellectuals and Hovevei Zion in the Diaspora, who believed that a library is one of the important symbols of national renaissance…’”
The significant contribution made by the B’nai B’rith Jerusalem Lodge and subsequent B’nai B’rith lodges established in Jaffa, Zichron Yaacov, Tiberias and elsewhere at the end of the 19th century, to the Jewish renaissance in Eretz Israel, even before the establishment of the Zionist Movement, is indeed well-documented. These contributions include the establishment of the first Jewish settlement in the Jerusalem area (Motsa), the first Hebrew-speaking kindergartens and adult education in Jerusalem, hospitals and civic institutions. They also made clandestine missions to Jewish communities throughout the Levant with the purpose of drawing them into the modern era and harnessing their support for Jewish renaissance in Eretz Israel and fought the discriminatory decrees of the Ottoman authorities against Jewish immigration and property ownership. Many of their initiatives were designed to counter the Christian mission to the Jews, very active at that time. They laid the veritable building blocks upon which the “state in the making’ was founded at a time when Jerusalem’s Jewish population stood at a mere 15,000.
Together with Jerusalem Lodge President Zvi Rotenberg, and with the support of B’nai B’rith President Charles Kaufman, we are currently engaged in an effort to ensure that B’nai B’rith’s critical role in the founding of the National Library will be recognized in the permanent exhibit that will be a major feature of the new building, and we are seeking other opportunities to bring this proud history to the fore. As President Kaufman concluded in his letter to Library chairman David Blumberg: “This important legacy is too precious for us to ignore and I am sure that you too wish to strive for historical accuracy and recognition for the accomplishments of those who came before us.”
Ma’ase Avot Siman L’Banim (The actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children – Rambam).
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B'nai B'rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B'nai B'rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, click here.
The dynamics at the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) slowly started changing in a slightly more positive direction at the recently concluded session. It should be clarified at the beginning of this post, though, that the changes are relatively minor in the broad scheme of things, and—at most—merely the beginning of a wholly necessary (and long-overdue) process to transform the council from an anti-Israel forum to a body seriously concerned about universal human rights.
The shift in the council is due in part to more countries that are friendly to Israel joining the UNHRC as members in recent years, including Australia, Togo, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Australia, it should be pointed out, was the only country to courageously vote against all the anti-Israel resolutions in this session, as they have since they joined the council. The United Kingdom has been threatening for the past few sessions to vote against resolutions falling under Agenda Item 7—the agenda item that singles out Israel for criticism at each council session while all other countries are examined under a different agenda item. This session, the U.K. went through with its threat, followed by another EU member state: Denmark. Denmark’s decision was a bit of a surprise, as the Scandinavian country is not normally seen to be in the staunchly pro-Israel camp within the EU.
The U.K. and Denmark did not vote against a resolution on “ensuring accountability,” only abstaining from the vote when the Palestinians, perhaps sensing that the tide was starting to turn on this particular resolution, moved the resolution to a different agenda item. This resolution endorsed the report of the council’s biased “Commission of Inquiry” into the rioting along the Gaza border last year. The conclusions in the report largely ignored Hamas instrumentalizing the “protests” as a cover for attacks against Israel, despite the fact that Hamas openly bragged that this was exactly what they were doing. The commission also deposited with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) a secret dossier with a list of Israelis that the commission believes could be threatened with prosecution by the International Criminal Court (which also is looking into the justified Israeli response to the violent riots). The resolution passed, but only with 23 votes in favor, meaning that more countries either voted against, abstained or did not vote than voted in favor.
Spain’s vote in favor of this resolution was especially outrageous. It was the only European country to do so. Even Iceland, which I would normally not include in a list of close friends of Israel, criticized the resolution and abstained. On the other hand, Brazil is to be commended for changing its voting pattern under the new administration and voting against both this shameful resolution and an absurd resolution on the Golan Heights.
The voting on the “ensuring accountability” resolution shows the limits of the change at the council, however. The U.K. and Denmark only promised to vote against Item 7 resolutions, and when it was moved to a different item, they abstained (despite the fact that other EU states did vote against it).
