Among the tenets most central to the practice of Judaism are kosher religious slaughter (shechita) and circumcision (brit milah). Both are based on our history throughout the millennia and have been codified in Jewish law. The first references to the practice of kashrut, or kosher dietary practices, appear in the biblical book of Deuteronomy. And some 4,000 years ago, Genesis tells us, G-d directed Abraham to be circumcised, creating the founding covenant with the Jewish people.
During times of dispersal, exile, persecution and discrimination—right down to the present—the ability to carry out the biblical injunctions to engage in these practices has served to hold the Jewish community together and has contributed greatly to shaping its collective identity.
In recent years however, there have been attempts—some of which have been successful—to curb the right of Jews in Europe to observe these obligations. Animal rights groups and anti-circumcision activists are lobbying throughout the continent, pressing parliaments and governments to ban shechita and brit milah.
Circumcision, the first right of passage for Jewish males, is a practice observed and venerated down through the generations by religious and secular Jews alike. From Moses to Einstein to untold millions of others, it is the act that ensures the continuity of our people.
The first intent of kosher ritual slaughter is to act in a humane way toward animals. Those who perform these acts are highly trained and specifically instructed to avoid inflicting undue suffering. The stunning of animals, which normally precedes non-kosher slaughter, is prohibited precisely because of the uncertainty of whether or not the animal would be suffering.
In 2014, Denmark banned non-sedated slaughter. Finland's Animal Protection Act demands stunning as well, with an exception for concurrent sedation and religious slaughter—which, again, is contrary to the very laws of shechita. Sweden's law banning religious slaughter goes back to 1937 and makes no exception for those who do not allow for either stunning or sedation. Last year, Belgium's Flanders region followed its Walloon region in adopting decrees that require electric stunning.
Belgian officials are quick to note that the import of kosher meat is permissible, which seems to accomplish two negatives: It places an undue burden on its Jewish communities and effectively says, "let this be some other country's problem, not ours."
In 2018, the Belgian Jewish community brought the prohibition of shechita in Flanders to the Belgian Constitutional Court, which in turn submitted the case in 2019 to the European Court of Justice in order to clarify EU law on the matter.
Despite an opinion issued by the Court's Advocate General Gerard Hogan, which stated that the Flanders law flies in the face of EU laws regarding religious freedom, countries are at this time still permitted to massively impinge on religious slaughter requirements. The case is now back before the Belgian courts.
To make matters worse, and in a blatant display of hypocrisy, the Court's decision allows an exception for hunting: "the Court points out that cultural and sporting events result at most in a marginal production of meat, which is not economically significant. Consequently, such events cannot be understood as a food production activity."
Indeed, if food production is the measure by which this is being judged, the total production of kosher meat on an annual basis in Europe is infinitesimal. And as for hunting, many might be forgiven for thinking this was supposed to be all about the humane treatment of animals.
Five years ago, then-United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Heiner Bielefeldt issued a report on his visit to Denmark. Speaking about the ban on shechita and the growing public opposition to brit milah, Bielefeldt said, "In order to find out what actually matters religiously to various communities, the culture of trustful communication between state authorities and religious communities is crucial and should be further cherished." He recommended that the Danish government reconsider its ban on ritual slaughter without requiring stunning.
But this discussion is not only about decrees and legislation, or even about the rights of states to declare this or that practice legal (or not). It is about the fundamental right of religious freedom—and beyond that, the long-term sustainability of Jewish communities across Europe.
These are unwelcome challenges for Europe's Jewish communities and another step on the anti-Semitism ladder. When the Holocaust ended 76 years ago, most of the storied Jewish communities of Europe had been decimated. Reconstituting the Jewish place in Europe has been a tenuous affair, but it has occurred in places that had been given up for lost. That even tiny communities can celebrate our biblical tradition of brit milah, or that those who seek to live by our laws of kashrut are able to do so, have been hallmarks of that communal rehabilitation. Without guarantees to maintain these practices, what kind of future is in store for those communities affected by decrees that transgress these fundamental religious obligations?
The Jewish communities of Europe are not seeking to force our laws and traditions onto others. Whether it be for Jews or other religious minorities, where is the sensitivity to their freedom to observe religious practices that, in fact, predate by millennia the modern European states that have enacted such odious bans?
