Mark D. Olshan, Janel Doughten, Evan Carmen
Throughout 2021 and early 2022, the B’nai B’rith Center for Senior Services (CSS) has continued its advocacy efforts in Congress on behalf of our senior housing community. As the largest national Jewish sponsor of low-income, nonsectarian housing for seniors in the United States, B’nai B’rith is very aware of how critical government resources are for Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funded communities. Due to the pandemic, CSS continues to meet virtually with congressional offices who represent our sponsored buildings. Our efforts have focused on Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22) funding for senior housing and the Administration’s Build Back Better agenda.
Regarding the Build Back Better agenda, we are supportive of the legislation because of the robust funding for senior housing and provisions that will make health care less expensive for Medicare recipients. B’nai B’rith was encouraged that the House of Representatives passed the act, however, we are disappointed the legislation looks stalled in the Senate. As an active advocate for low-income seniors, we believe this bill can positively impact the lives of older Americans. We are pleased the legislation includes $500 million for the HUD senior housing program, which includes new construction. With the number of low-income senior households growing, these funds can be used to provide much-needed new housing units to meet the demand.
In addition, this bill makes critical improvements to Medicare that will provide seniors with economic relief. For example, this legislation places a $2,000 cap on prescription drug spending, allows Medicare to negotiate certain drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and enacts other important reforms to slow down rising costs. We also welcome this legislation covering hearing benefits, including hearing aids—a win for so many seniors in communities across the country. While Build Back Better’s future remains unclear, we will continue to advocate to congressional offices and make the case for these critical provisions that would immeasurably help seniors.
Also, we are advocating for full FY22 funding for HUD senior housing, so rental subsidies and service coordination can go on without interruption and funds can be appropriated for the creation of additional housing units. Like previous years, our efforts are done in concert with the American Association of Service Coordinators (AASC), a natural ally to our advocacy work. What makes many of our buildings special are the service coordinators who work at the properties and connect residents with services that allows seniors to age in place and stay in their community. Service coordinators play a vital role in the operation of our senior housing buildings and their work has never been more critical than during the pandemic.
In December, B’nai B’rith was pleased to welcome Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-NY) to address our 2021 Leadership Forum. Among the topics discussed was how the President’s Build Back Better agenda will impact older Americans regarding affordable housing and health care. In addition, Suozzi discussed legislation he introduced called the Well-Being Insurance of Seniors to be at Home (WISH) Act, designed to provide affordable long-term care insurance for seniors.
CSS’s advocacy efforts are a year-round activity and an integral part of our work. Ensuring the appropriate services for low-income seniors is our mission, and now more than ever, our work is critical!
Mark D. Olshan is Associate Executive Vice President of B'nai B'rith International and Director of the Center for Senior Services. Click here to read more from Mark D. Olshan.
Janel Doughten is the associate director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services, focusing on the subsidized senior housing program. Click here to read more from Janel Doughten.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
For some two millennia, a strain of anti-Jewish animus within Christendom — most certainly not representative of all Christians, but toxic and persistent nonetheless — has resulted in the unspeakable dehumanization and persecution of Jews.
In our era, following the cataclysm of the Holocaust — the most systematic and documented genocide in history — many churches have engaged in noble, painful reflection and repudiated this evil that became known as anti-Semitism.
Even over the course of long periods characterized by widespread intolerance, incitement and barbarism, there always existed brave, compassionate voices who, sometimes at great risk to their own wellbeing, stood in defense of the shared humanity and equality of Jews.
Heartrendingly, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II — current Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — is not one of those heroes.
Rather, he carries forth a tradition of leaders fueling anti-Semitism, wittingly or not, in the guise of lofty ideals. No self-respecting anti-Semite ever did otherwise — and, like other bigots, very few actually acknowledge their bigotry.
Although I am a member of a community whose suffering is exceedingly well-known, I am among those who — in part hemmed in by some haters’ preemption of condemnation with a straw-man claim that Jews tarnish all “criticism” as anti-Semitism — exercise real caution in wielding that charge.
However, as a person affected by Reverend Nelson’s weaponizing of his influence as a faith leader, I do not hesitate to call out his abuse for the atrocious dereliction of duty that it is. I can only hope the Stated Clerk won’t belittle my highlighting of his actions in a way that he never would a member of another long-denigrated religious or ethnic minority.
We stand at a moment when even storied figures have been held to account for their misdeeds, when the privileged are forced to grapple with misuse of their privilege, and when hard truths are spoken to those in power. In this case, the power is wielded by the leader of a denomination that, its own recently diminished numbers aside, remains a pillar of the world’s dominant religious group and is the one to have claimed more presidents of the United States than any other except the Episcopal Church. And that religious leader has conveniently taken aim at a familiar target: the Jews, and the small Jewish state, Israel.