Item 7 is perhaps the most glaring example of bigotry in the entire U.N. system, but it is not the only issue. The resolutions, with their instructions to OHCHR to operate against Israel, are a major problem, and merely shifting resolutions to another agenda item means that the UNHRC is still continuing its anti-Israel modus operandi, just under a different guise. If the council were to eliminate Item 7 (which, in and of itself, might be a very difficult task), but keep the overall action the same, the result will not be a greatly improved UNHRC.
Similarly, there were complaints at the council that the number of anti-Israel resolutions was too high and that they need to be streamlined. The excessive number of resolutions and reports on Israel is another glaring deficiency at the council, but simply wrapping all of them into one or two resolutions is not a meaningful change. It’s just a cosmetic change to make it appear that the council is functioning better, when in fact the anti-Semitism at the heart of the matter has not actually changed.
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. Click here to view more of his additional content.
Last May, I wrote a blog called “Grandmothers and The Fight Against Gun Violence,” which highlighted the important advocacy work seniors are doing to stem the tide of firearms violence. Since writing that blog, I have wondered about other issues that have spurred on senior advocacy throughout America. My first thought was there had to be seniors’ activism around global climate change. A threat to our planet as serious as climate change must have caused a spark in activism in the senior community, no? Unsurprisingly I only had to perform a simple Google search to find countless articles and information regarding ways climate change has impacted older Americans and how they are fighting for a better environment.
So what is climate change? The short answer: Climate change is an increase in the earth’s temperature which has caused sea levels to rise, ice masses to melt and highly concerning weather patterns to emerge. In addition, the U.S. Global Research Program concluded that human beings are the overwhelming cause of climate change, particularly because of the production of greenhouse gases.
Unfortunately, these dramatic changes in the earth’s climate can lead to dire consequences for older Americans. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), climate change conditions like extreme heat, poor air quality and hurricanes can be particularly problematic for seniors. All too often, seniors suffer from heart conditions and diabetes, which can be exacerbated because of the heat. Increasing temperatures also cause ticks and mosquitoes to increase their geographical reach and remain for longer periods of time. Older adults with already-weakened immune systems are at greater risk of being bitten by ticks and mosquitoes if rising temperatures continue. In addition, during hurricanes, seniors often need to be evacuated, which causes obvious obstacles. Around half of the people who died for reasons related to Hurricane Katrina were over the age of 75, with people over 65 accounting for half of the fatalities during Superstorm Sandy.
However, seniors are taking action! Predictably, older Americans are not advocating for their own self-interest, but speaking up for policies that protect the planet for future generations, like their grandchildren. Groups of senior citizens like Elders Climate Action (ECA) are strongly advocating for policies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This group, consisting of 3,300 people, advocates their positions to members of Congress, gets their message out through social media and has monthly calls regarding ECA’s priorities. Furthermore, in 2017, ECA visited Washington DC, taking their message directly to the offices of every member of Congress, and participated in the People’s Climate March.
Given climate change’s devastating impact on our planet, how seriously is this crisis being taken by our elected officials? As is always the case, the answer is a mixed bag. The House of Representatives has taken encouraging steps by establishing the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which will help raise public awareness about climate change by holding hearings and organizing fact-finding trips. Sadly, some federally elected officials don’t believe action is required. Many politicians in Washington, D.C., despite scientific facts, have purposefully turned a blind eye towards climate change’s impact on our planet.
Like gun control, older Americans are picking up the slack for some of our elected officials, whose response on global climate change has been unacceptable. However, it’s nice to know we can count on the wisest people among us to lead the charge for a cleaner and better tomorrow.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
By Adriana Camisar
The recent visit of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to Israel is a very important development.
For years, Brazil’s diplomacy took a rather hostile stance toward Israel. In fact, the government of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva (2003-2011) got very close to the Iranian regime and, in 2010, even tried to prevent the United States and the European Union from sanctioning Iran for its nuclear development program. Brazil was a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council at the time and certainly helped Iran evade international sanctions, at least for a period of time.
Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor, distanced herself a bit from the Iranian regime but kept the anti-Israel stance of her predecessor, voting against Israel in virtually all international forums.