Modern democracies should not be bartering away religious freedom. Protecting it, rather, should be their first priority. The European Union and its member states need to revisit this issue, make exceptions for those who seek to observe their religion without interference and ensure, at the same time, the future of its Jewish communities, only decades removed from near extinction.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in Newsweek.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
On Dec. 2, 2020, the Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro and OAS Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect Jared Genser released a report that reaffirms that there is a reasonable basis to conclude the regime of President Nicolás Maduro has been committing crimes against humanity in Venezuela since Feb. 12, 2014 and condemned the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for inaction in the face of these crimes.
The new document notes that, since the publication of the original 2018 report, the crimes against humanity in Venezuela have increased in scale, scope and severity as the country faces a humanitarian crisis caused by unprecedented political and economic turmoil, along with food and medical shortages. Drawing on the work of the U.N. Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, NGOs, independent scholars and other credible sources, the new report paints a vivid portrait of a Venezuela wracked by state-sponsored violence and in the throes of a humanitarian disaster.
Among other findings, the report identifies 18,093 extrajudicial executions carried out by state security forces since 2014, and that tens of millions of people have suffered or been subjected to serious injury due to the ongoing humanitarian crisis created by the regime. This includes reports, such as one by the United Nations, which found 7 million people in need and more than 100,000 children under the age of 5 affected by severe acute malnutrition. There have been outbreaks of measles, diphtheria and malaria, the highest in Latin America, with almost 1,000 reportedly dead because of a lack of anti-malaria medication.
The report identifies enforced disappearances in 2018 and 2019, documented cases of torture since 2014, and that rape and sexual violence have been weaponized by the regime, including as a method of torture.
The report highlights the failure of the Prosecutor of the ICC Fatou Bensouda (the prosecutor that has decided that there is a “Palestinian State” according to International Law and accused Israel of “war crimes”) to conduct her preliminary examination expeditiously and to open an investigation despite overwhelming evidence of crimes within the court’s jurisdiction.
The OAS report recommends the prosecutor proceed as rapidly as possible to open an investigation into the situation in Venezuela and, in the meantime, has requested immediate, full and open access to Venezuela, issued a detailed public statement about the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, and highlighted the true scope and severity of the situation in Venezuela in the forthcoming “2020 Report on Preliminary Examination Activities.” Bensouda has never responded.
The report also presents actions by the Maduro regime that have facilitated and prolonged Venezuela’s worsening humanitarian disaster.
Government institutions, including the security forces and the Judiciary, have been used as weapons against citizens. For the people of Venezuela, the rule of law domestically no longer exists. For members of the regime, the State empowers them to operate with total impunity. The pursuit of international justice is the only recourse left.
The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, said “the Venezuelan regime has been allowed to operate with impunity. Every day of inaction from the international community increases the suffering of the Venezuela people. We call on the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to take action and show the world that crimes against humanity will not go unpunished.” But Bensouda did not listen.
Jared Genser, OAS special adviser on the responsibility to protect wrote: “It is therefore as inexplicable as it is shocking that after almost three years examining the situation, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has still failed to even open an investigation into the alleged crimes.”
Bensouda began investigating the Venezuela case in February 2018 and, in the nearly three years since, has only completed two of four stages of her “preliminary examination.” Instead, contrary to her office’s stated goals of promoting prevention, deterrence and putting perpetrators on notice, she has failed to act, as she has repeatedly done in other cases. As a result, the regime has been emboldened to commit more crimes in the belief it can act with impunity.
“Crimes Against Humanity” are defined in Article 7 of the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court, as the crimes specified there on the condition that they were “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population with knowledge of the attack.”
Venezuela signed and ratified the Rome Statute and, as a result, the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction over any crimes committed in the territory of Venezuela or by Venezuelan nationals since July 1, 2002.
Maduro and his proxies have felt that the inaction of the ICC and the world’s silence backed the regime to move forward in its alliance with Iran and the terrorists of Hezbollah. Most experts on Hezbollah in Latin America have concluded that it is primarily raising money, particularly in the tri-border area of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, through all sorts of illicit commercial activities—money that’s increasingly needed as Iran, as a result of sanctions and low oil prices, has less money available to subsidize its proxies worldwide.
The fact that Hezbollah has freedom to operate in Venezuela makes it presumably easier for its operatives to travel around Latin America. Iranian friendships in Latin America, particularly in Caracas, have facilitated Hezbollah’s presence in the Western Hemisphere, as well as that of Iranian officials who coordinate Hezbollah operations.