In a statement on Martin Luther King Jr. Day — that day dedicated to combating prejudice, honoring that Rev. Dr. King who epitomized a heroictradition of speaking out also against peers demonizing and delegitimizing the Jews and the Jewish state — Reverend Nelson issued what could have been a message stirring us to better empathize with all our fellow people created in the Divine image.
Instead, this leader of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) not only prolonged his denomination’s modern record of blatantly singling out for dismay only “the occupation in Palestine/Israel” — a one-of-a-kind formulation casting aspersions on the very legitimacy of Israel’s existence — but outrageously branded that condition as “21st century slavery.”
To be clear: no actual situations of contemporary slavery or other, equally monstrous atrocities are mentioned by Reverend Nelson. And neither are the existential threats, perennial discrimination and acute violence to which Israelis of all backgrounds have been endlessly subjected, with tragic resultant consequences for the dignity and welfare of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
No, in the moral imagination of Reverend Nelson, there isn’t room for nuance, complexity and shared solidarity, praise or reproach. There is no Iranian theocracy, no Palestinian extremism or chauvinism, no Assad regime, no Hamas, Islamic Jihad or Hezbollah. Just the presence of the Jew, standing in the way of peace.
No other human’s presence would ever be deemed by Reverend Nelson illegal or immoral.
Shamelessly, in a statement on “unity of spirit,” the world’s only Jewish state — the Middle East’s only pluralistic democracy — is the sole foreign country deserving of incendiary opprobrium and mention altogether.
Intolerably, in a statement invoking the Golden Rule — not just promulgated in Luke, as he cited, but in the earlier, Hebrew Leviticus, surely formative to Jesus as a Jew in the Jewish homeland that the Stated Clerk simplistically terms occupied — Reverend Nelson finds nothing positive to say about the growing number of Arabs and Israelis who actually are taking steps toward coexistence, cooperation, mutual respect and even friendship.
And obscenely, the week before International Holocaust Remembrance Day — right after another traumatic attack on a synagogue, in Texas, as Jews even in America remain by far the leading target of faith-based hate crimes — Reverend Nelson had the cruel temerity to actually call on American Jews to do more against the Israeli policies he opposes.
Needless to say, the Stated Clerk would never apportion responsibility to the American Muslim community for the British Islamist hostage-taker in Texas, or to any community for others linked to it by association. Yet Reverend Nelson’s appeal — cynically and cryptically mentioning “the history of Jewish humble beginnings and persecution,” as if no ongoingpersecution continues today — precisely foments the type of more general anti-Jewish hostility that wild anti-Israeli hostility repeatedly yields.
But if only the problem were just Reverend Nelson, as dispiriting as that would be. Rather, the Stated Clerk’s betrayal of justice — by directing nothing but indifference and self-righteous double standards at Israel’s Jews — is all too common.
Because it’s all too easy to construct a villain among the comparably “humble,” the politically outnumbered and those actually encumbered by democratic norms.
Because it’s easier to deplore others’ anti-Semitism — in past “history” — than to see it in the present, especially in the mirror.
And because the roots of the world’s oldest hatreds continue to run devastatingly deep.
Read the op-ed in Medium.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International. He previously trained at the Foreign Ministry of Germany, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Embassy of Israel in Washington, Ha’aretz and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
CEO and Dir. of U.N. Affairs Op-ed in Newsweek: Holocaust Comparisons Are Holocaust Denial. It Has to Stop.
The Holocaust is once again being trivialized in the name of the politics. On Wednesday, Ohio Congressman Warren Davidson compared COVID restrictions to the Nazis' treatment of Jews. "This has been done before. #DoNotComply," he tweeted.
The Congressman joins a long list of those reaching for the Holocaust for such cheap political points. In June, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene compared wearing a mask to wearing a yellow star and had to apologize. In November, Lara Logan compared Dr. Anthony Fauci to Joseph Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor who did cruel experiments on Jews in concentration camps.
Across the globe, things are even worse; outright Holocaust denial is spreading like a virus. Earlier this week, outside a church in central Rome, a funeral concluded with a coffin draped in a Nazi flag, surrounded by participants giving Nazi salutes. In Iran, the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, often tweets things like "why is it a crime to raise doubts about the Holocaust?" and "#Holocaust is an event whose reality is uncertain." In 2019, right before attempting a mass-carnage attack on a synagogue in Halle, Germany, on Yom Kippur, a gunman livestreamed a video in which he said, "I think the Holocaust never happened."