The traditional anti-Israel posture of the Brazilian Foreign Ministry (Itamaraty) responds in part to a third-worldist worldview, deeply rooted in Latin America, which has sought to keep distance from the United States, and therefore from one of its main allies, the state of Israel. This worldview is based on a somewhat simplistic understanding of Latin American history, according to which the United States is to blame for most of the region’s problems. This ideological position has been disastrous for the region since it generated a culture of victimization and the distancing of many Latin American governments from the democracies of the West in order to get close to dark regimes such as Iran, Russia and China, among others.
In the case of Brazil, Itamaraty's anti-Israel posture had also to do with the desire of the Brazilian career diplomats to get Brazil elected as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, in the highly improbable case that the council gets reformed to include new permanent members one day. To achieve this, these diplomats thought it would be necessary to get the votes of the countries that make up the Organization of the Islamic Conference. But the truth is that such a reform of the U.N. Security Council would be impossible to achieve without the agreement of the United States government, which would in turn need to be ratified by the U.S. Congress, something extremely unlikely.
In any case, this anti-American and anti-Israel worldview seems to have received a major blow since Bolsonaro took power. His foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, said in a recent tweet that the discriminatory treatment of Israel at the U.N. had been a Brazilian foreign policy tradition, and that this government is determined to break with this "spurious and unjust" tradition, in the same way it is breaking with the anti-American and third-worldist tradition that prevailed.
Bolsonaro's campaign promise to move the Brazilian Embassy to Jerusalem will apparently have to wait. But his recent announcement about the opening of a trade office in Jerusalem and his visit to the Western Wall in the company of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (an unprecedented gesture) are very strong signs of change.
The recent vote of Brazil at the U.N. Human Rights Council is another sign. For the first time in the history of the council, whose anti-Israel bias is both shameful and notorious, Brazil voted against two anti-Israel resolutions.
In November and December this year, Brazil's new, warmer relationship with Israel will be put to a test. This is so because two important resolutions will be re-introduced at the U.N. General Assembly. As every year, member states will decide if they want to renew the funding and mandate authorization of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and the Division for Palestinian Rights, the two entities that make up the most powerful anti-Israel propaganda apparatus that exists under the U.N. roof.
In addition to demonizing the state of Israel, in the name of the U.N., these entities promote the most extreme Palestinian positions as they question Israel’s very right to exist and advocate for the right of return of the more than five million people of Palestinian ancestry (who are still wrongly considered "refugees" by the U.N.) to the State of Israel. This radical stance is clearly against the two-state solution that the U.N. claims to support, as the mass migration of these people to Israel would mean the destruction of Israel as a majority-Jewish state and the eventual creation of one Palestinian state "from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea."
Brazil votes, year after year, in favor of the continued funding of these two entities, creating among the Palestinians the illusion that the U.N. will eventually grant them a state “from the river to the sea,” and directly discouraging genuine peace negotiations with Israel. A change in the way Brazil votes would undoubtedly be a breath of fresh air and would send a positive message not only to other countries in the region but also to the entire world.
Adriana Camisar is B’nai B’rith International's Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs. A native of Argentina, Camisar is an attorney by training and holds a Master’s degree in international affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
Ongoing since late February, “Migrations: The Making of America” celebrates the all-encompassing transformation of New York City’s cultural landscape through the vibrant heritage of those foreign to its shores. Its organizers at Carnegie Hall reached out to forge partnerships in all five boroughs, including theater and music venues, museums, libraries and arts centers. Almost 100 events -- concerts, some of which were broadcast locally, and virtual and on-site museum exhibitions augmented by courses, tours, lectures and panel discussions-- mainly focus on how the city’s cultural milieu was defined by a wide-ranging panoply of ethnic groups and how this process continues in our own time. Later this year, the opening night concert of Irish, Scottish and American folk music featuring award-winning composer and banjo great Béla Fleck will be heard on public radio stations across the country.
Unsurprisingly, the creative legacies of Jewish composers, performers and even a choreographer or two supplied the content of a good proportion of festival offerings. Many events were held at the Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street. It was there, on March 3rd, that silent film aficionados reveled in Molly Picon’s sprightly portrayal of a Jazz Age flapper who falls for a yeshiva student in “East and West,” with live orchestral accompaniment. Rarely or never-heard Yiddish songs from radio, film and theater were performed by members of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene during a March 10th concert at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
On March 27th, America’s premier interpreter of The Great American Song Book, Michael Feinstein, was onstage at Carnegie Hall for his one-man show of standards by the composers that he knows so well, including Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Harold Arlen.