The Venezuelan regime is also a drug-trafficking organization. It not only harbors Colombian guerillas, but also meaningfully benefits from its role in the shipment of cocaine from South America abroad, including to the United States and Europe. In March 2020, the Justice Department indicted Maduro and other top-ranking officials for coordinating the transport of cocaine with Columbia’s FARC guerrillas. Two nephews of Maduro are in prison in the United States for their role in the export of cocaine. The Treasury Department has repeatedly designated senior officials—including Tarek El Aissami, the former vice president of Venezuela—as major drug dealers.
The pandemic has not changed the starvation, malnutrition, poverty and the violation of human rights. On the contrary, things are worse, and the 5.4 million Venezuelans that have fled in recent years to the United States and mostly to Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay are increasing dramatically. According to experts, by the end of 2021 the number of Venezuelan refugees will rise to more than 6 million, outnumbering Syrian refugees.
On Feb. 22 the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) will start its forty-sixth regular session. Another round of shame will be the main input. Among the shameful behavior of the UNHRC, there will be another litany of alleged “resolutions” against Israel based in outrageous item 7. Venezuela today and for another year will be a member of the UNHRC. Venezuela will vote and speak against Israel, as other dictatorships like Cuba will do. Maduro will have the floor of the UNHRC. And Venezuela and the other dictatorships that are members of the UNHRC will again feel that the current hypocritical international system is protecting them.
History shows that impunity of dictators does not last forever. But meanwhile, millions of people keep suffering brutally and needlessly. It is the case of Venezuela, the dictatorship that enjoys the silence of the ICC Prosecutor and shameful UNHRC, which has no limits to hosting human rights abusers as full members.
Poetry is all the rage these days. It made the news when the National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman recited her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at the inauguration of President Biden. B’nai B’rith was especially pleased to hear her message that included her quote of a line from Michah 4:4, "Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid." These words were the sentiments of George Washington in 1790 to the congregants of Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island. This promise was made to the Jews of that time and continues to be the world we want for ourselves and Jewish communities everywhere.
This quote has become the foundation of B’nai B’rith’s None Shall Be Afraid project that was developed to continue our efforts to bring awareness to and speak out against anti-Semitism. The project contains resources and an action campaign to help individuals and communities get involved and add their voice to speak out against anti-Semitism.
Ms. Gorman was also featured as the first poet to recite an original poem during a Super Bowl this year. This poem was titled “Chorus of the Captains,” and paid tribute to honoree captains, chosen by the NFL as examples of the essential workers who have been hard at work during the COVID-19 crisis. This was another important message, echoing B’nai B’rith’s agenda to assist during times such as this, to help those in need and to appreciate the healthcare workers and volunteers whose efforts make the response to deal with the pandemic possible.
Poetry has been a part of education for centuries. There are poems we remember being taught in school, usually by memorizing them. The first stanzas still come to mind even though many years have passed since then, and we remember enough to find them on the internet. From Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Coleridge, we learned to use descriptive language about nature and the world around us.
I recall another school assignment: to experience poetry by writing a haiku. This is a Japanese form of poetry written in three lines with 17 syllables total. I remember I wrote about clouds. How wonderful it was for me to staff the Kakehashi Mission in Japan in 2016, sponsored by the government of Japan in cooperation with B’nai B’rith to provide a cultural experience for young professionals. We toured a forest dedicated to the great master Basho, the father of haiku, where it was said he often wrote. We sat in this tranquil setting to learn about him and be inspired to write our own Haiku poem. His legacy to the world is this form of poetry. While the Kakehashi program is on hold due to the pandemic, B’nai B’rith continues to hold important programming with the Embassy of Japan virtually, until it can be resumed.
Parents read young children rhyming books because they are a fun learning tool. The sing-song voice and accompanying visuals open the door to words for a young child. This format was often used by participants in the B’nai B’rith Diverse Minds Writing Contest. The contest asked high school students to write books for young children about diversity and respect, and many wrote in this poetic rhyming form. The books reached thousands of students and provided the winners of the contest $337,000 in college scholarships. Forty-one of the original books were published by B’nai B’rith.
Poetry is a healer, describing love and broken hearts. Poetry has described historic events and becomes the words of future anthems and folk songs. It is a way to express how you feel, when you are in pain or feeling joy.
The poem “Unto Every Person There is a Name,” by the Israeli poet Zelda, became a cornerstone of the commemorative project “Unto Every Person There is a Name,” included with the thematic materials Yad Vashem and the project’s International Committee provide each year on Yom Hashoah. This is a means to remember the victims of the Holocaust and the generation of survivors that have contributed to the establishment of the State of Israel and the Jewish people around the world.