The Holocaust—the most documented and systematic genocide in history—took the lives of two-thirds of European Jews. Among our own family members, in Poland and Lithuania, most were wiped out: innocent men, women and children.
Of the Jews who managed to survive, all are now at least 77 years old, and thousands are dying each year. That trend has likely been accelerated by the ongoing pandemic. And if Holocaust-denial can persist even as first-hand witnesses to the atrocities are among us, we can only imagine how malignant these pathologies will become once the survivors pass on.
The correlation between denial of past atrocities and indifference to new atrocities is clear. Whether it comes from the extreme right or radical Islamists, antisemites uniquely belittle or justify the Holocaust while also belittling or justifying current and prospective violence against Jews.
Of course, distortion or instrumentalization of the Holocaust is not new. Among white supremacists, denial of the Nazi gas chambers' existence has been an article of faith. Even in America, certain local legislators or educators were recently found to have urged "neutrality" in teaching about Nazism. In parts of the Baltics, the whitewashing and lionizing of Nazi collaborators has been commonplace. And through much of the Middle East, the Holocaust has long been tarred as a "Zionist myth" alongside a false narrative that Palestinians paid the price for Germans' misdeeds with the invention of a "colonial" Israel by foreigners.
And whether at the United Nations or street demonstrations, bigots wholly rejecting the history and legitimacy of a Jewish minority presence in the Middle East have sought to add insult to injury by weaponizing the Holocaust, saying Hitler hadn't gone far enough or that Israel is guilty of Nazi-like practices.
At a 2001 U.N. conference against racism in Durban, South Africa, activists asserted both. A decade later, Iran's president hosted Holocaust-denial conferences and cartoon competitions, attracting such luminaries as former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, a newfound champion of Palestinian nationalism.
A few years later, Malaysia's then-prime minister—a self-identified antisemite who had called Jews "hook-nosed" and said they "rule the world by proxy"—questioned the number of Holocaust victims. And during outbreaks of Hamas or Hezbollah hostilities with Israel, social media platforms have facilitated an unprecedented spread of hateful lies concerning Israelis, Jews and the Holocaust, with negligible intervention by those profiting from them.
Next week, the U.N. will have an opportunity to help more seriously address the scourge of historical revisionism. 15 years after the U.N. began marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a resolution on Holocaust-denial and distortion will come up for a vote. We hope member states will join in adopting an important working definition of Holocaust-denial, as well as, ultimately, an equally vital working definition of antisemitism.
While combating trivialization of the Holocaust is only one element of strengthening basic societal norms, it is a critical one. Let it be said once more: those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
Read the op-ed in Newsweek.
Like explorers embarking on a journey to discover a new world, Jews living in different parts of the world are returning to Portugal. And B’nai B’rith International has been proud to serve as a navigator of sorts.
As president of B'nai B'rith's international, the world's oldest and largest Jewish membership organization, a keen interest in our Diaspora inspired me to take an international board meeting to a place where inhabitants once believed the earth was flat.
I was fully aware of the cruel and evil history of the Inquisition, having visited Spain as a college student, but never Portugal. It was time for B’nai B’rith, founded in America in 1843 and exported to Europe in 1888, to bring its world to Lisbon and Porto. In 2019, our International Council of B'nai B'rith met in Lisbon for an extraordinary conference, where we revisited the saving of Jews by Ambassador Aristides de Sousa Mendes; and learned about the history and rebirth of Judaism in Oporto.
We learned from Catarina Vaz Pinto, councillor of culture in Lisbon and wife to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who previously was the country’s prime minister, about future plans for the Tikva Jewish Museum of Lisbon. The museum is planned for Belem in front of the Belem Tower and the Tejo/Tagus River. It will be the second Jewish museum in the country. Oporto was first to open its museum doors across the street from the historic Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue.
B’nai B’rith members from 17 countries walked in the footsteps of Jews from 500 years ago and in the shadows of the Jewish Ghetto. We became explorers returning to an Old World.
In a matter of days we consumed much in this country, even taking home bottles of its award-winning kosher Ruby red Port wine made in — where else? — Porto. We also commemorated this important, high-profile event with a postal indicia from the postal service, the Correios de Portugal, (CTT).
Portugal is a modern community that is awakened to its glorious Jewish past. This leap from the late 15th Century to the 21st Century is unearthing more than time. Following the 2013 passage and 2015 implementation of a new law, which welcomed Jews who could prove their Sephardic roots, the bowels of the exquisite Jewish in Oporto became lined with room after room of boxed files protecting applications and an assortment of legal documentation.