While the festival continues, there’s still time to enjoy some of its programs. One of the most opulent, to take place on April 15th at Carnegie Hall, might be described as a multi-generational, star-studded survey of repertory spanning klezmer to classical, all of which emanated from the Jewish presence in New York, and which continue to transform the city today. “From Shtetl to Stage: A Celebration of Yiddish Music and Culture,” a gallimaufry of theatrical sketches, production numbers, instrumental music and song will showcase violin virtuoso Gil Shaham, Klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, pianist Evgeny Kissin and vocalists, including Katrina Lenk, the Tony Award--winning actress from the hit Israeli musical, “The Band’s Visit,” and Yiddish theater veterans Mike Burstyn and Eleanor Reissa, (the latter is also the show’s director).
A Yiddish and Ladino recital will be performed by Sephardic artist Sarah Aroeste and Ashkenazic specialist Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell with piano and accordion accompaniment at the West Side’s Marlene Meyerson Manhattan JCC on March 31st. On April 1st, the King Juan Carlos I Center of Spain will screen “A Brivele Der Mamen (A Letter to Mother),” one of the last Yiddish movies made in Poland. On April 7th, Staten Island’s Snug Harbor Cultural Center will present “Music in Color,” a St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble concert devoted to music by Gabriela Lena Franks, a contemporary Lithuanian-Peruvian-Jewish-Chinese composer. At an April 10th lecture at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Professor Mark Slobin will trace the roots and manifestations of Eastern European Jewish musical culture, and an ongoing exhibit of art by Israeli-American sculptor Boaz Vaadia in Chelsea runs through April 15th.
Yaniv Dinur, the Israeli-born conductor of the New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Milwaukee Symphonies and the previous recipient of three grants from the Solti Foundation in Evanston, Illinois, has been awarded the Foundation’s 2019 $30,000 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, given to musicians under the age of 38. The money can be spent for travel, study or the purchase of scores.
Considered one of the world’s greatest Wagnerian conductors, and esteemed for his interpretation of composers including Elgar, Verdi and Beethoven, the distinguished Maestro Solti (1912-1997), was a student of Bela Bartok, who had established a career in his native Hungary before increasing anti-Semitism forced him to emigrate in 1938, one year before the Nazi advent. Enjoying an international reputation, he was best known for his remarkable recordings made with the Chicago Symphony, where he served as music director for 22 years.
Those who heard the National Gallery’s Diamonstein-Spielvogel Lecture on Saturday, March 9th, delighted in the feisty commentary and quips of 91-year-old Alex Katz, an iconic artist whose career took off in the late 1950s and who is still painting gorgeous large-scale canvases today. The son of a Yiddish theater actress, Katz recounted his years as a struggling student and painter who learned the importance of acquiring a command of drawing in contrast to his intuitive approach to color, all adding up to the masterpieces of portraiture and landscape so loved by museum-goers and collectors. The audience had a good time, but many of them (me) coveted the artworks and lamented (again, me) not having an Alex Katz hanging in their own living room.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.
To read this op-ed by B'nai B'rith International Director of Legislative Affairs Eric Fusfield in the Jerusalem Post, click here.
It should be axiomatic in American politics: If both David Duke and Louis Farrakhan support your position, you should reconsider it.
Such is the dilemma for US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), whose repeated antisemitic remarks have drawn approbation from curious places. She remains insufficiently apologetic, though.
Omar’s intransigence is made somewhat understandable by the failure of the House of Representatives to issue an unequivocal condemnation of either her behavior or the wider problem of antisemitism. In confronting the world’s oldest and most resilient social problem, Congress did what would have been unthinkable in condemning, say, racism or misogyny: it folded the problem into a litany of horribles that included discrimination against multiple other groups.