B’nai B’rith has proudly served as the North American sponsor of this program since 1989 and invites you to participate in the 2021 virtual event that will be held on April 8. The B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem represents B’nai B’rith on the committee and, in cooperation with the B’nai B’rith Center for Jewish Identity, we have provided this program to communities and campuses each year.
More details will be available shortly and you can join us by bringing this program to your community by watching along with the worldwide family of B’nai B’rith. For more information please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Friday, I was honored to speak virtually with Hilah BBG chapter. The girls ran a beautiful virtual Friday night Shabbat service and after, we talked about Jewish leadership, Israel, anti-Semitism and more. They asked great questions!
I talked about my first trip to Israel, in 1998, where I attended a B’nai B’rith Convention in Jerusalem. I was 15 at the time and saw the impact of bringing B’nai B’rith members from all over the world together. I was able to participate as a BBYO delegate in elections and especially enjoyed the installation dinner. I also listened to my first Israeli singer, who was a guest performer. And I had the privilege of meeting Benjamin Netanyahu at a dinner on top of King David’s citadel. The experience definitely brought me closer to Israel and solidified my involvement in B'nai B'rith.
The girls asked about my volunteer work and I noted that my experience in BBYO and now volunteering in a Jewish organization such as B’nai B’rith International impacts my views of the world and the value I have learned—and continue to learn—about being a global citizen.
Israel advocacy and anti-Semitism were big topics of the night. We talked about the most common lies I hear about Israel—that it’s an “apartheid state”—and how to identify and respond to inaccurate allegations about Israel, as well as the connection between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel belief: anti-Israel is indeed the new anti-Semitism.
The girls asked me what I find most difficult about being a Jewish woman and advocate for Israel in the workforce. I told them that dealing with misinformation and ignorance of others is challenging but I am passionate about speaking openly to those who are willing to learn and as a result, I have had great conversations with people.
The girls were interested in how they can get involved in Israel advocacy. B’nai B’rith International is active at the United Nations in New York and its agencies around the world, such as the Human Rights Council in Geneva. B’nai B’rith leaders regularly meet with ambassadors and government leaders and our international connection gives us a voice to advocate for Israel and the Jewish people in the diaspora.
They also wanted to know about my global travels on behalf of B’nai B’rith. When they asked about the favorite place I have visited on behalf of B’nai B’rith my answer included two spots: Japan and Prague.
Perhaps the most memorable experience I have had as an advocate for Israel was meeting with Gilad Shalit in London after his release (the Israeli soldier was a Hamas hostage for more than five years). We got to dance, go out into the town and have stayed in touch via Facebook. I’ve also met with the Deputy prime minister of Japan and spoke in depth about Israel’s history and right to exist peacefully in the middle east. Japan and Israel’s positive relationship has grown in the past few years. Finally, I noted that serving as a B’nai B’rith delegate to WZO has also been an amazing experience.
And we talked about takeaways for the girls: what to keep near their hearts and minds as they move up in the world, through high school and college and beyond. I concluded by telling them that going forward in their lives, they need to question and challenge anyone who supports the BDS movement and uses anti-Israel rhetoric. They must, as Jewish leaders, know the facts and have intelligent conversation with people they encounter. I told them that many anti-Israel statements are misinformation used to promote anti-Semitism. Lastly, I told them to visit Israel, learn the history, and experience it for themselves. I promised them that after such a visit, they would leave with a piece of Israel in their hearts that will inspire their future leadership goals and endeavors and make them better advocates for Israel and the Jewish people.
We had an inspirational and motivating conversation and I am very excited about their enthusiastic participation and interest in Israel advocacy, combating anti-Semitism, leadership and B’nai B’rith’s global work. I look forward to more opportunities to speak to Jewish youth about important topics facing Jews and leadership.
Rebecca Anne Saltzman serves as a senior vice president at B'nai B'rith International and as chair of the Disaster and Emergency Relief Committee. Saltzman also sits on the Executive Board of Directors, has served as the marketing chair and is past chair of the Young Leadership Network (now called B’nai B’rith Connect). In 2012, Saltzman earned the Label A. Katz award, an honor for individuals under 45 who have demonstrated outstanding service to the totality of B’nai B’rith and have worked to achieve the goals of the B’nai B’rith Young Leadership program.
(February 3, 2021 / JNS) The question now is not if the United States will return to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but when. Notwithstanding reports that the Biden administration has too much on its plate right now to move up talks with Tehran as a priority, it certainly seems like that process is underway. That would send Washington back to the table for the first time since an agreement was concluded in 2015.