Piles of additional applications await processing. They are the fingerprints, voices, even whispers of generations past. Where few, if any, records existed and people were burned at the stake, suddenly, there are thousands of virtual heartbeats in the bottom of the Oporto Jewish Museum.
Inspired by B'nai B'rith’s mission and global reputation, Gabriela Cantergi and the Portuguese Jewish leaders are inspiring a nation, much the way Joshua led the Hebrew nation from Egypt and into the Promised Land. Yiddishkeit is flowering in Oporto with kosher hotels and restaurants that complement a magnificently restored synagogue and an extraordinary Holocaust Museum. The Holocaust museum tells the epic history of the modern world, from the evil of the Nazis and the synagogue's unique role in housing Holocaust survivors to the heroic 1976 rescue of the hijacked Air France jetliner in Entebbe.
The work that has transpired here in a few short years is nothing short of a miracle. When I and others put on tefillin there, daven there, receive an aliyah there, bench there, sing z’mirot there, the experience there is certainly special. It is a palpable experience that you must see, describe and feel for yourself. This is hallowed ground.
Maybe the resilience of Portugal is the sequel to what took Jews 40 years in the desert to define itself or a dozen years to extract itself from the horrors of 1,000 work and death camps in Europe.
The rebirth of the Jewish people in Portugal and religious practice and faith have ignited services with kiddush meals and full-throated prayer. Portugal is a place where Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews stand together, pray together.
Near Lisbon, in Cascais, the largest Chabad Center in Europe is housed in an extraordinary contemporary edifice with a flock of new residents and visitors led by a brilliant, engaging young man, Rabbi Eli Rosenfeld, who came to Portugal in 2010 with his bride Raizel and growing family.
And while the resurgence of Judaism exposes our people to anti-Semitism, relations with the Catholic Church in modern times and Portuguese diplomats is most positive. Israel ambassador Raphael Gamzou accepted a diplomatic assignment with a difficult history and paved a strong trail as Israel’s ambassador for his successor, Dor Shapira.
Through it all B'nai B'rith proudly stands shoulder to shoulder and hand-in-hand with rediscovered family. And the exploration continues.
Read the op-ed in The Portuguese News.
Charles O. Kaufman is the former president of B'nai B'rith International.
CEO Op-ed in The Portuguese News: Working Together to Face Challenges to the Portuguese and European Jewish Communities
Over 40 years ago, on a visit to Israel, I learned from my cousin Chaya that our forebears may have originated in Portugal.
My mother was born in Lithuania, as was Chaya, her first cousin. They came from a small shtetl not far from Vilna, and frankly, most of our relatives had probably not given too much thought as to where our family might have originated. After all, the first Jews are believed to have arrived in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the late 14th century. That was pretty far back in time.
Many in my mother’s family came to America decades before the Holocaust. Chaya made her way to pre-state Israel in 1934. We know of only one relative who survived the Shoah, who later made his way to Israel after the war. All of our other family in Lithuania was killed.
I was excited to hear that Chaya had done some research at one of Israel’s universities and was convinced that our origins were in Portugal. Her maiden name, and my mother’s, was “Berzak.” Chaya concluded that a Portuguese rabbi, Elkanah Bar Zera Kodesh, had been among those who left Portugal in the expulsion of the Jews at the end of the 15th century. The acronym for the rabbi’s name became “Berzak.” It is likely he or his descendants made their way to Hamburg, which was a jumping off point for many who arrived in Lithuania in the late Middle Ages.
I tell you all of this because I take a special pride both in the rich history of the Jews in Portugal, and today, in the rebirth of the Portuguese Jewish community. In Porto, which I had the opportunity to visit some months ago, the beautifully maintained Kedoorie Synagogue, the establishment of two excellent museums, a kosher restaurant and an active local community are all to be admired at a time when Jewish communities everywhere are debating the best way to ensure Jewish continuity and communal life in the still-new century.
But that is not the only challenge Portuguese, and by extension European Jewry, is facing. We have seen, over the past two decades, a tremendous spike in anti-Semitism—some of it emanating from the populist right or ultra-nationalist quarters, and some from the left and Islamic extremists. This perfect storm of Jew hatred has spread throughout Europe at viral speed, energized by social media and its “influencers.”
That anti-Semitism is present in Europe comes as no surprise to anyone. That it remains ensconced in country after country within the living memory of those who were victims of and witnessed Hitler’s barbarity, and with it the worst crimes ever perpetrated on the Jewish people, is reprehensible.