Former presidential candidate Martin O’Malley was booed and pressured to apologize when he responded to the Black Lives Matter movement by declaring, “All lives matter.” This is because his pat, all-inclusive formulation diminished the immediate problem of racism, particularly as it pertained to black victims of police violence. But this is what Congress has done in response to antisemitism, at a time when one of its own members is practicing it. In its own “All Lives Matter” moment, Congress is avoiding dealing with antisemitism by refusing to confront it squarely.
The anti-hate resolution passed by the House condemned antisemitism as a “hateful expressions of intolerance,” at the same time as it also condemned Islamophobia and discrimination against all minorities as “hateful expressions of intolerance.” It referenced the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville and the mass synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh while simultaneously deploring the oppression by white supremacists of “traditionally persecuted peoples,” including people of color, religious minorities, immigrants “and others.”
The 19th century Dreyfus affair in France is offered as an example of a false Jewish dual-loyalty accusation, while more recent examples, such as Japanese-American internment during World War II or post-9/11 discrimination against Muslims, were used to illustrate some of the threats faced by populations in the United States.
Despite the best efforts of Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida), the resolution’s initial drafter, the final amalgamated product is a sweeping condemnation of all bad things, rather than a serious attempt to address antisemitism. The catch-all resolution acknowledged that antisemitism is one of many forms of discrimination in America, but there are a number of things it did not tell us. For example:
• Antisemitism is a unique and uniquely persistent social illness, featuring distinct manifestations and sometimes requiring distinct solutions. Today, it is at its greatest peak since World War II.
• Hate-crime statistics demonstrate that Jews are by far the most targeted religious group in the United States.
• Antisemitism appears both on the far Left and the far Right of the political spectrum, but its alarming growth on the Left, among minorities and among young people, is pushing antisemitic viewpoints further into the mainstream.
• Holocaust denial is a glaring aspect of antisemitism. The increase in distortion or minimization of the Holocaust speaks to the need for more education, something that is within Congress’s purview.
• The impingement on Jewish religious practices such as circumcision and kosher slaughter (shechitah) is a growing concern worldwide and poses an existential threat to many Jewish communities abroad.
• The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism and the State Department’s fact sheet on antisemitism contain definitions of the problem that should be widely circulated to increase understanding of it.
• Israel, Israel, Israel. The House resolution mentions Israel only once, in its reference to the myth of Jewish dual loyalty. But many of the most common manifestations of contemporary antisemitism involve anti-Israel hatred that crosses the line into antisemitism. We are frequently reminded that legitimate policy criticism of Israel should not be confused with antisemitism, as though that needs to be explained. However, the resolution did not speak about the appropriation of traditional antisemitic motifs in service of an anti-Israel message, something that has become a regular feature of political discourse today.
• The resolution did not explain that political events in the Middle East or elsewhere can never justify antisemitism, as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has already declared. It also skirted the harm done to the Jewish community – which is overwhelmingly pro-Israel – when the Jewish state is demonized, for example, by obscene comparisons to apartheid South Africa or Nazi Germany. Or by the imposition of double standards on Israel when it attempts to defend itself from security threats, for which most Western countries have little appreciation or understanding.
When antisemitism spiked nearly two decades ago in response to the Second Intifada, officials in Europe were slow to react to the problem, dismissing it at first as a temporary reaction to events in the Middle East. Proponents of a “holistic” approach to combating social hatreds argued that there should be no “hierarchy of discrimination,” implying that antisemitism should not receive a special focus and should instead be grouped together with other phobias. We have now heard similar arguments in the US Congress, which collectively rejected a standalone resolution on antisemitism. Nearly two decades after the start of the current wave of antisemitism, some minds have yet to change on this issue.
Eric Fusfield, Esq. has been B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs since 2003 and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy since 2007. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University in history; an M.St. in modern Jewish studies from Oxford University; and a J.D./M.A. from American University in law and international affairs. Click here to read more from Eric Fusfield.
As B’nai B’rith continues to celebrate its 175th anniversary, the menorah continues to be a link to the past, a commitment to the present and a promise for the future.