The Trump administration withdrew from the pact in May 2018, citing inherent weaknesses and loopholes on such issues as Iran’s ballistic-missile program, snap inspections of nuclear sites and sunset clauses, as well as its malign behavior in the region. In tandem with that decision, it imposed a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, including a series of sanctions on an array of Iranian political, quasi-military and commercial figures and front organizations.
The regime in Tehran has clearly been waiting for the day these policies will be reversed and has positioned itself steadily over the past few months by playing hard-to-get. Reverting to form and week by week, it has generated new developments designed to make Western negotiators (the “P-5+1” made up of the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia, plus Germany) nervous.
First, it was increasing enrichment of nuclear fuel to the 20 percent level, followed by reports of the installation of more advanced centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear installation. That was followed by reports that Iran had begun production of uranium metal, which can be used as a component in nuclear weapons.
All of these developments are in breach of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement touted as keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but in fact only sidelining it because of sunset clauses that are getting near to expiration by the day.
Less than two weeks ago, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported on a list of seven conditions laid out by Tehran that must be met before it returns to a negotiating table. Among them, the demand that the United States lift all sanctions imposed against it; that there be no connection made between Iran’s nuclear program and other issues, such as its ballistic-missile program or its support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas; that it will not permit other regional actors to enter into the JCPOA discussions; and that it refuses to back a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
Already, angst on the part of our P-5+1 partners is being felt. The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said Iran “is in the process of acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity,” due largely to the previous administration’s maximum pressure policy. He called for a quick resumption of the JCPOA talks.
That begs a question: If the original agreement, in which France was a participant, was as watertight as it was marketed at the time, why is Iran moving headlong into developing nuclear weapons?
The answer lies elsewhere, in plain view. As the treasure trove of documents on Iran’s nuclear program—ferreted out of Tehran by Israeli agents in 2018 show—the Iranian regime never had any intention of exiting the nuclear-weapons business to begin with. With stealth and a measure of patience unknown in the West, Iran has been willing to wait out “maximum pressure” while raising the temperatures of its threats and its international bullying, hoping that appearance of its headlong drive to produce a weapon will instill enough trepidation for the P5+1 to prematurely offer a basket of incentives, including the removal of sanctions, to return to the table.
The Biden administration has said that before there is any resumption of talks with Tehran, it must return to full compliance with its assurances on enrichment, the installation of centrifuges and the production of uranium metal, among other provisions.
But so brazen is Tehran in believing that the P5+1 is eager to have it back at the negotiating table that the leading Iranian nuclear official recently told the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) that in order to prevent “any misunderstanding,” it should avoid publishing “unnecessary details” of its nuclear program.
Much has been written of late about how much things have changed on the ground, and that lessons have been learned since the JCPOA agreement was announced five years ago.
Time passes quickly: Sunset clauses agreed to in 2015, after which Iran can proceed with its objective of producing nuclear weapons, are now five years closer to expiration. Iran continues to pursue a ballistic-missile program unfettered.
It also continues to build up Hezbollah’s arsenal with shipments of precision-guided missiles and to be present in Syria, where it has no business other than to expand it hegemonistic objectives. Its terrorist friends and proxies—Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen—are also beneficiaries of its cash and weapons. It is seeking to establish a naval presence in the Mediterranean. And the regime remains a serial abuser of the rights of women, LGBTI, juvenile offenders and, of course, its political opponents.
Meanwhile, hardly a day goes by that the Iranians are not making genocidal threats “to level Tel Aviv and Haifa,” and calling for the “Zionist cancer” to be excised. Policymakers in London, Paris and Berlin may pass this off as simply rhetoric for home consumption, but Israel, its supporters and Jews everywhere take it seriously. If an Iranian bomb were to become a reality, these threats would dramatically affect the stability of the entire region.
Iran’s intentionally ratcheting up its threats and its nuclear program tells us precisely about its real intentions. If it feels pressure to agree to talks on an “improved JCPOA agreement,” in its mind it needs to be wired in such a way as to repeat what happened in 2015—gain advance concessions in exchange for talks, and then to prevaricate and obfuscate its way into another loophole-filled agreement that will be just enough to satisfy our nervous partners in Europe.
Iran has demonstrated—and not only in these past five years—that it cannot be trusted. Our objective should be to put it permanently out of the nuclear-weapons business. It is on that objective that our eagerness should be focused.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis on JNS.org.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
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