B’nai B’rith, founded in the United States in 1843, but which has been present on the European continent since the last quarter of the 19th century, knows of this hatred firsthand. We confronted and battled anti-Semitism wherever it manifested itself here in the United States and in those places where we established a presence abroad.
In 1933, on the eve of Hitler’s coming to power, our organization had more than 100 branches in Germany alone, and in many other countries throughout the continent. At the war’s end, and as a result of the Holocaust, we had to re-build on the ashes of the devastation that befell European Jewry in Germany, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, former Yugoslavia and so many other places.
Anti-Semitism is the world’s oldest, most persistent and resistant form of hatred. It sprouts and flourishes where there are substantial Jewish populations—or no Jewish communities at all. It thrives on lies and distortions, on envy and a perverse taste for inflicting harm—mental and physical. And it often operates with the approbation of public figures and some in the media, who use it for political gain or to attract new followers, readers or viewers.
B’nai B’rith itself has been on the receiving end of this malicious, hateful behavior. In days past, it might be like that which used to appear in the Soviet press, when we were called “the first violin in the Zionist orchestra.” Today, you’ll see it on websites, even those which claim to be legitimate press outlets. Some continue to ply old, shopworn and outrageous tropes about us, and Jews generally, suggesting “secretive” powers of manipulation and control over the media, banks and everyone else.
Clearly, when it comes to anti-Semitism in Europe, the more things change, the more they stay in the same.
What can we do about all of this? Years ago, B’nai B’rith opened an EU Affairs office in Brussels, to create awareness of anti-Semitism on the continent at the European Commission, the European Parliament and other bodies (including the Council of Europe in Strasbourg). We work closely with the very able Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission Coordinator on Combating Anti-Semitism and Fostering Jewish Life, and with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions (ODIHR) to create new approaches to confronting Jew hatred Europe-wide.
In recent years, in several countries in Europe, there has been an assault--in the name of animal rights-- on the right of Jews to engage in the practice of shechita, or kosher slaughter, abrogating our right to freely exercise our religion. Bans and restrictions have been imposed in a number of countries in Europe, most recently in the Belgian regions of Wallonia and Flanders, and in Greece. Other initiatives have been afoot to ban circumcision, or brit milah. B’nai B’rith has been in the forefront of those speaking out loudly against attempts to roll back freedom of religion in a democratic Europe.
B’nai B’rith was among the earliest advocates for a standard working definition of anti-Semitism that could be used to clearly identify its manifestations, and not allow political leaders, the media, judges and others to either deny it or to nuance it away. That definition was adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), a consortium of 35 countries committed to Holocaust research and remembrance. Portugal is a member of IHRA and in 2019 adopted the working definition. A growing number of countries, provinces, municipalities, universities, sports federations and others are joining the list of those who endorse it.
Additionally, we have pressed various governments in Europe to facilitate Holocaust-era restitution to survivors and their families, and promoted Holocaust remembrance and education initiatives.
With all of this, so much more remains to be done. Much contemporary anti-Semitism emanates from various bodies of the United Nations, especially, but not only at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Israel is singled out continuously in resolution after resolution for carrying out the worst possible human rights violations. The lopsided votes against Israel often include many countries—some of them in Europe—who should know better. They often “go along to get along,” signing on to the annual festival of calumnies against the Jewish State. Recently, this activity has spilled over to agencies like the World Health Organization.
Which brings me back to Portugal. Our history there came to such an abrupt stop at the end of the 15th century. The thought has often crossed my mind, what if there had been no disputations, no expulsion, no Inquisition, no auto da fès and no burnings at the stake? Unfortunately, “what if’s” have no answers, just speculation. What we can imagine, with some certainty, is that the community would be one of the world’s largest and its contributions to Portuguese and Jewish life immense.
For the Jewish people, numbers don’t really speak to what we have contributed to civilization writ large, and to European culture, science, education and commerce over the centuries. That continues today. What we lack in size, we have been able to compensate by our solidarity, based on shared history, values, traditions, a common ancient—and modern—language and so many other intangibles that make us a justifiably proud and creative people.
B’nai B’rith is proud to be a partner in the renaissance of Jewish life in Portugal and an ally in the fight against anti-Semitism, one of the seminal challenges of the day. We’ll work together to find friends and allies who can join us in confronting it. We’ll continue to speak out in those fora in Europe to advance the message that anti-Semitism, in the 21st century, is totally unacceptable anywhere, anyhow. And we’ll be there together with you in support of Israel, our ancient homeland.
As we begin the new calendar year, let’s all pray that the year ahead is one of new accomplishments for your community, and for peace and security for Israel, and for each of us, wherever we call home—always in good health.
Read the op-ed in The Portuguese News.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
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