The founders of B’nai B’rith found their inspiration in the Torah. The name they chose, “Sons/Children of the Covenant,” referred to the covenant that the Jewish people have with God. That definition made them a Jewish organization, with the Torah as a guide to living a Jewish life. B’nai B’rith’s founders wanted each of the members of the organization to commit to becoming a better person by developing good character. This would be accomplished through their personal relationships as well as by helping others that needed assistance in their community.
They chose the menorah, one of the ritual objects described in the Torah, as their emblem. The seven-branched menorah is described in detail in Parashas Terumah. The placement within the Tabernacle is very specific.
We are told that the menorah should be made out of one piece of gold and God shared its creation in a vision to Moses. Commentaries have interpreted the design to have several meanings.
The Italian commentator Sforno interprets the branches, saying that the three branches on the right represented intellectual ideas and the ones on the left represented ideals that applied to how one made a living. The central candle represented the Torah. The six candles on the left and right are connected to the candle in the middle.
The menorah would stand in the outer chamber of the Tabernacle as an inspiration to those who saw the light it emitted. It was not to be placed in the Holy of Holies, as that was the place for the Torah, which did not need any additional light beyond its own. In Parsha Beha’aloscha, we find out that the job of lighting the menorah was given to Aaron, Moses’s brother, and the tribe of Levi. While other tribes were involved in the creation of the Tabernacle, the tribe of Levi did not have a special role until this important responsibility was given to Aaron. The menorah becomes a central piece of history later on later in the Chanukah story, as the Hasmoneans, descendants of Aaron, were the ones who drove the Syrian-Greeks out of the Temple.
The menorah has continued to be the emblem of B’nai B’rith, and in each of our districts, regions and communities we find its counterpart. We have seen it used in many ways; on the large display banner surrounding a stage of leaders and dignitaries at special events, on invitations or on certificates of service. It is proudly displayed on a lapel pin and used as a signet ring. You will see it on T-shirts, hats or neckties.
The menorah candles are used for the induction of members, installation ceremonies, conferences and special occasions. Each candle represents an ideal that B’nai B’rith members are expected to strive for. Light, justice, peace, benevolence, brotherly and sisterly love, harmony and truth are the words and concepts described in the reading. These words and concepts are also referenced in daily prayers, often as attributes of God and how man treats his fellow man. The traditional ceremony used today is one found in B’nai B’rith guides to ritual, but many other creative interpretations exist. The honor of lighting the menorah is one that is taken very seriously, and the ceremony is given a place of honor. The candle lighting ceremony has also been used to share the work of the B’nai Brith Program Centers and /or events in Jewish history, with each candle assigned a special project or event.
B’nai B’rith has been described by scholars as an organization that helped create civil society in America. The desire and need that existed for a Jewish civil society organization helped create the mission that continues to this day. As the Jewish community spread its wings across America, activities that support the Jewish and general community grew. Across the globe, the Jewish community adopted the organization as their means of organizing themselves within the Jewish community. The menorah came with them and the ritual demonstrated a link for all of those involved.
The menorah’s message for today’s members and supporters becomes even more meaningful when it is shared at events that bring together leadership from around the world. At these gatherings, individuals are honored for their good work in the community when they are called to light one of these candles. You will see the menorah used in the logo of B’nai B’rith International. It also is a symbol of the Jewish people and our bond with Israel, as it is part of the official seal for the country and stands outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
Help us keep the candles burning by introducing people you know to the wonderful work of B’nai B’rith as members and supporters. There is a pin with a menorah waiting for them.
Rhonda Love is the Vice President of Programming for B'nai B'rith International. She is Director of the Center of Community Action and Center of Jewish Identity. She served as the Program Director of the former District One of B'nai B'rith. In 2002 she received recognition by B'nai brith with the Julius Bisno Professional Excellence Award. This June will mark her 38th anniversary at B'nai B'rith. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.
A few weeks ago, one of the leaders of the Venezuelan regime, Diosdado Cabello said that the “United States is lying; there is no Hezbollah in Venezuela.”
At the same time, Nicolas Maduro, while being interviewed in a Lebanese pro-Hezbollah TV channel went further and said: “Which is the problem to have relations with Hezbollah. It is a very respectable political party with representation in Congress.”
Those were the Venezuelan answers to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had said days before that “Hezbollah has a dangerous presence in Venezuela.”
Cabello and Maduro lied. As usual. Not only have they opened doors to Hezbollah, but also to Iranian penetration in the region, and the closest allies of Maduro and his partners are also Turkey, Russia and Hamas.
In recent years, Hezbollah has developed a significant presence in Latin America. Its continued terrorist activity and expanding financial empire, built on drug trafficking and money laundering, is a growing security concern.
The United States has understood the danger that terrorism and terrorists have found a heaven in Latin America, mostly in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia.
One year ago, the United States created the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team (HFNT) at the Department of Justice.
A few months ago, the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) hosted a panel of U.S. national security experts to discuss how the United States can successfully address the growing convergence of international terrorism and transnational organized crime from which Hezbollah benefits.
The panel was moderated by SFS Senior Fellow J.D. Gordon and consisted of SFS Executive Director Joseph Humire; Vanessa Neumann, author of “Blood Profits” and president of Asymmetrica; Charles Faddis, retired CIA Operations Officer and former chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center’s WMD Unit; and Derek Maltz, former director of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Special Operations Division.
Humire emphasized that U.S. sanctions have been ineffective in curbing Hezbollah’s activity, and collaboration with regional partners is necessary to enforce this kind of unilateral action and ultimately dismantle Hezbollah’s networks in South America. Neumann, explained that Brazil faces a variety of complicated issues, primarily that the Lebanese population in Brazil makes up the primary merchant class and facilitate the majority of smuggling and money-laundering into the country. Further, she added, these groups often take advantage of their mutual interests and the gray areas between their operations. She ended by saying that Venezuela is the heartland of Hezbollah in Latin America, and it is difficult for Brazil to differentiate between genuine Venezuelans entering Brazil and Hezbollah members with legitimate Venezuelan passports.
Drawing on his experience as an expert witness in a variety of Latin American trials, Humire provided insight on the perspective of Latin Americans, highlighting that Latin Americans do not necessarily understand jihadist groups, but they are fully aware of transnational organized crime. The convergence between the two is often not recognized and this connection is intentionally veiled by the skillful compartmentalization that Iran achieves in its operations there.
He highlighted the groundwork of Ghazi Nassereddine, a Venezuelan diplomat in Syria who builds and isolates networks that ultimately prevent significant leaders such as Venezuelan former Vice President Tareck El-Aissami from being linked to Hezbollah. Neumann added that the infiltration of people deeply positioned in the Venezuelan financial and political system has led the state to become a part of the crime-terror pipeline.
Maduro and Cabello lied for many reasons: To attack and undermine U.S. accusations; to protect their proxies; to send the discussion far away from the humanitarian tragedy that is destroying Venezuela day after day.
But Maduro showed something more. When he said on Lebanese TV that Hezbollah is just a “respectable political party,” he also showed that Hezbollah is an important ally and supporter for the regime and for himself.
If Maduro´s regime is finally displaced, which does not seem very clear in this very moment, and no matter who may make up the next government, Hezbollah will not disappear from Venezuela overnight. Its power and its influence have been embedded there for more than a decade.
Without real international support, any new government in Venezuela will not be able to face the danger and the power of Iran and Hezbollah alone.
Latin American countries should be more concerned about this sort of danger and think not only in the present time but also for the future. The United States and Canada are fully aware of this tragic environment. But to face it as it must be faced, all the Americas should work together because Hezbollah means terror, and terror is everybody´s enemy.
Eduardo Kohn, Ph.D., has been the B’nai B’rith executive vice president in Uruguay since 1981 and the B’nai B’rith International Director of Latin American Affairs since 1984. Before joining B'nai B'rith, he worked for the Israeli embassy in Uruguay, the Israel-Uruguay Chamber of Commerce and Hebrew College in Montevideo. He is a published author of “Zionism, 100 years of Theodor Herzl,” and writes op-eds for publications throughout Latin America. He graduated from the State University of Uruguay with a doctorate in diplomacy and international affairs. To view some of his additional content, click here.
Last summer, something amazing happened on Capitol Hill. There was an agreement between members of Congress from opposing parties. Astonishing! Both Democrats and Republicans agreed that there should be paid family leave. Now, before you get too excited, that’s about where the good feelings started and ended. While both parties agreed on the basic premise, they put forth wildly different proposals.
Paid family leave is the concept that employees should be granted paid time off from work to take care of family members who suffer from serious health issues, or to care for a newborn child. Currently, under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), certain employees may take unpaid leave for 12 weeks and be guaranteed their job upon return. This leave is for serious health issues for an employee or their family member (spouse, parent or child), new child or facts surrounding the deployment of a service member. The problem with the current FMLA is that employees are not guaranteed income during their leave of absence from work.
So why should pay be included in our federal laws that govern family leave? First, only about 10 percent of employees are granted paid family leave from their employer. Furthermore, the employees whose employers offer paid leave are generally higher paid workers. In addition, only six states and the District of Columbia currently have a paid family leave policy. Secondly, not having a federal paid family leave policy causes financial hardship because employees are not receiving their regular income. Research demonstrates that a paid family leave policy with 2/3 wage replacement could reduce family economic insecurity by 81 percent.
While most people associate paid family leave with new parents, many people might be surprised to learn that this issue directly impacts seniors. For example, 18 percent of people take FMLA to care for a family member, including parents. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, “The average caregiver over 50 who leaves the workforce to care for a parent loses $303,880 in wages, Social Security and private pensions when they do so.” Furthermore, it’s not just caregivers that need paid family leave. The labor force participation rate for seniors (65+) has grown significantly over the last 25 years. Too often, seniors, because of chronic conditions, must take time off from work to attend to their own serious health matters.
Presently, there are two competing ideas to implement paid family leave. Legislation released over the summer sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio and Congresswoman Ann Wagner would allow new parents, after a child is born, to borrow against their future Social Security for paid parental leave. The benefit from the federal government will last only a few months and will delay people from taking their Social Security benefits by three to six months, for every benefit.
In theory this legislation sounds promising, especially in the short term. However, paid family leave should not come at the expense of the Social Security retirement system!
According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, studies demonstrate how challenging it is for workers to forecast their fiscal future in retirement. Having to decide between paid family leave and future retirement defeats the entire purpose of Social Security. The main point of the Social Security Trust Fund is to serve as a secure pot of money for retirement, not individual accounts people can borrow against.
In addition, this proposed legislation does nothing to help people who need paid family leave for themselves, like seniors in the workforce, or for adults who need a source of income while taking care of their senior parent.
Fortunately, there is a better approach!
The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act sponsored by Senator Kristen Gillibrand and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro provides a significantly better alternative and does not threaten employees’ future Social Security. This proposal provides paid family and medical leave for newborn children, care for a family member (including a parent) or an employee’s serious health condition. According to the findings from the FAMILY Act:
1. “The average worker age 50 and older who leaves the workforce to care for an elderly parent loses more than $300,000 in earnings and retirement income. Working caregivers should not have to risk their family’s economic security to fulfill their caregiving obligations.”
2. “The population aged 65 and over is expected to double over the next few decades. The number of people with chronic conditions is expected to reach nearly 160,000,000 by 2020. Many of these individuals will at some point require family care, and for older workers still in the workforce, many will need time off at some point to address serious health conditions.”
3. “Ensuring working family caregivers have paid family leave to care for ailing elders could drive down Medicare costs by decreasing recurrences of ailments and re-admittance into hospitals”.
Furthermore, this legislation funds paid family leave through additional revenue stemming from a very modest increase in the payroll tax split evenly between employees and employers. The average cost to employees would be $2.00 per week. This would cover the benefit to individuals and the program’s administrative costs.
While, I think the legislation has tremendous promise, it’s not without question. For example, the Social Security Trust Fund will not be able to meet all its financial obligations around 2034. Should this legislation be part of a bigger plan to place Social Security on more secure financial footing? Certainly, these are fair questions to ask. However, this all part of the legislative process.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle agree that paid family leave in some iteration is important. Like all issues, there are competing approaches to solve the problem. However, funding paid family leave by taking away from Social Security only opens an additional can of worms. Taking from one hand to give to the other is irresponsible. A paid family leave approach, guided by the principles from the FAMILY Act, will help ensure that basic economic needs of all types of families are being met.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
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